This Living Hand

Not so very long after the death of my father, my mother let go of her flat in London SW3 off the King’s Road in Chelsea, and sold the cottage on Lake Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, followed by the Montreal apartment at the Château in Sherbrooke Street, diagonally opposite the Ritz-Carleton Hotel. Mummy, you sold all our houses. Where did she go? My mother went to Toronto, purchasing a charming little house on the edge of a leafy park in Cabbagetown shortly before her eightieth birthday, eight years after my father’s death. Or “demise,” as my mother preferred to say where his end was concerned. The faintly fustian formality of this word in its non-legal sense somehow obscured the brutality of its other meaning, and of death itself, perhaps, shrouding it in Keatsian “mists and mellow fruitfulness” (249). Perhaps. But my father did die. Daddy died, Mummy. He really did.


I flew from London to Toronto in 2019 for my mother’s birthday, and I think a lot about her little house on the edge of a leafy park in Cabbagetown, with its exquisite miniature gated garden of stone cherubs and trickling water feature and sculpted juniper trees and slender elegant upright viburnum, and its profusion of white flora, the David Austin Old English Rose, the jonquil, iris, aquilegia, allium and tulip, the ranunculus, peony, rock cress and daphne, and the clematis, Dicentra, azalea, and philadelphus, all of which fragile proud whiteness is punctuated, mostly by her front door, with beacons of blue, of agapanthus and Ajuga reptans, Platycodon grandiflorus and scilla. At the rear of her house is an enclosed patio, another space for statuary and glowing white flowers punctuated with blue, and a trellised fence above which one sees only treetops and verdure and hears the breathing of runners and the burbling of children and the play barking of dogs. I stood with my brother Jacob in the middle of her living room, filled with wholly unfamiliar furniture, none of which came from any of our houses, and we watched a sparrow hawk in a tree waiting to take flight with a glorious and predatory spread of its wings. My mother wondered aloud, Could she see it too, did we think? But my mother is virtually blind, this affliction coming soon after my father’s death. His demise. What does my mother see? What does she not see? In her little house in Cabbagetown, where she never lived with Mordecai, I believe she does not see him on the staircase with his wooden tea tray on his way to and from his desk, she does not see herself tidying up the astonishing mess he was capable of making when refreshing his teapot or preparing the simplest of snacks. Daddy could not cut a tomato and place it on a plate without leaving cabinets and drawers open, without spraying seeds and juice on all available surfaces, on kitchen worktop, cutting board, and floor, there to adhere to his socks or bare feet the better to traipse the mess through the house. I used to tell him it was a good thing he was no criminal, because he left clues everywhere and the most hapless of sleuths would find him. Daddy left clues everywhere. So where is he now?


My mother, I learned, did not like an empty chair at her table. I think she did see him there, even in the house where he never lived, and so she removed all chairs but her own when she was certain to be dining alone, most likely while listening to music, replacing the chairs only in expectation of company. My mother played musical chairs. But, Mummy, if you see Daddy in unoccupied chairs, in a house he never lived in, did you then buy this house for no reason? Is he here?


Displacement. While a student at Victoria College, University of Toronto, self-conscious in my new and unaccustomed disquiet, unhappily removed from home, and from Montreal and the francophone education and circle of friends that had become so integral to me, I would meet my father at the top of the Park Plaza for drinks on his visits to the city. I observed him one day looking down over Avenue Road from the rooftop bar, smiling wryly. “The streets are so straight,” he said. “Look how flat, Em. There’s so much money here,” he laughed. Toronto was not his place, not a true place of his, and I thought of this as I walked the streets that October 2019, to and from the libraries at the University of Toronto and my mother’s little house. I thought of how I do not see him on the streets here as I do in Montreal, and I thought too of how disagreeable he must have found my unhappiness of all those years ago when we sat in a lofty hotel bar looking down upon the broad rectilinear roads of the city that led all the way to a lake as great as any sea. My father mistrusted depression, disdained it. He didn’t believe in it. Life is what you make it, he was fond of advising. The world, he told us, is not waiting for you. But you wrote about it, I said one day, in rising tones. J’accuse. In The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Virgil crashes the van Duddy gave him licence to drive, in spite of his epilepsy. A revolted Yvette walks out on Duddy, who lies around in a flat full of unwashed dishes, tossing and turning in a tangle of dirty sheets, days-old orange juice sticky between his toes. Daddy, you knew. Perhaps, then, it was the depression in me he disdained. Depression, they say, is anger turned inwards. Fruitless. Furthermore, if the subject engaged my father at all, it engaged him more in the lives he imagined than in those too very close to home. Writers are selfish, they are selective, changeable in their enthusiasms, and they can also write about things far from actual experience. Ian McEwan, for instance, did not have to bury his mother in cement, let alone cut up a body in small pieces in order to write about it, unless there are things to do with Ian McEwan of which we are not yet apprised. So who is to say what a writer knows or does not know?


In my father’s last several years there was a different quality to the silences we assumed over drinks in bars and cafes at the close of the working day. I had found my calling, one might say, and what had once abraded and distressed me in the world were now sources of inspiration, and so we sat now in professional companionability as well as filial and paternal affection. Daddy, I found my place in the world, an empty chair to sit in.


On that trip to Canada I was invited to speak at the conference titled Mordecai Richler against the World. If my father pitted himself against the world, it is because he found it wanting. He was certainly no victim. I dare say most writers fight for something, are angry about something, but some authors are angrier than others. Jane Austen, say, was not so cross as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who sent his Declaration of Rights out to sea in bottles and into the air in fire balloons, and, earlier, had been sent down from Oxford more for bloody-mindedness in refusing to confirm or deny co-authorship of the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism than for its content. But no matter what exercises you as a writer, it is best not to sit down at your desk in a state of rage, or even random discontent. Just like a boxer, you are likely to get hurt if you step into the ring with uncontrolled violence, or bearing a grudge. Don’t do it. Here’s how to sit down at the desk. Eat a pleasing breakfast, perhaps a small platter of geometrically sliced fruit in carefully chosen codes of colour. Have a little dish of Turkish yogourt on the side with a dash of French honey from the Pyrenees and a sprinkling of milled seeds and dried goji and Incaberry. The writer should then use dental floss and brush the teeth and kiss the beloved and bash off to work, emptying the brain, to begin with, of all personals and peripherals before filling it up again, letting all the people in. This prescription works for me, though it may not suit everyone. Some prefer toast. My father preferred toast. He rose very early, trying in vain not to wake my mother. He burst out of the bedroom and marched to the kitchen to make a tremendous mess in the course of coffee and toast preparations. He favoured toasted bread with tomato and red onion and mayonnaise. I cannot swear that he always remembered to brush his teeth before kissing my mother and proceeding upstairs with his tray of lemon tea, splashing as he went, but never mind. “Bye-bye!” he would call out loudly, on his way upstairs, as if lighting out for distant lands unknown. And then he would empty his mind and fill it up again, letting all his people in.


In the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, Holborn, one can see the famous portrait by Robert William Buss called Dickens’ Dream. In it, Dickens sits by his desk, eyes closed and legs crossed, coattails neatly separated, one mule-slippered foot resting on a low round hassock. And all around him, on the floor, on the desk and walls, on his lap and about his handsome head are characters and scenes from his novels. Most of the room is drawn in sepia, but the characters and scenes nearest to Dickens’ chair are deeply coloured and suspended in a cloud of blue-tinted mist, an emanation, no doubt to illustrate the veritable force field of Charles’ dreaming and thinking, and showing how the emanations were at their fiercest right by his head, quite like the blue of a flame, blue being the hottest part of a flame and an indicator of efficient combustion. The writer’s imagination is highly combustible and most efficient at its oxygen-rich core. It is best not to touch the writer when imagination is occurring, lest you burn your fingers. Charles Dickens died from a stroke at home at Gad’s Hill Place, Kent, at the age of fifty-eight on June 9, 1870. Buss painted Dickens’ Dream five years after Dickens’ death. Buss drew characters from The Pickwick Papers to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ last and unfinished novel, unfinished due to his death. His demise. My father died on July 3, 2001. I do not know what he left unfinished, but I am certain it was something. I think that novelists, by definition, what with the novel meaning “new” and the novelist striving for the newer and better with each book, and his last sentence already old as soon as written, I think the novelist is fated to die with his work unfinished. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a keen if imperfect sailor and perished tragically in his eccentric and poorly ballasted boat in the Gulf of La Spezia in 1822, one year after John Keats died from ravaging consumption—or tuberculosis—at 26 Piazza di Spagna, Rome. When Shelley’s body was recovered from the sea, his face and hands devoured by fishes, a folded-back book was found in his coat pocket, thrust there hastily in the midst of reading. It was a copy of Keats’ final publication, the volume called Lamia, containing the unfinished poem The Fall of Hyperion: A Vision. “Poets,” Shelley famously wrote in the posthumously published “A Defence of Poetry,” “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (90). Shelley also left a work unfinished, due to the upsetting of his boat, a searing epic poem entitled “The Triumph of Life.” The triumph of life, Daddy!


Mordecai’s Dream: I see my father at his desk and all his characters in suspension around him, those close to his great tousled head most deeply coloured in a cloud of blue mist. On the desk is a pot of tea on a tray and lemon pips encrusted in a puddle of juice. My father wears dark slippers like Dickens’, but they are not mules but full slippers with mashed-down backs. He was regularly given expensive new pairs at Christmas by my mother. “Daddy! Why not ask Mummy for slippers without backs? You always mash down the backs.” “But I like to mash down the backs,” said my father. So there. Like Dickens, too, Mordecai had political views and was a consummate essayist, by turns polemical: This Year in Jerusalem, O Canada, O Quebec, Impure Wool Society, “tongue-troopers.”


At my mother’s house I bumped into the eminent John Fraser, long-term Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. He sat with her discussing choral music, gooseberries, Parisian tea blends, politics, and, interestingly, Ian McEwan, whom John had just been with in Italy at a music festival. McEwan, who never buried his mother in cement, or cut up a body in small pieces, unless I am much mistaken. Mummy explained to John why we were going to Montreal and he asked, what is the theme of the event? “Mordecai Richler against the World,” I told him. “Who won?” he asked, quickfire. Who won, indeed?


As an alumna of the University of Toronto, I am allowed to use its superlative library services and I chose to prepare my piece for the event at a round glass table in front of a large disused fireplace in a corner of the biography section of Hart House Library. Of course I look for my father on these shelves, but between Scorned and Beloved: Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics, by Bill Richardson, and Louis ‘David’ Riel: Prophet of the New World, by Thomas Flanagan, there is nothing. And no titles are missing as this is not a lending library. In the Canadian essays section at Hart House, with its heraldic symbols and deep-set wood-panelled alcoves, I pass a facing-out book on a stand each morning that compels my attention, though I endeavour to avoid it, due to its disquieting jacket image: a composite photograph of Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler, with Peggy’s face comprising the top half and Daddy’s the lower, making up, I decide, a sort of gryphon, creature of legend, half eagle, half lion, king of birds and king of beasts respectively, and a figure of majesty. Peggy and Daddy are a gryphon. I decide so. Daddy, you are not here in this library, not really. There is but a shadow of you.


What is the title of this conference, this symposium? Mordecai Richler against the World. Who won?


Ghosts. The first of the three spirits in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the Ghost of Christmas Past. “These are but shadows of the things that have been. They have no consciousness of us,” says the Ghost as he takes Scrooge away and into his past with a grasp that, “though gentle as a woman’s hand, was not to be resisted” (29-30). In ghost stories, spirits return for many reasons. They come to bid farewell, to right a wrong, or with diffuse intentions, some coming, quite simply, when called up by the living. They enjoy churchyards and old houses, moorlands and estuaries, disused railways and overgrown gardens, and signal their presence by way of mists and shadows, sharp sounds and sudden breezes, and in the flickering of flames in fireplaces and the light of candles. In more modern tales, they might ring one up on the telephone, and one night, not long after my father’s death, Daddy stood on my digital bathroom scales at three o’clock in the morning, the light shining in the darkness of my bedroom where I had left them, indicating a measurement of 0.0 kg. Ha ha ha, I heard him laugh. Feel how large my presence is, Emma, though I am now weightless.


The last time I saw my father was on the eve of my return to London at the end of the Canadian book tour for my first novel, a tour for which, some months earlier in London, before he fell mortally ill, he had tried to prepare me, over drinks at a favourite cafe near Sloane Square. “You can order breakfast in your room. It’s okay to do that, you know. Don’t go without food. And you are allowed to call home. Tell your publicist when you need a rest, you don’t have to be so polite. Don’t think you’ll be able to write. You won’t. Accept it. And when they ask you—and they will— why you live in London, don’t get flustered.” My father then told me an anecdote about Mavis Gallant. He said that when she was asked pointedly on a Canadian tour just why she lived in Paris, she replied, “Have you been to Paris?”


The last time I saw my father, at supper at my sister-in-law’s house, I hugged him near the vestibule where he was seated in an armchair in the window, and I felt the shock of his attenuated frame as he pushed me away gently, because I had lingered a moment too long, held him a little too tightly, which was his preserve as the father, and not mine. I wept in my hotel room later that night, not because my father had become so thin, shape-shifting, indeed, but because he had stopped writing and had seemed to me so detached, already absent. My father had assumed a mask; he was almost gone from his living body.


There are two masks of John Keats, with four years between them, a life mask and a death mask, and in neither is he smiling or frowning, though heaven knows he had plenty to anger him, beginning with the death of his father in a riding accident when Keats was eight years old, followed by the death of his mother from tuberculosis six years later, an illness through which the fourteen-year-old boy Keats nursed her fearlessly, cooking and cleaning and keeping vigil in her bedroom, and reading aloud from novels. When she died, he returned to school in Enfield, where he was observed to suffer from a violence of sorrow. John left his desk during lessons and hid in the alcove beneath the raised platform on which his teacher sat. John held his hands to his head, his grief unbound. Eight years later, Keats resumed the role of nurse for his beloved brother Tom, the youngest of three Keats boys, and the violence of John’s sorrow was unsurpassed because Tom died likewise of the family disease, the tuberculosis that will ravage his eldest brother in Rome only twenty-six months hence. John Keats, physician turned poet. Physician, heal thyself. Keats never healed himself. There was so little time. “The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs— / A woodland rivulet—a Poet’s death” (287).


John Keats against the world. Who won? The life mask of Keats was cast by his friend the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon in December 1816, shortly after they met for the first time on October 31, Keats’ twenty-first birthday, and exactly 203 years before I delivered the talk in Montreal. The nose is strong and the lips full and sensuous, and one longs to see those large hazel eyes open, and the brilliant glare, the intensity of that light. Towards the end of 1819, his year of singular creativity, Keats scrawled a seven-and-a-half-line poem in the margins of the manuscript of a long and unusually light satirical piece. Keats was in love and, as always, deeply aware of time and mortality:


This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see, here it is—
I hold it towards you. (365)


Keats died in Rome, nursed by his friend, the artist Joseph Severn, his lungs in such shreds it was thought astonishing he had endured so many months at all. He died on February 23, 1821, and the following day, just as the furnishings and decorations were being stripped and burnt for fear of infection and according to Roman law, a cast maker, possibly Canova’s mask maker Gherardi, made casts of Keats’ face, foot, and hand. This dying hand. There is so much to see in these two masks, so much to think regarding the years between, but, for me, the most evocative portrait of the poet was drawn by Severn at three o’clock in the morning on January 28, when Keats’ face is not yet masked, but full of light and shade. “These are but shadows of the things that have been . . .” In the drawing, Keats’ sleeping head is angled on the pillow towards the viewer and his auburn curls are sweat dampened, and one notes the faintest line of hair above the upper lip of his sensuous mouth. There is a large vibrant shadow on the wall, thrown by his head, cast, no doubt, by a candle that is out of the picture, somewhere in the foreground, throwing a shimmering shadow, a trick of candlelight, which is bluest at its core, an emanation, blue as the spreading scilla at my mother’s door. Mummy, is he there? Do you see him?


Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. My father had been dead over eighteen years when I attended the conference in Montreal, yet it took me until then to grasp why my mother preferred the word “demise” to the word “death.” The word “demise,” in its legal sense, signifies the conveyance or grant of an estate for life, or for a period of years, by will or lease. A writer’s legacy is a complex thing. It can be found, in my father’s case, in my mother—his muse and lover, and remarkable editor—and in the family he left behind, far too soon, and in his things, even in the graciously intended but unrecognisably tidy Richler library at Concordia University. But what a writer conveys above all, what demises to us, for a period of years, or for life, by will or lease, as we choose, lies in the pages of his work, written in his living hand. This living hand—see, here it is—I hold it towards you.


Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. “A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” Illustrated by John Leech. 1843. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books, edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 5-84.

Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. Modern Library, 2001.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry. 1821. Edited by Mary Shelley, Bobbs- Merrill, 1904.

This originally appeared in Canadian Literature 248 (2022): 134-142.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.