The author of The Debt to Pleasure digs into his family's extraordinary past in a memoir as enthralling as his finest fiction
It was only when his mother died that John Lanchester realized how little he really knew about his parents. With the cache of letters and papers she left behind, he set out to reconstruct just who his parents had been. In doing so, he did much more than trace the remarkable story of a reluctant international banker, a secretive former nun, and the life they shared; he also gained extraordinary insight into his own nature and a deeper understanding of the universal push-pull of family love-and family loss. Part detective work, part evocation of character, this is, above all, compelling storytelling.
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John Lanchester is the author of The Debt to Pleasure (winner of the Whitbread and Hawthornden prizes) and Mr. Phillips. Raised in Hong Kong, he now lives in London with his wife and sons.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
One of the most famous things ever written about family life is the opening sentence of Anna Karenina. “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a magnificent line, so sonorous and resonant that it makes it easy for us not to notice it isn’t true. Part of its falsehood lies in the fact that happy families aren’t especially alike, any more than unhappy ones are unalike. But at a deeper level, the falsehood lies in the idea that a family is either happy or unhappy. Life, family life, just isn’t that simple. Most families are both happy and unhappy, often intensely so, and often at the same time. A sense of safety can be a feeling of trappedness; a delight in routine can be suffocating boredom; a parent’s humor and unpredictability can be a maddeningly misplaced childlikeness–and in many cases, the feeling is simultaneous. I was both happy and unhappy as a child, just as my parents were both happy and unhappy, and just as almost everyone else is.
Another way in which our family resembled everyone else’s was that we had secrets. All families have secrets. Sometimes they are of the variety that a family keeps from outsiders; sometimes they are the sort that a family keeps from itself; sometimes they are the sort to whose presence no one consciously admits. But they are almost always there. People have a deep need for secrets. The question is what to do with them and about them, and when to let them go.
My parents’ ashes are interred in the graveyard of All Saints’ Church at Manfield in North Yorkshire. Neither of them had any connection with the place in life, and it is in that sense an arbitrary place for them to have ended up. My mother was born in Ireland, my father in Africa, and neither of them ever lived anywhere near Manfield. But they moved around a lot, and came to be people who didn’t have too strong a link with anywhere, so I don’t think the arbitrariness of the location is inappropriate. Besides, Manfield is where the Lanchesters’ grave is: my father’s father and great-grandparents, and then back again for two more generations, are all buried there. His grandfather is the only immediate ancestor to be elsewhere. Some of the graves have been shifted over the years, pushed up against the church wall to–among other things–make the graveyard easier to mow. But the Lanchesters’ grave was spared that, and lies where it always has, under the south wall of the high-windowed, grim eighteenth-century church.
“It’s a cold place,” my mother said to me, the day that we buried my father’s ashes in the summer of 1984, several months after his death. “I don’t like the idea of him being cold.”
“It’s where he wanted to be,” I said, which was true.
I didn’t, and don’t, have the same consolation about my mother’s ashes ending up at All Saints’. I interred them there in the summer of 1998, and it was a mistake. She didn’t want her ashes to go there, because she didn’t want to be cremated. In the immediate aftermath of her death, though, I was so upset that I didn’t read the will closely enough to notice its very first sentence: “I ask that my body be buried.” It used to be an important piece of Catholic doctrine, that cremation was wrong because it prevented the body’s rising from death at the Last Judgment. But I am not a Catholic, and in my distress simply missed the statement and its importance. So I interred her ashes in the summer of 1998, in the same grave where she and I had put my father’s ashes fourteen years before.
That day, the day I interred my mother’s ashes, I had a sense of being oppressed by things I wanted to talk about and could not. The mistake I had made in having her cremated was on my conscience, but since I did not know the priest–had met him right there and then for the first time–I felt it would be too much to explain in the fifteen or so minutes we had together. There was also the fact, not at all important but very hard to get out of my mind, that the priest was wearing army boots and combat trousers under his cassock. I noticed this as we stood beside the grave, reading a shortened form of the burial service. No doubt I wouldn’t have spotted it if I hadn’t already been looking down at the small hole in the grave, just big enough to cover the little wooden box that contained my mother’s ashes. I began to wonder whether it would seem out of turn to ask why he was wearing combat clothes. Was it some new thing that priests did, making some point about being a soldier for Christ? I did hope not. And he seemed a nice, mild-mannered, gentle man, not the sort for wild evangelical gestures. Or perhaps it was me? Funeral rites often have an air of strangeness and unreality about them; sometimes you lose your hold on what is normal and what isn’t. I had a sudden, vivid memory of the day after my father died, when the local Church of England vicar came to the door to offer comfort. Because my parents had only just moved into the house, he had no idea who we were. My mother was somewhere upstairs, so I made tea. In a very English way we made small talk. Then he picked up a photograph of my father from the bookcase.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking,” he said, “but are you Jewish?”
It was about twelve hours since my father had died. I had been up all night dealing with police, ambulance men, and the doctor. I was numb to my bones, so numb I didn’t know quite what to say other than:
“I don’t mind you asking, but no, I’m not Jewish.”
“Oh,” he said. Pause. “Because you look Jewish.” Pause. “I hope you don’t mind my asking again, but was your father Jewish?”
By now wondering where this was going, I said, “No . . .”
“Oh,” he said. Pause. “Because he looks Jewish.” Pause. “Because I’m Jewish.”
At this point he was visibly expecting me to break down and admit that I, too, was Jewish but had been too shy to admit it.
From the Hardcover edition.
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