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The Poetics of Fidelity in Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (2015) and Nicholas Royle’s Quilt (2010)

Poétique de la fidélité dans Grief Is the Thing with Feathers de Max Porter (2015) et Quilt de Nicholas Royle (2010)
Carine Nibakure


Grief Is the Thing with Feathers de Max Porter et Quilt de Nicholas Royle s’inscrivent dans une tradition littéraire de l’élégie contemporaine qui s’oriente vers une poétique de l’anti-consolation. Le roman de Porter présente des endeuillés pris dans l’ambivalence du deuil oscillant entre le deuil normal et la mélancolie. Inversement, Quilt de Royle montre comment la douleur de la perte perdure, et plonge l’endeuillé dans un état mélancolique : un temps figé et un espace hanté par la présence spectrale du mort. En s’inspirant de la notion de la « fidélité » développée par Jacques Derrida et à travers les techniques novatrices de ces deux romans, la fidélité se manifeste dans une poétique de l’anti-consolation et la recherche de réciprocité avec le mort, ce qui appelle l’endeuillé à s’ouvrir à l’altérité. En outre, la fidélité se présente dans le processus de remémoration qui illustre également les défaillances de la mémoire induites par la perte soudaine de l’être aimé.

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1Although we all know it is inevitable, death always takes us by surprise, as each death is singular and unique. When confronted to the great leveller, people frequently resort to fidelity and refuse to concede to the loss of a cherished one. Reactions to loss and fidelity to the dead have sat at the fulcrum of many literary works, especially those which take on the form of elegy. Elegy hails from the oral tradition of funeral songs and laments following the death of a loved one. As elegy evolved from lament songs to funeral poems, it also embraced the pastoral form in poems or idylls on the death of a loved one. In Elegy, David Kennedy argues that the pastoral, originating from Theocritus’s ‘First Idyll’ or Virgil’s ‘Eclogue’, conforms to a grief-consolation pattern (Kennedy 3). Similarly, English elegies, such as Milton’s Lycidas or Shelley’s Adonis, follow the same pattern and are characterised by laments, outbursts of anger, the search for the other, the idealisation of the dead, the procession of mourners, consolation, and an image of resurrection (Kennedy 6). In classical elegy, mourning responds to a linear process moving from denial of the loss, to anger, on to a phase of disorganisation and finally to the acceptance of the loss, in the ultimate stage of consolation (Kennedy 6). These elements establish the conventions of classical elegy. Conversely, modernist and contemporary poets and novelists, such as Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf or even Graham Swift’s contemporaries, ‘depart from generic norms [and,] by writing non-consolatory elegies . . . , mute [elegy’s] resolutions through . . . vacillations between ‘normal’ and melancholic mourning’ (Ramazani 9). Max Porter and Nicholas Royle are part of the literary tradition of contemporary authors whose works resonate with the forms of elegy and the techniques of experimental writing. They use some elements of the classical elegy both to reproduce and to transgress them, thus reconfiguring the genre.

2Using experimental techniques and formal innovation, Porter and Royle also demonstrate how, although well-signposted in literary history, elegy is still an evolving genre. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers introduces the reader with a father and his sons caught in the ambivalence of grief. Similarly, in Nicholas Royle’s Quilt, the loss of the father is unbearable to the bereaved son who isolates himself and slips into melancholy. Although painful, fidelity to the lost one conjures up a profound sense of security, as it makes the bereaved feel that the lost other is still present. Accordingly, fidelity allows the bereaved to ward off the unbearable feeling of guilt that the acceptance of her loss would otherwise generate, as acceptance is commonly experienced as a form of betrayal of the lost object. In The Work of Mourning, Derrida argues that fidelity is not the denial of loss, but rather a work of mourning necessary to ensure the survival of the other. Thus, for Derrida, fidelity lies in the internalisation of the dead, it consists of ‘speaking of the dead and to the dead’ (Derrida 2001, 26, emphasis in the original) and in the recognition that the dead is ‘us’, which also implies a responsibility for each elegy.

3This article proposes to explore acts of fidelity and infidelity in the novels of Max Porter and Nicholas Royle and to show the use of experimental techniques in the presentation of the work of mourning that lies at the heart of the elegy. In the following pages, I explore the question of fidelity in the revisiting of the genre, then how fidelity leads to becoming other through a process of identification, and finally I argue that remembrance can be an act of fidelity.

Revisiting the Elegy

4Loss is part of human experience and how we respond to it varies from one individual to another. As mentioned earlier, classical elegy is a form, in poetry or prose, which shows a mourner moving from denial of loss to consolation. As opposed to such a linear process, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers and Quilt are in line with modern elegy which, according to Jahan Ramazani, is anti-consoling and sceptical. In The Poetry of Mourning, Ramazani states that modern elegies ‘conjoin the elegiac with the anti-elegiac, at once appropriating and resisting the traditional psychology, structure and imagery of the genre’ (Ramazani 1). Quilt transgresses the elegiac conventions by way of disparate narrative devices. Some of the staples of the genre are absent from Royle’s novel in which there is no procession of mourners, no image of resurrection, and in which the bereaved protagonist remains an inconsolable melancholiac till the end.

5Quilt starts with the unnamed protagonist when he learns that his father has died and accompanies him through the following weeks as the mourner spends his time working on building a giant aquarium full of rays in the house of the deceased. This project was initiated by the narrator’s father following the death of his wife, the protagonist’s mother. One could say that the protagonist’s commitment to this unwonted project is a reaction that delays his confrontation with the work of mourning. Moreover, this response to loss could be explained as one of the characteristics of melancholia, when the value of the lost object is unknown to the bereaved. In fact, Freud defines mourning as the reaction to the loss of an object, distinguishing between so-called ‘normal’ mourning, which should lead to consolation, and ‘pathological’ mourning, which leads to melancholy. Freud postulates: ‘the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him’ (Freud 245, emphasis in the original). This brings Freud to specify that, in melancholia, the bereaved identifies with this object. According to Julia Kristeva, melancholy, etymologically speaking, comes from the Greek word ‘melaina-kole’, which means subject to the work of black bile. This black bile is one of the four natural moods of the individual. In Kristeva’s acceptation of the term, ‘[a] life that is unlivable, heavy with daily sorrows, tears held back or shed, a total despair, . . . a devitalized existence that, although occasionally fired by the effort I make to prolong it, is ready at any moment for a plunge into death’ (Kristeva 4). For the narrator in Royle’s novel, finding himself in the family home all alone creates an unbearable feeling of absence to the point of destabilising all his temporal landmarks. He says, ‘[n]ow that he has died, I no longer know how long anything takes. . . . These things happen from time to time’ (25). The pain that this melancholic subject endures because of the loss of his father also evokes another distressing experience, i.e. his mother’s death a few years earlier. This finds expression in his reiteration of the same statement throughout the narrative: ‘things happen from time to time,’ words initially uttered by his father just before he died and which come to symbolise a succession of losses and the persistence of his pain. Seen in this light, building aquariums could be seen as an act of fidelity to the father and ‘a symptom of [a] devouring melancholia’ (Ionescu 98). Thus, the attachment to the father and to the event is obviously heavy to bear for the protagonist, as it plunges him into a melancholic state whereby he is impelled to live in isolation, while trying to re-establish a relationship broken by death.

6Unlike Quilt, Porter’s novel is closer to traditional elegy, oscillating between moments of despair and temporary consolation. It is divided into three parts corresponding to the phases of mourning, with three narrators, namely Dad, Boys and Crow. In a London apartment, two boys narrate the shock they experience following the accidental death of their mother. The reader is given an image of a father who is numbed by grief and overwhelmed with the pain of his loss, but who must take full care of his two sons. The father also devotes himself to writing a monograph on Ted Hughes, Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis (27). Porter is inspired by the crow, a mythological figure and symbol of death found in the poems of Ted Hughes, a direct inspiration for the novel. In addition, he introduces the figure of Crow through the epigraph taken from Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘Hope Is the Thing with Feathers’, Crow reappearing later in the story as a companion in the mourning process as he comes to help the trio of mourners overcome their loss. The melancholic state is evoked in Porter’s novel through the crow figure that Dad creates through incorporation, a process that integrates the lost object into the mourning subject (Abraham and Torok 16). In an attempt to protect himself from a psychic collapse, the bereaved falls back on self-preservation mechanisms, and creates an alter ego (Crow). Paradoxically, this dissociation only confirms his psychic collapse, as he slips into a melancholic state. Crow, as a character, claims to be a trope of the work of mourning: ‘I am a doctor or ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God’ (14). Further on, Crow adds: ‘I am an accredited caregiver’ (28). In this elegiac narrative, Crow is at the same time an image of deep sadness, probably the ghost of the mother, but also a protector; a symbol of death, but also a caregiver.

7In these two elegies, through experimentation, the writer produces a poetics of mourning and melancholy meant to evoke the spectral presence of the dead through such devices as neologism, aposiopesis, absence of punctuation and other blanks and ellipses that feature the language of the bereaved. Bray, Gibbons and McHale define the experimental as literature that refuses to be categorised: ‘[e]xperimental literature . . . lays everything open to challenge, reconceptualization and reconfiguration’ (Bray et al. 1). Hence, experimental literature challenges the conventions of the novel and of the limits between reality and imagination and thereby creates, innovates and (re)invents. In other words, the experimentation in these novels allows the elegist to express the impact of the loss through narrative plurality, prosopopoeia, and even the invention of a dictionaray in Royle’s novel, the latter testifying to the author’s taste for coinages and neologisms of all ilk. Moreover, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers defies the limits of fiction by producing a hybrid narrative. It also draws on Russian tales to explore bereavement in children and adults. Three chapters devoted to the boys are narrated in the form of tales, which possibly materialises the absence of the mother—the lack of which these two children suffer from. In the first part of the story, Crow addresses the two boys in a tricky tone, as it encourages them to draw effigies of their mother. Hoping to recuperate the lost mother through their drawings, they say: ‘Crow, which one of these fake mums has won us a real one?’ (30) In these moments, Crow stands out for his playful, teasing, and insensitive character to the children’s pain even while these tales are marked by a sad mood, an unbearable pain due to absence, which is also the mood of melancholy. Furthermore, Porter’s novel responds to the phases of grief, showing from the outset a mourner stuck in the numbing phase where grief and pain dominate all thought and the willingness to accept loss is absent. Dad confesses: [f]our or five days after she died, I sat alone in the living room wondering what to do. Shuffling around, waiting for shock to give way, waiting for any kind of structured feeling to emerge from the organisational fakery of my days. I felt hung-empty’ (4). Firstly, we can see a mourner who is stuck in a frozen time, a mourner who is numb and cannot cope with the loss, a mourner who is emotionally drained, as underlined by the anaphora.

8As is often the case with elegies, the rural background is present in Porter’s novel, which introduces the pastoral dimension into the narrative. In traditional elegy, the pastoral allows for the introduction of lamentations by a mourner in the countryside, a place of withdrawal from city life that favours the work of mourning. In Terry Gifford’s terms, the literary pastoral ‘is essentially escapist in seeking refuge in the country and often also in the past’ (Gifford 8). In the form of return, it may appear as a retreat into a safe place in the shape of Arcadia, a site of mourning and recuperation of the lost object. However, Terry Gifford also considers the pastoral as a form that evolves and questions the relationship between the human and the non-human. He advances that ‘the pastoral, in saying something about the country, is saying something about society too’ (Gifford 39). In Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, some of the sections which are narrated in the form of tales, as seen above, are located in a pastoral setting, Crow’s natural habitat and a topos of classical elegy. Crow communicates through human language, but also through onomatopoeia (44; 54–56). His sounds are unintelligible but invite the three bereaved characters to learn from him. In fact, Dad, the narrator, wonders about Crow’s nature and presence in their lives: ‘there is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow’s natural self and his civilised self, between the scavenger and the philosopher, . . . It seems to me to be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now’ (22). Accordingly, Crow can be considered as a therapist, who not only helps characters to work through mourning, but also reminds them of the presence of grief and death. Thanks to Crow’s intermission, the boys project themselves into a pastoral setting that allows them both to remember their mother and to project themselves into the future with their father.

9This elegy also deals with the survival of the genre in language and the arts. In line with Ted Hughes’s poems and befitting its experimental orientation, it is characterised by its metatextual inspiration. Crow himself points this out: ‘I am a template. A myth to be slipped in. Slip up into. Inevitably I have to defend my position, because my position is sentimental’ (Porter 14). This is confirmed by Timothy C. Baker’s analysis of Hughes’s poetry: ‘[p]oetry, for Hughes, . . . creates a hybrid being that is neither wholly animal nor wholly mythic, but lies somewhere in between’ (Baker 22). In this light, I would argue that for both Crow and Dad, ‘the crow both exists in relation to textual representation and transcends it’ (Baker 22). The relationship between Crow and the three mourners transcends the linguistic representation of the animal in fiction, establishing the link between the human and the non-human (Baker 1). Paradoxically, Porter borrows the figure of Crow and its characteristics as they appear in Hughes’s poems, but also confers upon this figure the ability to judge humans, to entice them into an emotional state tinged with a sad mood. This is what Derrida calls the double imperative in fidelity, i.e.: ‘to let [the dead] speak for himself alone, and yet not to leave him alone while he speaks’ (Derrida 2001, 47). Through intertextuality, Crow illustrates himself as a figure of fidelity to loss, unsuccessfully embodying a maternal figure for the boys.

Becoming Other

10Whether it is a normal or a pathological mourning in Freud’s sense, loss is always a traumatic event that conditions the search for the other in every object, in language and even in time. Crow and the rays are signs of continuity: they symbolise openness to the other, different and similar, and to the spectre. In Quilt, Royle goes on to speak of the rays as the very origin of the spectre, while referring to the conversation of Socrates and Meno (118). In the same vein, in Spectres of Marx, Derrida speaks of the ghost or the spectre as being a trace of other pre-existing spirits that already haunt Western culture and the narrative. He invites the reader to welcome the other, the spirit or phantom: ‘it would be necessary to learn spirits. Even and especially if this, the spectral, is not. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such’ (Derrida 1994, xvii, emphasis in the original). Welcoming the other involves taking into consideration all forms in which the spectre manifests itself. Spectral presences in the two novels are not only the ghosts of the dead, but also intertextual imprints from the past that highlight a shared cultural experience through arts and literature. In Matière à réflexion: Du corps politique dans la littérature et les arts visuels britanniques, Catherine Bernard addresses the spectral manifestations in the following terms: ‘les traces du passé—traces historiques, intertextuelles, esthétiques—nous reviennent. Elles survivent et surviennent encore. Elles insistent. Cette survivance est le moment d’une incorporation de la mémoire collective d’une incarnation’ (Bernard 141). What exemplifies the last statement is how, in Quilt, the ray appears as a haunting figure both to the melancholic and to Socrates, particularly when Meno refers to him as a spectre. Meno suggests that ‘there is something of the ray in him’ (10), and through several layers, the ray and Socrates impose a spectral presence in the novel. As an intertextual element, the ray acts as the ‘figure of the already’ (Royle 2010, 11), but it evolves, inhabits, and transforms everything. On the other hand, Porter’s work is imbued with the obsessive figure of Hughes’s crow, and Edgar Allan Poe’s crow, the figment of death found in The Raven (1845). Additionally, as a ‘Ted’s song-legend’ (Porter 70), Crow becomes a figment of continuity. Accordingly, for Catherine Bernard, intertextuality acts as a political figure that impels to rethink the relationship between eras and shows how literary genres are open to reconfiguration.

11Furthermore, the spectre in these two novels underlines the temporal disruption induced by the revenant, which makes time anachronistic and blurs the landmarks between absence and presence. Derrida also describes the time of the ghost or spectre as a frozen, disjointed time (Derrida 1994, 170), a time when the melancholic or the bereaved subject can no longer distinguish the imaginary from the real. Thus, in Porter’s and Royle’s novels the deceased is neither forgotten nor abandoned, neither absent nor present, appearing as a spectre. The continuity of this relationship is one of the characteristics of contemporary anti-elegy. According to Spargo, ‘anti-elegy . . . alerts us to a continuum of economic relations—from the substitutive economics of the psychical work of mourning, . . . anti-elegy seeks to protect and contain the connotations of alterity brought to light by the other’s death’ (Spargo 128). Hence, contemporary anti-elegy departs from consolatory elegy. In the scope of contemporary (anti-)elegy, learning to live with the ghost is also one way of being open to the vulnerability of the other, wishing to reinstate an ethical subject. According to Spargo ‘[t]hree figures . . . denote an anti-elegiac resistance to the idealistic norms of the traditional elegy—belatedness, the remembrance of failed intimacy, and the ambivalent wish for reciprocity—in order to articulate the special quality of an ethical discourse’ (Spargo 129). Paradoxically, the melancholic subject in Royle’s novel is the one who isolates himself in his father’s house to devote himself to his rays, seeking a way to maintain the link with his deceased father. One of the acts of fidelity is the desire to restore the failed intimacy.

12In Porter’s novel, a few days after the funeral of the mother of his children, the father finds himself alone in their flat. The feeling of absence is unbearable and painful, but he allows himself to recuperate her through his sense of smell, and by making a drawing of her. He says: ‘[g]rief felt fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar. I was cold. There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast’ (6). A little further on, he paints a portrait of the deceased’s injured body, with ribs spread apart (16). The grotesque drawing materialises the attachment to the event of her death, which makes the mother present. It is also the emblem of ‘a dead body that continues to send messages to the living’ (Mars-Jones 2016). Dad acutely experiences this absence and pain of loss just a few moments before Crow appears to tell him that he will only leave once Dad no longer needs him (7).

13The sudden eruption of the crow in the lives of the bereaved creates an uncanny atmosphere. This uncanny moment leads the mourners, Dad and Boys, to multiply the metaphors of the injured body in order to postpone the confrontation with their loss, by identifying with the corpse, as the father feels cold as a corpse. This brings to mind Sodré Ignês’s comments on the prevalence of the material and the sensory that go along with the (pathological) sense of loss: ‘the sensorial impact of vision and smell and hearing communicates the terrible invasion of the mind by the simultaneous absolute absence and persecuting presence of the dead loved object. Here, the sudden uncanny experience makes life/art possible’ (Sodré 128). The drawing illustrating the traumatic event as Dad imagines it, the obsession to finish writing the monograph on Ted Hughes and the telling of the circumstances of death in the form of a tale are acts of fidelity to the dead that maintain his presence in language and material objects. Accordingly, for Laufer ‘the experience of mourning would be the constitution of an imprint welcoming the trace of the disappeared, his physical and psychic trace’ (Laufer 26). The limits of the real and the imaginary are blurred for Dad, and the smell of blood and the idea of the traumatic shock suffered by the body haunt his mind and the narrative. In some passages, the various narrators are on the verge of melancholy: the two boys invent stories about their mother, they repeat past activities for fear of forgetting or misremembering her (44). Now, the induced repetition of the trauma allows Crow to step onto the stage, he who embodies the grief, the spectral presence of the mother. The introduction of Crow’s voice, both real and imaginary, brings in polyphony as a trope for an experience of melancholic mourning common to both adults and children, who nevertheless react differently to loss. The polyphony in Porter’s novel exposes not only the emotional state of each character caught in the numbing phase, but also the spectral presence of the mother. Polyphony anatomises the voice and exposes the desire for reciprocity in melancholy.

14Additionally, in Quilt, the loss of the father could be the trigger of a first trauma (that of the mother) whose presence had escaped consciousness. According to Cathy Caruth in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ‘[t]he experience of trauma, the fact of latency, would thus seem to consist, not in the forgetting of a reality that can hence never be fully known, but in an inherent latency within the experience itself’ (Caruth 7–8). The bereaved son in Quilt is the one who tries to re-establish a relationship between the dead and himself. He introduces the ghost into the narrative, highlighting the loss of the father as traumatic. The figure of the ghost is threatening, because it is the emblem of psychic collapse which results from the identification of the melancholic subject with the lost object. Consequently, identification to the lost object may transform the melancholic subject into a crypt. In the second part of Quilt, the narrator hallucinates and sees his mother sitting in the kitchen, smoking and drinking a cup of coffee. The mother does not remember that she is dead or even that her husband is dead. The son tells her that she died of Alzheimer’s disease. The mother replies: ‘Alzheimer’s? she says, quizzically. That’s an invention, dear boy, not my bag at all. . . . I’m sure you remember (at which you nod)’ (101). This spectral moment paralyses the bereaved as he becomes ‘frozen rigid’ (104). Moments later, the narrator identifies with the father, somehow becoming the ghost of the father as the ghost of his mother erupts into his own reality. He claims:

I’m lying on the floor, I have wet myself and my mouth is full of the taste of blood. I’ve beaten my tongue, I realise, coming round, and I see no sign of her or of the paper, the coffee mug, cigarettes or ashtray, not even a whiff of tobacco smoke remaining. I take a shower and feel cold, as if I’m dead myself(105106)

15The protagonist enters a liminal space where he identifies with the deceased mother to the point of experiencing her death as if it were his own. In The Shell and the Kernel, Abraham and Torok speak of the melancholic subject becoming a crypt for the trauma of loss. Becoming a crypt is conditioned by identification, more specifically by incorporating the object of mourning as opposed to introjecting it (Abraham and Torok 1994, 16) and it is also the link that ensures the survival of the dead in the world of the living. From this point of view, we can say that, by becoming a crypt of his father’s ghost, the melancholic subject in Royle’s novel awakens the pain of the first loss, i.e. that of his mother. According to Ganteau, ‘[Quilt is a] text that is obsessed with the idea of becoming-ghost’ (Ganteau 2015, 87), hence with the fidelity to a series of losses, one being hidden by the other even while being dependent on the other for discovery.

16Thus, Quilt is emblematic of the modern elegy in its ethical programme that does justice to the dead and maintains a relationship with the other. In his work Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis and the Return of the Dead, Colin Davis speaks of the spectre as the trace that destabilises time that is both present and absent, known and unknown. Accordingly, Davis postulates that ‘the spectre is also a figure of the other, . . . of that which in me is other than myself and that which outside me is more than I can know. It is therefore the spectre which holds open the possibility of an unconditional encounter with otherness’ (Davis 76). Addressing the ghost of his mother, the melancholic subject experiences moments of introspection whereby he realises that he is becoming a stranger to himself. This spectral moment also signals the impossibility of elegising the other: ‘you want to tell her what happened to her in turn, what it was to lose face, both of you, your mother no longer recognising you, speaking to the dead mother of a mother living but no longer capable of being addressed’ (Royle 2010, 101). Even though the revenant ensures the continuity of the relation between the living and the dead, it also reveals that this relation threatens the unity of the self, the identity of the melancholic. Furthermore, in the third part of the novel, the mourner communicates on the phone with his partner about the dream he had about his father and the hallucinations. Over 22 pages, he recites in alphabetic order words known and invented, words that refer to the spectral nature of the rays, thus creating a dictionaray, as already mentioned. He utters words such as disarray, experimentally, fragility, rayon, singularity, spectrality (127, 128, 137, 139), which emphasise the singularity of mourning and the depressive melancholy experienced by the protagonist. Thus, the experience of despair in mourning and the experimentation with the defamiliarisation of language hover over Quilt. In the dictionaray, also called ‘a work of lexicography’ (120), the protagonist displays the different layers of the rays, as they take on a double function, that of haunting and revealing the repressed. At a certain point, the interaction between the two characters is interrupted (‘the line went dead’ (144)), marking the bereaved son’s last appearance in the narrative. I want to argue that the ghost under the cloak of the manta ray anatomises the pain of loss and exposes the repressed from the first trauma and makes the bereaved experience an episode of derealisation reminiscent of the uncanny. For Ionescu, the disappearance of the protagonist shows a mourner who is ‘ravished by his own phantasies’ (Ionescu 101). To some extent, he opens up to the spectral presence of the other so much as he becomes a ghost himself.

17The voice of the ghost is also the one that invites the reader to see differently, to read differently, to go beyond the limits of language in a novel, and this is precisely what Royle invites us to explore in the notion of veering:

‘[v]eering’ can turn strange, as if its meaning were veering within. There is something ghostly about veering. It has connotations of unexpected force, uncertain and unfinished movement, secrecy and silence. It entails an unsettling of distinctions between the internal and external: you are not certain where seeing or thinking ends and hallucinating or imagining begins. (Royle 2011, 68)

18In Veering: A Theory of Literature, Royle explores the different forms of the figure of ‘veering’ in different fields, including literary theories. This notion embraces what he calls the ‘literary turn’, which exposes a displacement and transformation of forms in arts—literature in this case. For Royle, veering is central to every writing process, as it leads to question the boundaries of literature, the link between the media of arts, and urges to accommodate between innovation and borrowing. ‘Veering’ is applied to creative writing and includes both experiencing and experimenting with the ghost or the return of the past. In fact, most of Quilt’s experimental drive lies in the combination of fiction with literary criticism that seems to fuel the creative drive of the narrative. In these two experimental novels, Porter and Royle push the reader to explore the limits of reality and imagination, questioning the boundaries of the novel and the phases of mourning, as well as ‘probing the limits of what is readable’ (Attridge 2). And although the figure of the ghost threatens the unity of the self, it forces the mourner or the melancholic subject to open up to the other through the voice.


19In Quilt and Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, the site of memory is both spatial, external, and located in the mind. As in both narratives, the narrators’ memories are uncertain. In Porter’s novel, the father’s nostalgia shows how difficult it is for these mourners to forget the lost spouse. As for the boys, the search for their mother in every corner of the house, the attempts to create a mess in their father’s house or car is a way of keeping alive their memory of the mother and of seeking reciprocity. In the second part, ‘Defence of the Nest’, the two boys recall a scene in which they are talking to their mother just before going to bed. Each boy recalls this scene, except that the two versions differ in terms of the mother’s response:

Yes? she said, before she was dead.
We don’t want baths, our bums are clean!
We both had a bath last night.
Fine, she said. Straight to bed for stories.
Yes? she said, before she was dead.
We don’t want baths, our bums are clean!
We both had a bath last night.
Well, she said, no bath, no stories.
You decide(30)

20The difference between these two versions underlines the uncertainty of memory and the recollection process which is subjective and fragmentary, the incapacity to forget and remember correctly. On account of their deep desire to bring the mother back through recollection, the narrators become unreliable. In addition, the last phrase ‘You decide’ is both an address to the reader and an uncertain recollection of what their mother may have said at the end of this conversation. Indeed, the memories come back according to the ideals that the subject projects onto the object of his grief. In Derrida’s terms, ‘[n]ot to recognize the intractable reality that the dead are now only ‘in us’ would be not only a form of denial but a betrayal of the dead’ (Derrida 2001, 10), and the behaviour of the two boys corroborates this point of view. Attachment to this image is a sign of fidelity to the event (the loss) that allows them to reinvent and revive the mother through language.

21In Quilt, as in Porter’s work, the uncertainty of memories epitomises the vulnerability of both the narrative and the mourner. Remembering may be considered also as an act of fidelity to the memory of the lost object. According to Ganteau, Royle’s Quilt ‘is that of the weak form, and it involves putting into practice a narrative that becomes troubled from within and vulnerable’ (Ganteau 2018, 16). The melancholic protagonist in Quilt fails to remember with certainty a conversation he had with the father before his death:

I love you too, mate, he says, and the tears flow from me with renewed force, impossible to restrain, strain stain in tears. My father says: don’t worry, it’s alright. Or he doesn’t, no, not that exactly. The precise words are delivered as if from such an unfathomable distance I hardly recognise them: . . . These things happen from time to time (7).

22In this conversation, we find two events in one, the recollection of the absence of the protagonist’s mother and an anticipation of the loss of the father. Loss brings about fidelity to the memory of the mother and anticipating the loss of his father only creates an anxiety and pain that are even more difficult to control. Hence, memory ‘becomes the site of revisiting, conflict and negotiation’ (Ganteau 2017, 25). The anticipation in this novel only produces an even greater and almost numbing anxiety about the future.

23Moreover, the mourners in Porter’s novel attempt to find the object of their mourning in every object, every nook and cranny of the house: ‘the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, . . . covered in a film of grief’ (8). He adds to the present time: ‘the house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers’ (19). Thus, Crow makes them experience the state of being ‘hopeless’ (92). This systematic search for the lost object marks a process of recollection and the phase of aspiration and search for the object of love that are part of the phases of mourning. Moreover, the word ‘encyclopedia of no-longer hers’ expresses both the survival of the dead in the memory of the bereaved, but also the imposition of the past on the present. Just as the house becomes an encyclopedia of the beloved wife, most of Hughes’s poems memorialised Sylvia Plath. In fact, there is a parallel drawn between the lives of Ted Hughes who raised his two children following Plath’s death, and that of the character, Dad, who must survive the ‘blackness of his trauma’ (10) by raising his two boys. In the last chapter, Dad elegises his dead wife by reciting Hughes’s poem ‘Lovesong’ (1967), thereby performing an act of fidelity to the dead. In the act of memorialisation, crow stands out as an intertextual figure that underlines the impossibility to forget. Similarly, in Poe’s The Raven, a crow imposes his presence in the life of the mourner who yearns for his late wife. He feels hopeless, as he is afraid of staying alone in the house full of her absence. He addresses the crow wondering how long it will stay: ‘‘Other friends have flown before. / On the morrow he will leave me as my Hopes have flown before.’ / Then the bird said, “Nevermore”’ (11. 58–60; emphasis in original). The crow answers him only with ‘nevermore’ (the only word it utters in the poem), which could be both a promise to accompany him in his work of mourning, but also a sign that mourning is ‘irreconcilable’ (Derrida 2001, 143). Repetition of ‘nevermore’ by the crow throughout the poem symbolises the endless nature of mourning of a beloved one as well as the resistance to consolation.

24Furthermore, in the novel Quilt, the dead father’s cottage is considered as so ‘inconceivably empty’ (37) that he fills it with aquariums full of different species of rays. However, when he begins to tidy up the deceased’s belongings, he realises how ‘the house seems inconceivably full’ (41) and admits that nothing is permanent or ‘reliable’ (87; emphasis in original) everything dies, ‘but life and time in truth never do’ (42). He also adds: ‘then there is the incredible world of the cottage, dead and surviving, stuffed with the past now present, the present now past, in a convulsion of lunatic tranquillity’ (37). The bereaved slowly enters in a no-temporal space where time becomes blurred and an obsession for him. He begins to issue a litany about the circumstances of his father’s death, a litany of words that sometimes do not make sense: “in the wings all this while, yet it was only yesterday [tears] ran down my face as my father lay upstairs in his room, dying it can now be said, dying in neither the dining nor drawing room, can be said post, post saying past, all post past past the post. . . . Words come away’ (26, emphasis in the original). The sudden death of his father renders him unable to accurately express his pain. Besides, this wordplay ‘post’ and ‘past’ may be considered as something of the ‘already’, the past overlapping on the present, as corroborated by the wrecked temporality and language. Thus, combining the language of the experimental and the language of elegy, anamnesis highlights the inability to comprehend time as linear, and misremembrance underlines the vulnerability of both narrative and memory. According to Ganteau, ‘the past is both partially remembered and repeated in the present, according to one of the most basic principles of trauma, mixing up life with survival’ (Ganteau 2017, 27). Thus, literary experimentation in both novels highlights the ways in which the bereaved transform the family house into a problematical site of (un-)memory haunted by the spectral presence of the loved object and exposing the failures and success of traumatic memory. Moreover, ‘the omnipresent ray represents the impossibility to forget and the permanence of recollection’ (Ganteau 2017, 28), or at least of haunting and possession. Indeed, they are depicted by both the melancholic subject and his partner as ‘invisible’, ‘nocturnal’, ‘stationary’, ‘awry’ ‘the strangest thing’, ‘bigger than the house’, ‘hypnotic’ (32, 28, 148, 149). The ray therefore appears not as a literary device to achieve catharsis but as the sign of traumatic memory where loss is constantly solicited.


25Porter and Royle feature two types of mourners: one who rejects consolation and any form of comfort, and the other who confronts the pain of mourning in order to overcome it. According to Kristeva, the melancholic subject’s reaction would be to deny the denial, which would cause him to slip into depressive melancholy. In anamnesis, the resurgence of traumatic and non-traumatic memories inscribes the dead in the mourner’s memory, making the bereaved a site of memory. Thus, for Derrida,

[s]uch a turn to the [lost one] is, in the end, all we have to give. And if this turn is not completely ours, that is why it is a gift. For in turning toward the [lost one] who has died, we turn not as already constituted beings toward someone outside us, or simply inside us as part of our interiority, but toward our law, toward what first forms our very interiority. (Derrida 2003, 26)

26One of the striking reactions in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is the desire to recover from the pain of loss and the recognition of the sense of loss as persisting through time. In the third part of the novel, Dad broods over the concept of working through as part of the work of mourning in Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia: ‘Moving On, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us lets no man slow or speed or fix’ (Porter 100). The grieving process is probably not linear, in that it is composed of several temporalities and several places that are both triggers of old traumas and elements that can help the bereaved accept the loss. This is corroborated by David James when he speaks of consolation as the acceptance of solace rather than the absence of grief and the attainment of comfort. He states: ‘[a]ccepting solace in turn means conceding what cannot be repaired, facing what escapes easy mitigation . . . consolation rarely guarantees lasting comfort, let alone augurs a cure’ (James, 1). Nevertheless, these two novels evince two directions in contemporary elegy: one ambivalent and the other anti-consolatory. Indeed, contemporary elegy may be anti-consolatory and turn to melancholia as illustrated in Royle’s novel in which the narrator progressively slips into dementia, considering mourning as a ‘life-ending slowness’ (33). The melancholic son in Quilt disappears from the narrative, a hyperbolic metalepsis both thematising and featuring fidelity and reminding the reader that elegy is a journey of grief and towards grief, but with no assurance of return.

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Carine Nibakure, « The Poetics of Fidelity in Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (2015) and Nicholas Royle’s Quilt (2010) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 60 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2021, consulté le 17 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Carine Nibakure

Carine Nibakure is a doctoral student at the University Paul Valéry Montpellier 3 and has been a member of EMMA EA741 (Études montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone) since 2018. She is preparing a PhD thesis under the supervision of Jean-Michel Ganteau on the figures of elegy in contemporary British literature, particularly mourning and melancholia. Her research focuses on the works of B.S Johnson, Tim Parks, Max Porter, Nicholas Royle and Graham Swift, with a special interest in their experimental dimension.

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