Anne Chisholm

A grief ago

The cautionary slogan ‘less is more’ has never been the American writer Joyce Carol Oates’ watchword.

The cautionary slogan ‘less is more’ has never been the American writer Joyce Carol Oates’ watchword.

The cautionary slogan ‘less is more’ has never been the American writer Joyce Carol Oates’ watchword. Over the last 40 years she has written a torrent of books — 115 at last count. Her prose is torrential too, and while several of her novels — Foxfire, Blonde and The Gravedigger’s Daughter among them — have been well-received, and she has a considerable following, especially in the United States, the sheer volume and intensity of her work has put some of us off.

The fact that this memoir, recounting the death of her husband and the first months of her widowhood early in 2008, is over 400 pages long has a certain weary inevitability about it. What is surprising is the one aspect she has decided not to explore — that within the year she had met the man who became her second husband early in 2009.

On the other hand, there is something impressive, even gripping, about the passion with which she unleashes the raw emotion, the rage, the black despair and the shocked disbelief she felt when an attack of pneumonia took Ray Smith, her beloved first husband, from their home in Princeton to the hospital where within a week he was dead. He was 77, and they had been married, as she tells us more than once, for 47 years.

They met as graduate students, both with plans to write; but he became an editor instead, although he never edited her fiction, as she wanted to spare him the pains and problems of her writing life. In general, they avoided troubling each other. Together they built a sweet, safe life, calling each other ‘honey’ (hardly unusual in the USA, though she seems to think it specially significant), going to the gym, looking after their cats.

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