Ghosts by Eva Figes

book cover

Ghosts is a place where poetry meets prose. It is a feast of observation and consideration, overflowing with rich imagery and mournful with the feeling of time and experience passing, fading, ghost-like into transparency, and non-existence.

Figes, born in Berlin in 1932 to secular Jewish parents, was brought to England in 1939. She is best known for Patriarchal Attitudes, an early book of feminist social analysis. Her 1984 novel, Light, illuminates a day in the life of impressionist master Claude Monet. The skill she had nurtured with that work returns in full flower here. If her dollops of verbiage were not so rich, one might be tempted to consider her work literary pointillism. There is not, I believe a paragraph in this book that exceeds eight lines in length.

An unnamed woman of a certain age observes her world through four seasons. She recalls her youth, visits her ailing mother, has some time with her father, her grown children, lets us in on the associations she has with the various sights and sounds of the places she visits, and with this or that object that carries the weight of her history. She remembers a lover, sees in the pedestrian sights and sounds of her day-to-day the ghosts of her past, memories.

the shadows multiply. They lurk in the texture of old bricks, faced stone, and gloomy basements. Where someone used to practice his violin, hour after hour, where I broke my heel on the kerb, where servant girls in uniform walked dogs, took messages, were she eloped with her poet. Where I walk.

I think of it, this continuum, as I walk along the pavement, one two, one two, crossing the lines, crossing the road where traffic thunders. And we shall all be changed utterly, in the twinkling of an eye.

I can certainly relate. I was not so long ago that I walked with my youngest through Greenwich Village, pointing out to her this or that place that was a part of my past—I dated a woman who lived on that street; I took classes in that building; I attended a frat party there that changed my life; Hendrix recorded there; I bought such and such in that store; we hung out there in that park—specific locations where ghosts reside, lying in wait for our presence to give them a bit more ectoplasm, however temporary. They do get dimmer with time.

This relates somehow to the book I read just prior, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which, among other things, is a paean to a place, Manhattan, the associations one has, memories, the changes one sees over time. I am not sure Figes would consider her rendering the sort of love story that Whitehead tells. Hers has more to do with the individual perceiving the haunting of the past in the now and looking beyond that to an invisible tomorrow. For Whitehead, the city may or may not be taken over by zombies, but it is eternal. For Figes, all is fleeting.

Nothing comes back. The eye sees for a moment, the ear hears, but look, now it is gone.

And later,

At times I think I have no sense of the actual. Are things really here at all, I wonder, are any of us present? I think of my brain as a film negative that has been doubly, perhaps trebly exposed.

Ghosts is not so much a linear narrative. It is a consideration of a life in the rearview, a glance here, a look there, and a consideration of where permanence might lie, or not, with each element beautifully crafted. You could open this book to any page and be dazzled. This is not a new book. It was published in 1988, and I came upon it accidentally. It merits attention. There is such beauty in the writing that it surely needs only to be seen by more readers for the images there to retain their substance. Eva Figes died at the age of 80 in 2012. The legacy she left will remain with us for a long time. Ghosts is a book that should definitely not be allowed to fade away.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The wiki page for Eva Figes

An obit by her friend , Eva Tucker, in the Guardian

An interesting article on Figes in the Guardian

Posted September 6, 2013

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Reviews

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