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Julian Barnes

“My grandfather said that remorse was the worst emotion life could contain. My mother did not understand the remark, and I do not know what events to attach it to…

Ever since I first read it, I have remained haunted by a line from Edmund Wilson’s journals. Wilson died in 1972; the events referred to happened in 1932; I read about them in 1980, the year The Thirties was published.

At the beginning of that decade, Wilson had married, as his second wife, one Margaret Canby. She was a stocky, humorous-face, upper-class woman with ‘champagne tastes’: Wilson was the first man she had known who had worked for a living. In the previous volume of his journals, The Twenties, Wilson had called her ‘the best woman drinking companion I had ever known.’ There he noted his first intention of marrying her, and also his sensible hesitation: ‘Well though we got along, we did not have enough in common.’ But marry they did, into a companionship marked from the first by infidelity and temporary separations. If Wilson had his doubts about Canby, she had even stronger reservations about him. ‘You’re a cold fishy leprous person, Bunny Wilson,’ she once told him — a remark which Wilson, with typical unsparingness, confided to his diary.

In September 1932 the couple, then married two years, were having one of their separations. Margaret Canby was in California, Wilson in New York. She went to a party in Santa Barbara wearing high heels. As she left, she tripped, fell down a flight of stairs, broke her skull, and died. The event produced, in Wilson’s journal, forty-five pages of the most honest and self-flagellant mourning ever written. Wilson starts taking notes as his plane slowly hedge-hops west, as if the enforced literary act will help block off emotion. Over the next days, these jottings open out into an extraordinary monologue of homage, erotic remembrance, remorse, and despair. ‘A horrible night but even that seemed sweet in recollection,’ he notes at one point. In California, Canby’s mother urges him: ‘You must believe in immortality, Bunny, you must!’ But he doesn’t and can’t: Margaret is dead and unreturning.

Wilson spares himself, and his putative reader, nothing. He preserves every impaling rebuke Canby delivered. She once told her critical, complaining husband that the epitaph on his tombstone should read: ‘You’d better go and fix yourself up.’ He also celebrates her: in bed, in drink, in tears, in confusion. He remembers fighting off the flies when they made love on a beach. He calls to mind the ignorances that charmed him — ‘I’ve found out what that thing over the door is — it’s a lentil’ — and placed them alongside her running complaints: ‘I’ll crash someday! Why don’t you do something about me?’ She accused him of treating her as just another luxury item, like Guerlain scent: ‘You’d be charmed if I were dead, you know you would.’

The fact that Wilson treated his wife badly, both before and after marriage, and that his grief was contaminated by justified guilt, is what gives this stream of mourning consciousness its power. The animating paradox of Wilson’s condition is that he has been released into feeling by the death of the person who accused him of lack of feeling. And the line that has never left my memory is this: ‘After she was gone, I loved her.’

It doesn’t matter that Bunny Wilson was a cold, fishy, leprous person. It doesn’t matter that their relationship was a mistake and their marriage a disaster. It only matters that Wilson was telling the truth, and that the authentic voice of remorse is sounded in those words: ‘After she was gone, I loved her.'”

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From Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of.