September 2009


The death of the good father

By Drusilla Modjeska
The death of the good father

A photograph of US president Barack Obama's father, Barack Sr, hanging on the wall of his grandmother's house in Kenya, 2008. © AP.

Towards the end of Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama’s Kenyan half-sister, Auma, tells him that she sometimes has “this dream that I will build a beautiful house on our grandfather’s land. A big house where we can all stay and bring our families, you see. We could plant fruit trees like our grandfather, and our children would really know the land … and learn our ways from the old people. It would belong to them.” And then she sighs, and says she’ll never build it. It doesn’t matter that the young Barack says, “We can do all that,” she knows it can’t be built. This dream isn’t about a house – if it were, it’d be easy; it’s about the father who not only provides that house, but is the house. It’s the dream of the good father, that figure, both real and symbolic, who stands for the embodiment of memory and connection, the steady centre from which we step into the future. As it is, Auma’s the one to send money when someone needs it, and to fix things when they break. “Why do we have to take care of everyone?” she asks. “Everything is upside down, crazy.”

We don’t need to be in Kenya, or abandoned as a child, to recognise the dream of the good father, or to ask where it’s gone, or to know the cost of living in the upside-down world where, too often, there is no father.

In Granta’s anthology called Fathers, published at the end of last year there’s a tough little story from New Zealand’s Kirsty Gunn. It’s called ‘The Father’. Actually, it’s about a grandfather who turns up when the children are on holiday. Fathers aren’t something these children know about; their mothers, who are sisters, “don’t do men”. But the children know the dream of the father, and when he says he’ll take them down to the beach, they believe him, and the little one cries the next morning when he doesn’t. The mothers remind them that the eldest child knows the way and sadly they troop off down the hill. Such is the sense of desolation that I was expecting disaster, a drowning at least. But no, nothing happens. It’s a summer day like any other without a father. The mothers whisper. There’s something about money, they say the father will go soon. But still the children believe him when he swings the youngest one into the air and says, yes, they’ll all go to the beach and have an adventure. “What will we do tomorrow, eh? Tell me. What would you little ones like to do?” Tomorrow comes and again the father is asking questions of the mothers, “a glass in his hand, a bottle on the little table beside him”.

I did have a good father. He did have a house where we could all go. It was in Oxfordshire, on the river. It wasn’t our grandfather’s land – our grandfather had no land – but it was across the river from the pub where my grandparents had spent their honeymoon and my father was conceived. Stand by my father’s grave, on the hill in the curve of the river, and you can see the pub on the other side of the bridge.

When my father died in 1995, after what is called a long battle with cancer, and was as much a battle with his second wife, I lived for several years with a title in my head: ‘The Death of a Good Father’. I never wrote the book to go with it, not because it was too hard – on the contrary, I could have spat it out in a trice – but for all the usual reasons of family divisions and splits. As the years have passed and the memory of that time has faded, leaving in its place a strong sense of his bewilderment rather than ours, I lost the urge to add another personal story to the many being written as a generation of fathers die. And as I read, beginning with Philip Roth’s Patrimony (1991), followed by Sharon Olds’ incomparable poem sequence on the death of her father, the thought expressed in the title changed from ‘The Death of a Good Father’ to ‘The Death of the Good Father’. Something more particular than old men dying seems to be at issue:

I think of you daily

but it isn’t even you, a dead

man of ground bone, it wasn’t

you even alive. You are not

the earth, or the seas, or the heavens, you are not

the air around us …

What have I worshipped?

I ask you this so seriously,

You who almost never spoke.

“Why is it so hard to talk to fathers?” Siri Hustvedt asks in her Granta essay.

In part, she says, it’s that the father remains for all of us the large figure that towered over us as children. She quotes Montaigne’s view that there cannot be friendship between father and child, for the authority of the father is the authority of culture, as well as family. The gap is – and in Montaigne’s mind should be – too large. But of course in our world, where we want authority to shed its authoritarian nature, those of us who have good fathers – fathers who did provide – also wanted them to talk, to validate us as we stream into the crazy world, and understand us when we lurch and falter.

Siri Hustvedt’s father sounds rather like mine. Her father was Norwegian, not English, an engineer, not a lawyer. He was “gentle, not severe, kind, deeply interested in whatever we did, and proud of our accomplishments”. He worked hard for the daughters who ran to the door at the end of the day calling, “Daddy’s home”. Though he rarely raised his voice, he had an “unchallenged, unspoken authority”; even a “hint of anger or irritation was enough to mortify” his daughter. And as happened with my father – who had us girls educated for the intellectual and political order he saw coming, though not its emotional fall-out – when “the Hustvedt girls” approached puberty, a certain distance opened, and “he found it hard to speak directly … about anything personal”. He was reliable and constant, but he was emotionally reticent, as fathers of that post-war era so often were – a condition their children grew up to register as distance, or inadequacy, or even an affront.

Blake Morrison, who was born in 1950, had a talkative father, a doctor who provided the house all right, but used his gift of the gab to rattle everything inside it; he was unfaithful to his wife, competitive with his son, blustering, intrusive, always in voluble control, yet afraid to invite anyone to dinner. Morrison’s memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993) came early in the run of ‘filial homage’ books ‘performed’ by his writer-contemporaries upon the deaths of their fathers: Martin Amis, Graham Swift, Craig Raine, the list goes on. “Perhaps,” he says, it’s a “midlife need for reparation”. Certainly, for Morrison, there’s a redemptive impulse to this frank, unblinking account of a less-than-good father. In making sense of the turmoil left behind, nothing is spared of the failings of paternal character and position – and in particular nothing of the father’s failure to make sense of his own story, or to understand the emotional legacy he leaves for his son. Such frankness is nothing new; on the contrary, it has become the hallmark of a genre that began with Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. That uncloaking of paternal rectitude caused a sensation when it was published in 1907, at that turning point – Virginia Woolf put it at 1910 – between the Victorian age and modern life. Even Henry James, who admired the “rare audacity” of the memoir, which, by contemporary standards, seems hardly audacious at all, feared that in places his friend had gone too far. “Not too far, I mean, for truth, but too far for filiality.” A lot has changed in a hundred years; nothing now seems too far for filiality – but the one thing that doesn’t seem to change is that the empty space vacated by the father continues to be mourned.

“Not everybody I know has had difficult or disastrous fathers,” Ruchir Joshi writes in Granta, “but far too many of them did or do.” And not every memoir in the collection is about difficult or disastrous fathers, but many are. Consider David Goldblatt’s father, for instance, who was a good enough father in the sense of giving his son a safe hand to hold as a child. But he was a disaster as a citizen. He never did his paperwork, never paid his taxes, and ran a spanking club that turned a sufficient profit for bundles of cash to be lying around his flat. When the carpet layers see this cash and return for it later, he ends up murdered. This, in itself, didn’t make him a bad father, but it was a bad inheritance. And inheritance – what we take into the future – is a large part of what fathers are about, at least in retrospect.

In company like this, Ruchir Joshi’s essay stands out as more than a tribute to a good father. Born in India towards the end of the 1960s, he was a late, unexpected son to Gujarati writer Shivkumar Joshi. The children of an earlier arranged marriage might have something different to say, but Ruchir was the child through whom Shivkumar could make good. And part of what made him a good father to this son was his capacity to reflect on his own past – not only to pass on memory, but to make sense of it and make use of it, both for himself and his son. There was something feminine about Shivkumar, a short man who was never at ease in a suit. Not unmanly – on the contrary, Joshi’s essay begins with a story of exceptional bravery – but experienced in the realm of meaning and emotion. Joshi writes:

He knew the external world would soon change beyond all recognition and that he would probably not live to see many of the changes. It was with the internal world he realised he could most help me, by giving me the deepest, most genuine sanskaars I would need to handle what was coming.”

By sanskaars he means precepts for living, and trust in his own moral foundations.

Despite the elegiac edge to this essay, Joshi is not telling us that such fathers belong only to a world that is passing or to another culture. Carrying his sanskaars with him to London, he brings a welcome breath of hope that the good father can, and does, belong also to the future. The metaphor for the modern father, he seems to be suggesting, is less about bricks and mortar (though heaven knows there are enough fathers who can’t even provide that) than about the inheritance of a language and a story that already makes sense, a guiding voice for the future. Sanskaars. We don’t even have a word for it.

When Barack Obama asks his grandmother if she has anything left from his father or his grandfather, she gives him a “rust colored book the size of a passport, along with a few papers of different colors, stapled together and chewed at an angle along one side”. The “rust colored book” was his grandfather’s ‘Domestic Servant’s Pocket Register’. The stack of letters were from his father, “addressed to various universities in the States”. “Dear President Calhoun,” one began, “I have heard of your college from Mrs. Helen Roberts of Palo Alto, California, who is now in Nairobi here … ”It asked for application forms and information regarding scholarships. “This was it,” Obama thought to himself. “My inheritance.” He was at the rural compound where his grandmother still lived, on the plot of land where both his grandfather and father are buried under the same “pile of rocks”. Obama weeps there, alone in the dark. Having pieced together their stories, he contemplates the fear passed from generation to generation as each sets out into a world unknown to the last. He imagines his way into the confusion of both men as his father leaves the place that gave him life but must have seemed obsolete when the scholarship offer arrived from America.

Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father’s before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was no shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. If it weren’t for that silence, your grandfather might have told your father that he could never escape himself, or re-create himself alone. Your father might have taught those same lessons to you. And you, the son, might have taught your father that this new world that was beckoning all of you involved more than just railroads and indoor toilets …  

And the paragraph segues into the ruminations of the man who will become president, the political being who knows how to weave complex cloth from the threads of the personal.

Philip Roth recognises his patrimony when he gets down on his knees to clean up his father’s shit. Hard as it might have been to imagine in advance, Herman Roth, the father we’d come to know in book after book – the eternal nag whom the son has to escape, writing him out even as he drinks him in – proves mortal after all. In Patrimony: A true story, we meet him vulnerable and ill, labouring to his death. As he does, Roth the son becomes father to the dying man. In a scene as brilliant as any Roth has written, he finds his father on the verge of tears in the bathroom. “‘I beshat myself,’” he says. The son attends to him with the solicitude of a mother and then gets down on the floor and scrubs the shit from the cracks between the tiles. He does this without resentment, even without disgust. He does it because it is required of him as a son to a father, as one man to another, and when he puts the bag of stinking laundry in the car, he knows it is right. “So that was the patrimony,” he writes. “And not because cleaning it up was symbolic of something else but because it wasn’t, because it was nothing more or less than the lived reality that it was.”

Shit, that inescapable sign of bodily reality, features in many of the father books, as it does in life – especially as death draws near. But, of course, the father doesn’t die just because you’ve cleaned up your father’s shit. On the night before his father’s second MRI, Roth dreams a long, complicated, Rothian dream. In it, he is a child “standing on a pier in a shadowy group of unescorted children who may or may not have been waiting to be evacuated”. They are watching for a boat. But the boat that comes is “some sort of old American warship stripped of its armaments and wholly disabled”. The waiting child – the dreamer – expects his father to be on board amongst the crew, but as the boat floats towards them, he sees that it is empty, “dead-silent … frightening and eerie: a ghostly hulk”. The “mood” of this dream, Roth writes, was “heartbreaking” in exactly the way it had been when Franklin D Roosevelt died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Roth was 12 then, when an entire nation had been “stunned and bereft” and his father had taken him to stand in the crowd beside the tracks as the train “draped in black bunting” passed through Newark.

It took a dreaming mind, Roth writes, to make a connection that his waking mind “with its resistance to plaintive metaphor and poeticized analogy” was never likely to “license”.

“God the father, land of our fathers, forefathers, founding fathers,” Siri Hustvedt writes, “all refer to an origin or source, to what generated us, to an authority. We fall into the paternal line. Patronymic as identity.”

How do any of us, she asks, find our own shape in the shadow of the father?

Hustvedt’s personal dance between determining her own course and wanting the approval of her father, between resisting and complying, was resolved during the last months of his life when she gave him the manuscript of her third novel. Usually when she spoke to her father, it was because her mother rang and put him on after. This time she picked up the phone and there he was.

Without warning, he launched into a discourse on the book, heaping praise on my literary efforts. And I began to sob. He talked, and I sobbed. He talked more, and I sobbed more. Years of tears. I would never have predicted so violent a reaction … We were changed then, my father and I. The distance between us fell away, and when we sat together in the months before his death, we talked as friends, as strong equals, as two real, not ideal people who had found each other again.

I sat with my father for many hours during the last months of his life. There were moments when we spoke as never before, but as the battles raged downstairs, he retreated behind his cataracts. If he talked of what was happening, or of death, it was not to us, but to Father John, the Catholic priest from a town along the river who shared his political interests. One afternoon while my father’s second wife was out, Father John spent several hours up in his room. The door, which was normally kept open, was closed. When Fr John came down, he spoke behind another closed door, this time to my sister and me. It’s hard, he said, for a man like your father to die, when he has lived so much in “logos”,for death calls forth the feminine – that’s how he put it – and nothing in your father’s life and training has prepared him for it.

It’s true. He was in court the day his mother died and in Sri Lanka when his father died. He hadn’t seen anyone dead since the war. When our mother died, a decade after their divorce, he did what he always did when something was wrong: he sent money and rang to ask if there was anything else we needed. After he died, we found a box of letters in one of the deep drawers of his desk. Our grandmother must have kept every letter he wrote. The earliest are in the hand of a boy sent too young to school. “I very real homesick.” But they didn’t last long, these tearful letters. Cricket is soon “spiffing, we’re doing awfully well”, and he sets his mind to getting a scholarship. By the time he’s serving in the war, he tells her there’s no reason for her to be afraid, none at all, the army knows what it’s doing. The making of an Englishman, we said, my sister and I. The making of the father he was.

The manuscript Hustvedt gave her father to read was What I Loved (2003). In it she writes in the voice of a man, a father of her own generation, or slightly older. The story he (she) has to tell is of two men – himself, an art historian, and his artist friend – and the women and children they love. By one reading of this rich interweaving of life and art, both men are destroyed by their sons. Here, Hustvedt reverses the question to ask not ‘what is the problem of the father?’ but ‘what is the problem of the son for whom no fathering is enough?’ One son is killed in an accident. The other son – the one that in a literary sense matters – destroys what’s left of relationships through increasingly manipulative, drugged, disaffected and ultimately psychotic behaviour. His own father dies of a heart attack on the day he gets a message revealing the full extent of his son’s murderousness. The narrator father (having failed to save his own son) steps in, plays as good a father as he can, and also proves impotent against the rage and madness of the son. The novel ends with this man, the teller of this multi-voiced tale, alone in a room, losing his sight to macular degeneration. That cannot be blamed on the son; nevertheless it is a powerful image of the good father rendered powerless against a rising generation of angry sons who can accept neither the authority of the father, nor the love that is bound into it.

And now, in a new generation of writers, we’re hearing the voices of these angry sons. There have always been angry sons, one might say, and many a son has written to triumph over the father, if not also his father. Patricide is nothing new, as Freud reminds us and fiction has long told us. But there is a new note being struck, it seems to me, in these twenty-first century novels. Ventriloquism? Celebration? Exposure? I don’t know. Whatever it is that this next, clever generation has to tell us about fathers and sons is another essay, and I’m not the one to write it. Steve Toltz, perhaps, could do it. The son narrator of A Fraction of The Whole (2008) says upfront at the start that he’s never worked out “whether to pity, ignore, adore, judge or murder” the father he ends up eulogising as “the offal of the universe. The fatty rind.” Or Booker-winning Aravind Adiga, whose White Tiger (2008) murders the evil, exploitative master – not a father admittedly, but an oedipal tale if ever there was one. On the evidence of recent novels, it wouldn’t be hard to mount an argument that the narcissism of the post-war generation has given birth to an alienated, narcissistic, almost visceral hatred. It’s not the reticence of the father that’s the problem for these sons; it’s his self-display.

Perhaps Mario Sabino has done it for us with his bluntly titled The Day I Killed My Father(2004). Sabino’s not that young – he was born in 1962, the decade before Toltz and Adiga – but he understands the breathtaking narcissism and shrivelled kernel of non-self that makes writing patricide nowhere near enough. The ‘Anxiety of Influence’ is the least of it; it’s vengeance that’s at issue here. The father Sabino kills off is truly awful – if any of it is to be believed, and Sabino’s clever enough to bring everything into doubt – lying to the son, competing for the mother and then the son’s wife, narcissistic and murderously grandiose. If reason is what we’re looking for, there’s reason enough to kill this man. Or is it a fable, a warning, telling us that when one generation of fathers fails the next, when narcissism breeds narcissism, murderous anger is the fallout? And if we read the father as the father, is it telling us that patricide is necessary if we’re to get out from under corrupt, self-serving authority? Again, I don’t know. But in every line of Sabino and Adiga – less so in Toltz, but it’s there – I hear the toll of longing. The good father might be a lonely or endangered figure in the contemporary literary landscape, but the dream – the shadow of the lost father – leaves a powerful trace.

Obama examines “what it is that we’ve done to make so many children’s hearts so hard”, when he returns to Chicago’s ‘decaying’ South Side, and contemplates “what collectively we might do to right their moral compass”. Dreams From My Father stands apart from the other memoirs, of course, because of Obama’s faultless ability to step always from the personal to a larger vision. He’s the one who says to us, yes, maybe there is a way we can move forward together, find a new form of authority, a moral compass to serve our crazy, upside-down lives. “This new president … doesn’t just speak for his people,” Zadie Smith said in a lecture at the New York Public Library last December. “He can speak them. It is a disorienting talent in a president, we’re so unused to it.” She was speaking in part about being born between – specifically being born to parents of different races – into that crazy world where the old voices of certainty, the uni-vocal authorities, have so palpably failed us. She was also reflecting on the multi-vocal agility of the writer, reminding us that Shakespeare’s great gift began in knowledge of a father who was torn between two singular authorities, between a secret Catholicism, and his work as a Protestant civic official. John Shakespeare could not but equivocate and conceal; it’s what you do when you’re “in a corner”, she says, and can’t be both things at once. His son, in contrast, used the ‘many voiced theatre’ to create a rich gallery of characters through which he could speak many simultaneous truths.

‘Speaking in tongues’ is a gift the new president also has. Anyone who’s read his memoir will agree with Smith that he displays an “enviable facility for dialogue”, which he puts to good use “animating” a large range of voices, through which he “unpacks” many difficult and obvious things. In a world where most of us have “complicated back-stories” and “messy histories”, it is Obama’s capacity to speak in tongues, she suggests, that has drawn such hope to him. She felt this “with force” on election night – and I felt something similar when tears sprang to my eyes as I watched Air Force One touch down at Heathrow for the G20 in March, remembering that it was from there that he took a cheap flight to Kenya in search of his father. Reading Smith’s essay alongside so much father-writing leads me to add that the dream Obama has come to ‘occupy’ must surely also include the powerful shadow of the lost and longed-for good father. It’s a dangerous place, occupying a collective dream, an unconscious longing that can be as filled with rage as it is with hope. We should be aware of it, and careful of it. For if the new writer-president, father to two girls, paternal but not paternalistic, is indeed speaking to our deepest longings, then he is also vulnerable to our ambivalence and the powerful undercurrents of a dream made from loss.

Drusilla Modjeska
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.

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