Weekend Reading

You could say that the book club became our life, but it would be more accurate to say that our life became a book club.
Will Schwalbe

Over the weekend I began reading Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. Schwalbe and his mother, who had advanced pancreatic cancer, that is almost always fatal, discuss the books they are reading. They exchange books, sometimes read together and share their hopes and concerns by means of literature. In a way they have created a book group for two, a group that I’ve been hoping to join for years.

Early on in the book Schwalbe recalls a poem by Auden called “Musee des Beaux Arts.”

Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Schwalbe says Auden wrote the poem in December 1938, just after Kristallnacht. Brueghel’s painting depicts Icarus falling into the sea while everyone else carries on with their daily affairs without the slightest concern for the drowning Icarus.

Kristallnacht was a series of attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and portions of Austria on the night of November 9, 1938. It is estimated 91 Jews were killed, thousands were arrested and Jewish homes, stores, buildings, synagogues and schools were attacked. Some were completely destroyed, others were partially burned, and windows were shattered in all of them. German authorities, police officers, and citizens in the communities where the attacks took place did nothing to stop the destruction or come to the aid of the Jewish citizens.

Some years later (1960) William Carlos Williams also wrote a poem in response to Brueghel’s “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus.” Quite different in structure and with greater concision, it also recognizes the world’s indifference to the tragedy of Icarus.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry
of the year was
awake tingling
with itself
sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax
off the coast
there was
a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning