Love’s Work by Gillian Rose (NYRB, £7.99)

 

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This book was re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2011, with an introduction by Michael Wood, and a dedicated poem for the late Gillian Rose by Geoffrey Hill, who is himself now dead. By the time this, the current edition, appeared Gillian Rose was sixteen years deceased, her book first appearing in the year of her death and written in the foreknowledge of her imminent demise.

 Picking the original edition up from the shelves at home, bought in 1995, never read then forgotten, I found it moving to read as if reading in the present tense having also forgotten the detail of her life (and death) so the chapters about her fatal illness came almost as a surprise to me.
 It’s not an easy book to read – I don’t just mean those details, laid out with candour, but Rose was a philosopher and she had a habit of including technical, exclusive language and the odd phrase of mostly untranslated Latin. But it is worth carrying on.
Her book is autobiographical, but not a full autobiography. Chapters include memoirs of her friends and lovers, the very elderly Edna; her priest-lover; her bisexual lover Jim who died in the New York AIDS epidemic; the promiscuous mother-of-five Yvette, who also died of cancer. So many of her friends died. Her family life was broken too, though her teenage self found more familial love with her step-father than her estranged natural father. But it is the chapter on her illness, her realisation she would not survive a year with the details played out, the spread of the cancer, the disagreements between the consultants, the way her colostomy bag deals with body products. Did her death feel more tragic as she was fit and healthy as the cancer was growing inside her, cycling and swimming, feeling alive?
Rose was a Jewish intellectual and at one stage was called upon, with others, to advise the Polish government on what to do with Auschwitz. Save for the branch of her family that came to England some fifty of her relatives had perished in the Holocaust, yet the person who made her weep was a survivor of the Polish nobility resident only in a fraction of his old house who had scraped a living working as a translator under the Communist regime.
The book is searingly honest.
Ross Bradshaw

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