Life and the Universe With Kent Haruf and Mary Oliver

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Gushing praise from SM is rare. But Kent Haruf is one novelist she cannot stop talking about. Mary Oliver is one of her favourites too. So, after going through my long queued up NetGalley books, I finally got down to reading Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night” and Oliver’s collection of selected essays “Upstream”.

Our Souls at Night” opens quite abruptly when Addie Moore visits her neighbour Louis Waters with a somewhat peculiar proposition.

“…we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves far too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.” 

This, essentially, forms the crux of the novel. The need for companionship, untainted by the hungriness of sex or the hollowness of lust. Louis, who is initially just slightly taken aback, agrees. Louis and Addie who were acquaintances now begin to discover more things about each other. They get to know each other’s lives, why they did what they did and didn’t, their spouses, children, and some of their neighbours.

The townsfolk begin to grumble, unable to process the thought of two old people in their 70’s having a relationship. Louis’ daughter voices her disapproval and so does Addie’s son. But Addie is determined not to give in to any of their misgivings,

“I told you I don’t want to live like that anymore – for other people, what they think, what they believe. I don’t think it’s the way to live.”

Are they able to hold up to societal pressure? I will leave you to read the book and find out. But it’s less about racing towards a neatly packaged culmination and is more about how the book serves as a commentary on two people’s lives.

Haruf’s spare yet illuminating prose breathes magic into the ordinary. It’s no easy task to lay bare, through recollections and memories, a life that’s devoid of any consistent drama or pain, or glamour and wealth. There’s some tragedy, some happiness, some contentment, some fulfilment. It’s a story about you and me. We have gone through at least some, if not all, of what Addie and Louis has experienced in their lives at some point.

And all through, there is a sense of quietness. A certain gentleness. As light as the touch of a butterfly’s wing, which is at the same time a very strong and palpable presence. It makes reading the book almost a meditation on marriage, friendship, parenthood, and so many other faces that we wear during our lifetime.

Upstream by Mary Oliver

It’s the same quietness that suffuses Mary Oliver’s writing in “Upstream.” Though known more for her poetry, her prose is no less delightful. “Upstream” is a very well curated collection of anecdotes, musings, and observations. She is only about a few years older than Louis and Addie when she writes this book, and the same contemplative undercurrent laces her words all through.

Oliver traverses through some memories, going back forth, narrating incidents in her life, and about the people who made a difference. That includes poets like Wordsworth and writers like Poe. Through it all runs her unwavering love for the outdoors, nature, and animals. She talks of having “many houses to walk out from and view the stars, or to turn and go back to for warmth and company. But the real one – the actual house not of beams and nails but of existence itself – is all of earth, with no door, no address separate from oceans or stars, or from pleasure or wretchedness either…”

Oliver’s writing is no doubt exquisite. But there were some places where I felt the weight of the hours, particularly in the long dissertations on the writings of Poe and Whitman. In some places, there is a certain feral quality that I could sense; a sort of wildness, which glimmers intermittently. And she seems to be aware of it.

Of appetite – my own appetite – I recognize this: it flashes up, quicker than thought; it cannot be exiled; it can be held on leash, but only barely. Once, on an October day, as I was crossing a field, a red-tailed hawk rattled up from the ground. In the grass lay a pheasant, its breast already opened, only a little of the red, felt-like meat stripped away. It simply flew into my mind – that the pheasant, thus discovered, was to be my dinner!”

Or sample this,

“Once I put my face against the body of our cat as she lay with her kittens, and she did not seem to mind. So I pursed my lips against that full moon, and I tasted the rich river of her body.”

This is one of the most bizarre and disturbing (?) lines in the book. But it displays her capacity to not just observe but also be one with nature in all senses of the word.

While I absolutely adored all of “Our Souls at Night”, I loved parts of “Upstream.” With Haruf I felt like he was sitting across the table from me, telling me Addie and Louis’ story. With Oliver, I felt like I was being held by my hand, and led through the variegated landscape of the universe as she pointed out things. But both showed me the beauty of life. And Addie and Louis would agree with Oliver when she says,

“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

Our Souls at Night – 5/5

Upstream – 3.5/5

Images from Goodreads

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