Laura Warner began writing for us back in January and she often miraculously finds that connecting tissue between personal memoir writing and reviewing. In this piece from last spring, the borderline between that connecting tissue of memoir and reviewing is seemless.
|Johanna Adorján launches An Exclusive Love
So begins Johanna Adorján’s account of her grandparents’ lives and death in An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, translated by Athena Bell (Knopf Canada, 2011). The author was 20-years-old when her grandparents took their lives in their Copenhagen home. Her 82-year-old grandfather, a former orthopaedic surgeon, was slowly losing a battle with heart disease. His wife, a still vibrant 71-year-old, refused to carry on without him. Sixteen years after their death, Adorján began her quest to reveal how and why this fateful decision was carried out.
An Exclusive Love pragmatically, but tenderly, recounts the lives and deaths of these unassailable lovers. Adorján compiles a beautiful collection of testimonies from friends and family members, the author’s memories, and her own fabrication of that final day. “What does one do on the morning that they know is their last? I imagine that they tidy up, get things done.” The author lets us in on the life journey of two people who were somehow both immensely passionate lovers of Wagner’s operas and chain-smoked Prince of Denmark cigarettes. Yet they were also extremely practical, thrifty, orderly, and responsible until the very end.
While the primary focus is to unveil the truth behind their death, the author also strives to gain a deeper understanding of her own identity. Consequently, she allows some bitterness and selfishness to seep in. Adorján admits disappointment after reading her grandfather’s unfinished memoirs: “He deprived me of an essential part of my sense of self, bequeathed me a gap in my identity that seems like a mystery. I lack a piece of myself.” She provokes questions surrounding what our previous generations may owe us by means of history, identity and belonging . Conversely, it also raises the question of what we may owe the generations past, by means of respect of privacy for lives lived.
This depth of question, as well as her focus on her grandparents’ unique decision is what sets her work aside from a more self-indulgent genre. The writer touches on a bittersweet subject of one generation’s complex and mysteries relationship with their aging links to the past. In addition to this she also raises philosophical questions on life, death and love.
The blatant suicide theme is guaranteed to strike a nerve. The controversial topic can be seen as either a sinful act of cowardice or a courageous personal decision. Even the author, while she obviously has made peace with the decision, is sometimes appalled that a man who survived a Nazi concentration camp is taking practical advice on how to die from Derek Humphries’ Final Exit. While István may gain more empathy for his final decision – his quality of life and the pain from his illness make a solid argument for euthanasia – Vera’s decision is open for criticism.
|author Johanna Adorján
Like the author, coming of age in a predominately “me” generation, the thought that someone could not go it alone is unfathomable. Living for someone else, one can seem almost pathetic and incomplete, unlike the strong independent people we should be. While I was reading, my thoughts strayed to the last time I saw my grandmother shortly after my grandfather passed away. Holding her two-month-old great granddaughter in her arms, it was clear that nothing was bringing her peace: “I just don’t want to be here Laura. I miss Grandpa,” she told me. A few weeks later, they were together again. There is a certain stark reality here: one that Vera realized before it happened to her. She knew what the days would be like without her best friend and she chose not to suffer through them.
Johanna Adorján's memoir is not only a beautiful work of art and a respectful tribute to a great love but it's also a stimulating contribution to a generation that has much to learn from the valuable connections only a phone call away. While her last phone call was never answered, her journey leaves Adorján with a peaceful discovery: “And suddenly I also understand my grandmother’s love, which was so exclusive, so needy, so great and ultimately conditional (…) Suddenly I can also imagine why she didn’t want to live without him, why she died with him.” Finally closure, for the author and for the two people who lived an extraordinary life full of an extraordinary love, to the very end. An Exclusive Love makes you realize that we should all be so lucky.
- originally published on April 7, 2011 in Critics at Large.