Nuala O'Faolain

I was shocked and saddened to read this morning that Irish writer, Nuala O’ Faolain is dying from cancer. She gave an interview to the Irish national radio channel, RTE 1, last Monday, and spoke candidly about her terminal diagnosis received only six weeks ago and her choice not to prolong her life with treatment. She said, ‘Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life’.
I’m a great fan of O Faolain’s writing for its honesty, humour and insight. Her memoirs 'Are You Somebody?’ and ‘Almost There’ seemed candid and thoughtful, with emotional depth without sentimentality. These, and her novel, ‘My Dream of You’, made a lasting impression on me. She has also been a long-time newspaper columnist who has written reams on Irish society; always thought-provoking and concerned with humanity.
O’ Faolain was born in 1942, the same year as my father, so she’s not an old woman. However, I was very taken aback by how frail and old she sounded in the interview, audibly choking back tears at times – hardly surprising as she has lung cancer which has spread to her brain and liver. Many writers have chosen, when faced with terminal diagnoses, to record their remaining time with diary pieces in newspaper columns, blogs and books. I was particularly impressed by John Diamond’s column in the Times - he was Nigella Lawson’s first husband - in the years between his diagnosis and death (2001); he still managed to be witty and entertaining, even in the topic of his painful battle to prolong his life, after having his tongue excised as part of the treatment. But of course, his writing in no way reflected his reality or that of his family while he was dying, but it was a way of dealing with it, of dressing it up for the public, giving us a glimpse of life as the precipice without having to experience it ourselves (yet). I guess ,for him, it made his dying feel in some way useful.
Nuala O’ Faolain has obviously decided to dispense with this window-dressing on dying and for this I am grateful somehow. There was no denying her despair as I listened to her quivering voice this morning. When asked about how she feels about passion now, something she has written about in the past as mattering a lot in life, she answered, ‘The passion can go and take a running jump at itself, that's what it can take’.
More than anything, it was the following that has had me thinking about her all day, given that she obviously is a woman who read philosophy, contemplated life, love and death, and lived life purposefully, but yet admits that nothing has prepared her for how she feels now. ‘I think there's a wonderful rule of life that means that we do not consider our own mortality. I know we seem to, and remember, 'man thou art but dust', but I don't believe we do. I believe there is an absolute difference between knowing that you are likely to die, let's say within the next year, and not knowing when you are going to die -- an absolute difference.’
I can highly recommend the three books I mentioned above, all international bestsellers, and if you are a fan already, you might visit the RTE website to hear the interview with Marian Finucane. It’s not easy-listening by any means but it’s certainly worth listening.


ireneintheworld said...

i'm glad you made this post; i've never heard of her but am intrigued to find out more. john diamond's biography (or was it hers?) was heart-breaking - i think i read it in two days. my friend's mother was dying from cancer and she was reading everything she could about the process of dying and cancer.

i'll certainly go to the website and listen to the interview. i've been thinking about death a lot recently because of something i'm writing (and my age) and i'd like to think i would make the sensible decision if and when the time comes. x

Tania Hershman/The Short Review said...

Hi Johanna,
first, thanks so much for stopping by my blog and commenting, nice to meet you. And second, thank you for drawing our attention to this terribly sad news. I haven't read any of Nuala O'Failin's books but will definitely go and search them out. It sounds like a fascinating interview, I will see if I can manage to listen to it over here.


OSLO said...

I think you'd really like her writing. Why don't we all think about death a bit more, given that it's the one inevitability we all share, or is it better that we don't? I dunno.
Tania, you should be able to listen to the interview online if you have a good broadband connection. Thanks for dropping by.

ireneintheworld said...

jo, i couldn't find the interview. there doesn't seem to be any mention of it anywhere. i need a map! x

ireneintheworld said...

also, an old writing friend of mine, julia darling kept up her blog in the last stages of her life; it's still there, and when you go to read it you can reverse it to read from the beginning easily. what a wonderful person she was and her writing was amazing. x

OSLO said...

Go to www.RTE.ie. Click on RADIO on the menu across the top. The interview is now listed as No.2 on the list of MP3 downloads/podcasts on the right hands side of the page. Click on: 'Marian Finucane RTÉ Radio 1' on this list; the interview is currently at the top of the list of her programmes under the broadcast date of April 12. Click on the link beside the little headphones; on my PC this opened up Media Player and started the interview immediately. I hope this works.
I in turn will have a look at Julia Darling's blog; I seem to remember that she edited the New Writing section in Mslexia before she died but I've yet to read any of her work but I will be sure to. Thank you.

OSLO said...

The link on my posting still works but you have to listen to a little bit of Irish news and an introduction to the Marian Finucane programme first. This is using Real Player which you will have to download if not already on your PC.

ireneintheworld said...

oh god, that was brutally sad jo. your heart just goes out to her. how do we cope with these experiences? how do you prepare yourself to face that tiny future without being a raving and bitter cynic? i hope i would be able to present something suitable.

btw...i've put the link to julia's blog (already reversed) on mine. the website is great; there's quite a lot of her work on it too. x

Victoria said...

Thanks for the recommendations - I will check them out. So sad isn't it? There was recently an artist that took photographs of people that were terminally ill. The photographs were one before they died and one after. It was so touching. Your post reminded me of that and just how precious life is.

OSLO said...

I know the photographic series you're talking about. I looked at it on Guardian Online and completely agree that the pictures were really touching.

Gerry Kennedy said...

Upon deep reflection after listening to Ms. O'Faolain's interview on the subject of her "imminent" death from disease, I ask two questions:

1. Does she see how narcissistic, materialistic and selfish she sounds in the face of death to care more about her $1000.00 curtains than perhaps making amends to people she has wronged in her life through her own actions and words?

2. What will happen if, after all her sturm and drang, she does not succumb to her illness?

Ms. O'Faolain is a sorry character indeed and should be pitied, not exalted.

OSLO said...

Although I don't know Nuala O'Faolain personally, I like what I do know of her through her writing, and feel obliged to defend her against your accusation of narcissim, materialsm and selfishiness. I don't think she is upset over the expensive curtains per se. I took her to mean that she is struggling with the reality of dying - the permanence of it, the fact that she will NEVER, ever be in her room again and that it and its curtains will continue to exist without her. Surely anyone who has really considered their own death has found this salient fact the most difficult to accept. Or was it just the price tag that bothered you? If she had said that she found the notion of leaving her much loved, but much stained fireside rug behind would you have been so harsh in your criticism? She is grabbling with the idea of her own impermanence surely and could care less about the actual bloody curtains. As for making amends to people she has wronged, perhaps she is doing that; who knows?
As for her not succombing to the illness - well as she has cancer in various parts of her body for which she is not receiving treatment, how likely does this seem?
Anyway, it's ridiculous that I'm defending a stranger but I can't help it - your accusations seem hard-hearted, beligerent and wholly lacking in any kind of empathy. What did Nuala O'Faolain ever do to you?
Thanks for dropping by :-)

laurie said...

hello--i found you through google, after reading on a different blog about nuala's cancer. i hadn't known until this morning.

i love her writing, i love her honesty and candor and the way she writes so naturally and openly about such difficult topics, and i am shattered that she is dying.

i have read all of her books--just finished the chicago may book about three weeks ago, as a matter of fact.

i also read John Diamond's book a few years ago--in the U.S., anyway, it was called "Because Cowards get cancer, too," and it was very honest and real.

my sister was dying of breast cancer at the time, and his book was quite helpful to me. his theme was exactly right; not everyone who develops cancer suffers nobly and stoically and never complains.

my sister didn't--she raged, she was scared, she hid her feelings from her children, she cried.

anyway, thanks for your strong post today. and i'm glad i found you. i'll be back.

OSLO said...

Thank you so much for dropping by and leaving a comment. I'm sorry to hear about your sister but glad that John Diamond's book helped you to cope at the time. I have read it too although it was several yers ago.
I must warn you that if you come back for a visit, you'll probably only find my usual attempts at witty trivia:-)