Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Love of My Life

With David Gilmour, Kevin Chong, and Anne Enright, Hosted by Steven Hayward


One hesitates to write a review of an event where three writers spoke at length on their past experience of bad reviews.  Their opinions ranged from dismissive pity (“I wish that this aspiring writer could publish a book so that someone can misread him the way that he misread me”) and acknowledgement of subjectivity (“it’s up to the reader to choose which kind of book it is; reviewers brought their own personal morality, or lack of it”) to a rather more violent response (“have I ever smacked a reviewer?  Yes, and every time I look back on it, I feel good”).  David Gilmour, describing why he doesn’t read his reviews any longer, noted that as a lot of reviewers are failed writers, they unfortunately can make “a perfectly executed stabbing.” 


So…let’s get started.


Things did not begin well for monogamy, whatever the event’s title.  Anne Enright, who won the Booker Prize for The Gathering and has most recently published The Forgotten Waltz , opened the interview by stating that successful monogamous love is extremely difficult to write about.  “Writers,” she said, “are always drawn to the catastrophic and wonderful.”  Kevin Chong, who has recently published Beauty Plus Pity , added that such a relationship is hard enough to experience, let alone write about.  David Gilmour, whose recent The Perfect Order of Things recounts the suffering in his romantic forays, opined that in his early days he was mostly interested in sexual desire, “the most interesting and dangerous thing about love.”  


As the discussion ranged into love of family, there were some genuinely moving stories.  Chong referred to the “presentiment of loss” on considering his parents’ death, and how it came to challenge his identity at its roots.  Gilmour humorously narrated his conflicting affections on learning that his son thought that the Beatles’ film Hard Day’s Night was awful, John Lennon being the worst of the lot.  Correct that: he sided entirely with his love for the band. 


At one point Hayward asked if the three writers had any love advice to give.  Gilmour feigned the guru, claiming it had taken him forty-five years to learn that while it’s not hard to get a great love, it’s very difficult not to wreck it.  Chong passed, soliciting the audience for their wisdom instead.  Enright, very loosely alluding to the biblical postures of faith and works, said that as a novelist she was more interested in faith—what people believed, where they go in their heads.  When it comes to her life, however, what mattered were the works of love. 


When asked if anyone sensed there to be an order or fated element in love, there was a movement towards what had been claimed as uninteresting at the opening of the session: the one right match.  Enright acknowledged a sense of momentousness in what we love, even through the seeming arbitrariness.  Gilmour, who acknowledged having a number of ex-wives, claimed that there is indeed such a thing as the right person.  In fact, he recently went so far as to tell his current wife of twelve years that if she were to leave him she should shoot him on her way out.  Tender words.  While there was no reference to fate, this seems a hard pattern to break.


What, though, of love looking back from the end of life?  Before the interview Gilmour had given a reading from the final chapter of The Perfect Order of Things.  In it, he narrated his realization that the memoir was really a process of preparation for his death.  “The goal of all philosophy,” he read, quoting Montaigne, “is to learn how to die properly.”  Then, with pronounced certainty—odd given his affirmation of being less sure of oneself through the wisdom of suffering—Gilmour read his declaration that there was no afterlife in the religious sense, “no God, no other plane of existence, just a slight delay in the drop into oblivion.  Thank you.”  With that bracing and conspicuously loveless conclusion, he was applauded.


Reflecting on that first reading in light of an exuberant session on the compelling force of love in human affairs, a seemingly settled acceptance of oblivion is hard to accept.  Does the experience of love not signify something greater, more lasting?  Thinking of love at its richest, I’ll conclude this review with a reflection from Gilmour’s book that wasn’t read:


How verblessly beautiful the world can be sometimes, I thought.  Almost enough to make you believe in God.