Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

Swimming in a Sea of DeathA while ago I pulled a pile of novellas and other short books off my shelves, intending to do an intensive reading weekend. As it turned out, for reasons I forget, I only finished one book – and that book was David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death: a Son’s Memoir (2008). I’d bought it on a whim in Oxford’s £2 bookshop (now under the similar, but crucially different, name of £3 bookshop), with the assumption that I’d probably never actually get around to reading it. Yes, I should question my purchasing decision. But, in this case, I was wrong – and it was on my shelves for just under two years before making the cut.

Oh, and there is a quotation from Oliver Sacks on the front. I think I’d forgotten that, but it must have made me more likely to buy it in the first place; nobody writes about difficult subjects more sensitively than Sacks.

In case (like me) you didn’t know, David Rieff is Susan Sontag’s son. And I’m going to assume you know who Susan Sontag is, but, if you don’t, her Wikipedia page will fill you in. And it’s best to know about her beforehand, because we learn surprisingly little about Sontag from Rieff’s memoir. Because it isn’t really a memoir of her life. I’ve read a couple of books about grief – C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, which I wrote about together – both of which were as much about life (and/or theology) as they were about death. Rieff’s book really is swimming in a sea of death – the gruelling and cruel process of Sontag dying from leukemia, and his own anger, helplessness, and frustration. Which made it both a difficult book to read, and a very focused one.

Rieff’s anger is not just at the cruelties of fate but at the insensitivity of certain doctors and unhelpfulness of the information provided. His narrative moves between documenting the failing health of his mother, the ineptitude of certain parts of the medical system, and a broader philosophy of dying. Or perhaps not a philosophy of dying so much as an attempt to make an abstract sense of what was happening. Not a conclusive sense, understandably, but a way of formulating his thoughts and response.

How to reconcile the reality of human mortality with the reigning assumption in the rich world that every disease must have a cure, if not now then sometime in the future? The logic of the former is the acceptance of death. But the logic of the latter is that death is somehow a mistake, and that someday that mistake will be rectified.


How, above all if you struggled to find the right doctors, and braved the most gruesome treatments, can you really say to yourself that none of this really had much to do with why you were still walking on the earth rather than dissolving under it? It is hard enough for any cancer patient to really resist the idea that some failure on his or her own part brought the illness on. After all, Reichian explanations of psychological repression causing cancer have in our time tended to give way to explanation based on one’s having eaten the wrong foods, the basis of such self-blame, and the assumption that the cancer patient is in a deep sense the author of his or her own disease is still very much in the air.

You can understand why I feel ill-equipped to write very much about this book – both because I have experienced nothing similar myself, and because – well – how can one write about it? (Yet somehow I managed with Simon Stephenson’s excellent Let Not The Waves of the Sea.)

What do we learn about Sontag? There was this tantalising tid-bit that I wish had been developed further…

She told me more than once that she believed that hope and will had been all she had to see herself through her alienated childhood, get herself out of the Southwest and on to the University of Chicago, where, at seventeen, she agreed to marry my father after knowing him for a little more than a week. Seven years later, that same sense of being able to remake her life no matter the obstacles – and not just remake it but also to make version two, or three, or four better than their predecessors – had given her the strength to extricate herself from the marriage.

Rieff iterates the description that she is ‘someone who loved reason (and, more crucially, loathed appeals to the subjective)’ – or words to that effect – throughout. I find people who loathe the subjective completely inexplicable – life is subjective! – and no characteristic ignores me more than those who use ‘logic’ as a cover for not considering emotion. All of which meant that I had the interesting experience of reading about the terrible circumstances surrounding a woman whose outlook on life was poles apart from mine; I couldn’t rely on natural empathy, which made the book all the more fascinating and moving to read, somehow. (Incidentally, Rieff mentions towards the end ‘I have preferred to write as little as possible of my relations with my mother in the last decade of her life, but suffice it to say that they were often strained and at times very difficult.‘)

So I didn’t come away from Swimming in a Sea of Death feeling the way I did to C.S. Lewis’s wife, Simon Stephenson’s brother, or Calvin Trillin’s wife; it’s not that sort of book. Rather, it shows precisely how witnessing dying and death are transformative experiences for a relative even when there isn’t a great relationship, and (obviously to a lesser degree) for an observing reader, even when the reader does not instinctively warm to the person in question.

8 thoughts on “Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

  • May 5, 2015 at 6:54 am

    It does sound like a very poignant memoir, some subjects are difficult to tackle but it sounds like this hits the right note.

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:05 pm

      Definitely not a sit-on-the-beach-and-relax book, but definitely poignant. It could hardly help being, could it?

  • May 5, 2015 at 8:49 am

    I’m mainly concerned with the fact that the £2 bookshop is now the £3 bookshop… the horror!

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:05 pm

      I know! And then, gallingly enough, they put a “Sale: 2 books for £5” poster in the window just after the change.

  • May 5, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Sounds like a remarkably powerful book, Simon. I do feel that in the modern world we are not really taught how to deal with dying – there is such a focus on extended lifespan and modern medicines that we don’t see it as part of the natural process of our existence. And when you factor in an often insensitive medical system, the whole thing becomes even harder, particularly when you have something for which there is no cure and you just have to go through the excruciating experience of approaching a painful death. I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to read a book like this, and also it would have been nice to hear more about Sontag personally.

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:06 pm

      You’re so right, Karen. Expectations and decisions have changed so much – and that philosophy of life/death was definitely something Rieff wrote about movingly.

  • May 6, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Sounds like a tough read. I find that reading about the grief of someone who has no hope beyond this life affects me far more deeply that the grief of someone like Lewis, who is anticipating a reunion with their loved one.

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:33 pm

      I absolutely agree with that, Susan.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: