“Hold this moment for ever, I tell myself. It may never come again.” This last sentence of Autumn Light recalls a poem by Shakespeare’s friend and collaborator John Fletcher, who observed, so many years before
Weep no more, nor sigh, nor groan,
Sorrow calls no time that’s gone.
In this beautiful, gentle and moving memoir, Pico Iyer is faced with a number of incidents which illustrate these lines; the “autumn” in the title is the one following his father-in-law’s death, and the people with whom he associates in his table-tennis club are mostly in the “autumn” years of their lives. His mother-in-law is in the beginning stages of dementia and must go to a nursing home, while his Japanese wife is revealed to have been writing unanswered letters to her alienated brother for years, hoping against hope that one day she will get a reply.
Autumn, that universal symbol of change, gently suggests to us that winter is on the way as the leaves turn red, and somehow, equally gently and gradually, reminds us that nothing is permanent. “Tsuku-tsuku-boshi”, Iyer’s wife Hiroko says in her somewhat fractured English (which Iyer reproduces so accurately that it somehow doesn’t seem mawkish), “little sound of summer ending … Special sound of cricket when summer ends.”
If the seasons change this way, then everything else probably does too, so holding the moment becomes important. Each event, Iyer is telling us, must be savoured for what it is, and nothing can bring it back. On the personal level, as Iyer’s dedication notes, we should “cherish the seasons inside us,” and “seek out changelessness in change.” Or, as the 19th-century French novelist and critic Jean-Baptiste Karr famously put it, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Autumn somehow reminds us of this, too; it’s the season, Iyer says, “when everything falls away,” but at the same time it will be preparing to come back.
Iyer is primarily known as a superb travel-writer, but Autumn Light is not a travel-book as such, although it may be read as a mental or psychological journey in which he comes to learn about impermanence, something we paradoxically need to experience before we can somehow retain what is no longer there. How do we do that with people and things we love, when we know that they, and we ourselves, will at some point go out of being? How do you, Iyer asks, again at the end of the book “learn to live with what you can never control?” The book itself answers that question, and its Japanese setting contextualizes it.
Iyer himself circulates between several worlds, Japan, England and the United States; he married a Japanese woman and now lives in Nara, a spectacularly beautiful historical city which once, a thousand and more years ago, was the imperial capital of Japan. In Japanese culture, as he finds, there are many ceremonies and festivals about death, some of which he encounters as he and his wife deal with the father-in-law’s death. Perhaps the best-known one of these is Obon, the celebration of one’s ancestral spirits which takes place in the middle of August (just at the cusp of autumn), and often involves a family reunion as well. As Iyer observes accurately, “the whole country stops while people scatter to their ancestral places to welcome back the ghosts.”
In Autumn Light the theme of death is all-encompassing, but not in a morbid or depressing way. Obon celebrates the living family as much as the departed ancestors, and in his book Iyer reverses the lines from the Book of Common Prayer, “In the midst of life we are in death”: death may be ever-present, but it’s a part of life, not an ending or oblivion, even if it looks that way. “Things are as they are,” Iyer writes, “and every year people go out and watch the autumn, because it’s always the same and always not.” There may be too much Zen in this book for some readers!
Iyer presents autumn to us as an inward-looking season.
All these quotes and ceremonies somehow remind us, of course, that nothing can be taken for granted, and Autumn Light focuses on this largely from the Japanese point of view. It’s Hiroko who suffers the direct loss of her father, her mother’s dementia and her brother’s voluntary alienation, and Iyer, a westerner and an outside, must not only try and understand how Hiroko deals with loss but must interpret the Japanese view for western readers as well as come to terms with it himself.
The remarkable understanding which he develops by the time the book ends is a tribute to Iyer’s intelligence and sensitivity. Here he is, in a country not his own, having to deal not only with day-to-day living there and speaking a foreign language, but also with the way the Japanese think and feel, and in particular Hiroko, who may be seen on one level as representing Japanese sensibility, as well as being an actual person married to the narrator. As the book (and autumn) progress, Iyer becomes more and more attuned to another way of looking at life and death, and it may perhaps be said that he learns as much from Hiroko as he does from his encounter with the Dalai Lama, whom Iyer knows well and about whom he has written in his 2008 book The Open Road.
Iyer skillfully invokes the sights and sounds of Japan as well as sympathetically conveying the inner cultural landscapes of the people he introduces in the book. When his 14-year old daughter Sachi is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, from which she eventually recovered, he noted, “Sachi cried for a few minutes, and then she picked up her culture’s sense that an argument with reality is one you’ll never win, and never cried again.” Then there is the absent-minded father in a film called Late Spring who feels guilty that his daughter is looking after him, and
in classic Japanese fashion … gradually resolves to pretend that he’s going to get married so that his daughter will feel free, even impelled, to pursue her own course.
Iyer is sensitive to the language too, as with his observation that “The Japanese love the word nagaame, for the long rains of winter, the sound itself conveying extended hours by the window waiting for the skies to clear.”
Iyer presents autumn to us as an inward-looking season, and not just if you’re Japanese; in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall” for example, the child Margaret is “grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving”, with the child herself representing spring, but realising that autumn will come when she sees the leaves falling. In the end, as Hopkins says, “It is Margaret you grieve for” as much as the autumnal trees. At one point Iyer writes that autumn is “learning how to watch everyone you care for die”, a similar sentiment. As Margaret loved the trees and is subconsciously reminded of her own mortality, so the Japanese (and many other Asians too, perhaps) are reminded of theirs in autumn, but they embrace the impermanence, as does Iyer’s daughter with her diagnosis, and, eventually, Iyer himself. It’s what makes life meaningful, this collection of impermanences with which it is made up.
There is little “action” recorded in this book; it’s a meditation, almost a kind of very long haiku, but it is perhaps as sensitive and observant as any westerner’s attempt to understand what makes Japanese culture work could be. “Your book, nothing happening?” Hiroko asks towards the end of the book, and Iyer replies, slipping again into Zen-like mode,