There is no sound on earth like that of a quiet man, a dignified man, exploding in primal grief. Nothing compares to it—not fingernails scraping on a blackboard, not the whir of a dental drill through enamel. Nothing. It is the howl of absolute horror, a keening black hole of noise that sucks in everything else. It pulls you into the abyss—extraordinary, out of character, it brooks no dissent. This, the sound announces, is about forever.
I heard this noise as I cradled the phone to my left ear in March 2010. I was at home in Sacramento, California, perched desolate on a sofa in the TV room, my wife and children in another room. Six thousand miles away, my father was sitting next to his father’s body at my grandfather’s north London home at 5 Hillway, in Highgate. A few minutes earlier, Chimen Abramsky had finally died. Of what? Old age? He was 93 years old. Complications from Parkinson’s disease? He had been deteriorating for years, a frail, deaf old man, a widower increasingly locked, stony-faced, into a broken, frozen body. Or the aftermath of a horrifying series of late-life illnesses and infections, each of which in and of itself ought to have killed him? In the end, the cause didn’t really matter. What mattered was that the last of my grandparents had died. The man who had surrounded himself with tens of thousands of wondrously rare books, bought over the better part of a century, had disappeared—everything that made him him replaced with the waxen, impersonal stillness of death.
As I started to weep, part of me floated up above the scene and, looking down, wondered why I was so shocked. After all, I had had plenty of time to practice my grief: Chimen’s decline had been slow, his final months painful and humiliating, every phone call to my parents or siblings begun with an update on his tenuous hold on life. He had become, during those last few years, a coda to his own story.
* * *
In the 17th century, René Descartes had famously concluded, “I think, therefore I am.” For much of Chimen’s life, as he methodically constructed his House of Books, the reverse held true: He was, and therefore he thought—had he not thought, read, analyzed the world around him, and the history whence that world grew, he would have been a lost soul. He was, after all, never very good at twiddling his thumbs. But in his 90s, sick, deaf, and unable to leave his house to go on walks, he became a prisoner; his mind was locked in his failing body, and that body was cloistered away in his House of Books. Bit by bit, the world closed in on him. The house that had once served as one of left-wing London’s great salons, and which still contained one of England’s most important private libraries, now became utterly claustrophobic. The home that had sparkled with intellectual life when I visited it as a child became a little frightening, decrepit, a place I took my own children to out of obligation rather than joy. Animated conversation was replaced by the long silences of deaf old age; the bustle of a crowded kitchen and a gaggle of diners and overnight guests gave away to the stillness of Parkinson’s.