Last updated: May 19, 2012 12:26 am

Triumphant moments of loss

‘This book which you have been slaving away at for so long is also what has been keeping you going’

What happens when you finish a book, or a symphony, or the last painting in an exhibition, or any major project you have been working on for two or three years? Do you feel relieved, triumphant, blessed with great expanses of free time? Or is the blessing a mixed one, tinged with other feelings – of loss, regret, even sadness?

Perhaps the most famous description of finishing a book comes in Memoirs of My Life, the autobiography of Edward Gibbon, author of the six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “It was on the day, or rather the night, of the 27th June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page in a summer-house in my garden,” Gibbon tells us, before describing his feelings: “I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatsoever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.”

The passage is made memorable by the extraordinary precision of time and place. We are given some details; imagination supplies others. A warm summer night on the shores of Lake Geneva; the scents of night-opening flowers; moths drawn to the lamps illuminating the last page of the great historian’s manuscript, spread open on his desk in the summer-house. A flourish of the pen; a stretching of limbs hunched for too long; several turns in “a covered walk of Acacias”, with a full moon shining in the sky and reflected up from the still waters of the vast lake.

Because the exact time and place of completion are recorded so accurately, the reader is led to believe that the sorry reversal of Gibbon’s emotions, from joy and pride to bereavement and melancholy, must have happened pretty quickly. “Soon” seems to mean not in the course of days, or even hours; the passage is like a single movement in music, taking place in minutes.

Gibbon’s language becomes rather awkward and stilted when he is describing his sense of joy – “I will not dissemble”, but then why should he? – and much surer when he hits on the strongest feeling that emerges from the passage, bereavement. And that makes perfect sense, at least to me, as I take at least temporary leave of my little book on the Roman poet Horace.

The “recovery of my freedom” sounds wonderful but also abstract: freedom to do what? The “old and agreeable companion”, on the other hand, has all the concreteness, and the tried and tested virtues, of familiarity. This book, or project, which you have been slaving away at for so long, which you are so relieved at finishing, is actually what has been keeping you going, giving shape and purpose to your days.

The triumphant moment of completion is also a little death, which is why the weightiest word in Gibbon’s passage is that quasi-biblical “everlasting”.

“Sober melancholy” is not the worst feeling you can experience on finishing a book. Virginia Woolf notoriously suffered from acute depression and even breakdown after finishing novels. According to the psychiatrist Peter Dally, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, when she started work on a novel she tended to be excited, but relaxed and stable, only succumbing to depression in the last stages of revision. She underwent a long breakdown after writing her first novel, The Voyage Out, the product, according to her biographer Quentin Bell, of “seven years’ gestation”, which makes one think of post-natal depression. Crushing depression returned in the spring of 1936 as she finished The Years, a book about which she felt more than usually diffident; Bell reports that “on 18th March she believed that The Years might be very good, on the 19th it seemed hopelessly bad”. She committed suicide in 1941 when bogged down in the final stages of her last novel Between the Acts.

Woolf’s experience brings up a factor in the difficulty of finishing books which seems unknown to Gibbon: the terrible fears that what one has given years of life to may not in the end be any good; and that the tribe of critics are honing the hatchets with which they will cut it to pieces.

I have felt mildly melancholic and slightly lost since finishing Horace (though part of me thinks finishing is a euphemism; as Paul Valéry said, a poem is never finished, only abandoned). I can identify more with the fearful, maternal feelings of Woolf than the pride of Gibbon. But it occurs to me that the finishing of a book brings a kind of emptiness, which could be both feared and desired.

Emptiness can be a Buddhist stillness, or a return to chaos; in either case, just part of the cycle of creativity.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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