Following the publication of her book, The Lost Properties of Love (2019), Sophie Ratcliffe set up an Instagram page (@thelibraryofloss) to collect books on the subject of grief and loss. The squares contain the covers of books by authors ranging from Julian Barnes to P.G. Wodehouse, whose letters (in her alter ego as Oxford don) Ratcliffe edited in 2013. The Lost Properties of Love in a similar way to her online library offers an imagistic recollection of Ratcliffe’s experience with loss in self-contained episodes. In fact, its subtitle reads ‘an exhibition of myself’.
The Lost Properties of Love is a sentimental and nostalgic memoir. From its opening, recollecting Ratcliffe’s fear of losing her father, her quaint remembrances of reading on trains put her father’s illness into a jarring frame of optimistic youth. Later, she tells of her admiration for Anna Karenina, which stems from Tolstoy’s obsession with detail: ‘the precise colour of a mushroom, the type of leather on a sofa, and the way it feels to scythe a field of grass.’ The book’s brilliance is rooted in the belief that life is a series of moments rather than a big ball of indeterminate stuff. She connects with the slightest thought in her busy modern life and creates something solid out of it: ‘affairs create a negative imprint, a second life. If a camera is a clock for seeing, as Barthes has it, then an affair is a clock for living.’ She is a theorist at heart.
Ratcliffe’s style is knowing and intimately connected with emotion. Her descriptions of the eponymous properties show us how closely she associates her material life with her emotions: ‘I kept losing the notebook, as if it were all down to a lucky dip.’ Her similes and suppositions are sometimes markedly performative. The book treads a fine line between a deeply personal and so anecdotal memoir, and an academic exploration of how we associate emotions with experiences. It reminded me of Max Porter’s wonderful book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015), not only because for both authors grief is very much something to be lived and something painfully immediate, but because both authors’ careers lie elsewhere: Porter’s in publishing and Ratcliffe’s in academia. It is perhaps inevitable that the person who guarded Wodehouse’s letters is vibrantly aware of her own technique.
At times Ratcliffe’s self awareness can be frustrating; but as the book draws to its close, it is hard not to forgive her. Her subject is not so much grief as a concept, but her attempts to process a very specific grief: her own. The non-linear timescale of the book is uncomfortable and emblematic of the whole premise of the book. It is about the incoherent madness of living in a grief-stricken world which makes one value every tangible moment. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote in mode akin to Ratcliffe’s: ‘It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.’