Helen Humphreys on her memoir Nocturne


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First aired on The Sunday Edition (24/03/13)

Martin Humphreys was a gifted Canadian musician who was just 20 when he made his debut as a pianist at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Twenty-five years later, at 45, he was told he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and that his prognosis was dire. The illness moved swiftly and claimed him four months later.

Martin was the beloved brother of Canadian poet and novelist Helen Humphreys. They were very close, and she struggled to come to grips with his untimely death.

Writers often write to make sense of their experience. Canadian poet Anne Carson wrote Nox, an elegy for her brother, when he died unexpectedly. After C.S. Lewis's wife died, the Irish-born author kept notebooks that eventually became A Grief Observed.

Following in that tradition, Helen Humpheys has written a memoir, Nocturne, in the form of a last letter addressed to her brother. It's her ninth book. Her latest novel, The Reinvention of Love, was on the longlist for the 2013 Dublin Impac Literary Award.


In a recent interview on The Sunday Edition, Helen Humphreys talked about the process of writing the book, and her relationship with her brother. She told guest host Kevin Sylvester that writing the memoir has "changed the way I write completely." She described writing it "without any kind of premeditation. I didn't have a plan, I just wrote it when I felt like writing it, often late at night." She found it "a completely opposite experience" because usually she writes historical fiction, which involves research and planning.

Humphreys and her brother lived far apart most of their adult lives, and had frequently corresponded by letter. So the form of the book seemed natural to her. "I wanted one final, intimate act, I think," she said. "It was as close to the truth of my feelings for him that I could get."

Martin was three years younger than Helen, and they both decided to be artists when they were still children. She started playing the piano at the age of seven, and he also wanted to take lessons, but his parents thought he was too young. But they allowed him to sit in on one of Helen's lessons, and after it was over, Martin went to the piano and played the piece she had been struggling with. "At that point, he got to learn to play the piano, and I got to stop, which was a good thing," Humphreys said.

Humphreys said that for a long time after his death, she couldn't write at all. "Grief throws you out of life, it throws you into a different place entirely, and that place for me was a place without writing or even without reading," she said. At one point, just to get back into the practice of writing she started copying passages from an encyclopaedia of apples. "That was actually helpful, in a weird way." Inside the transcriptions, Humphreys would include small notes about her feelings.

When asked why she chose to call the memoir Nocturne, Humphreys said it was partly for the musical reference. "Also I'm usually a writer who writes in the day, but I wrote most of this at night."

In the book, Humphreys tells a story about the British poet John Keats that she wished she had been able to tell her brother. Keats had tuberculosis, and travelled to Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, when he knew he was dying. Severn set up a system of candles, by stringing a thread from the bottom of one candle that connected to the wick of the next candle, so that as one candle burned down, the flame would travel up the thread and light the next candle. Severn didn't want his friend to wake up in darkness and think he was dead.

Humphreys said that the death of a brother or sister is a very specific kind of loss. "A sibling is somebody who grows alongside you, it's a parallel life to your own, in a sense."

The interview concludes with Helen Humphreys giving a brief reading from Nocturne.

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