Memory and the Music of Time: “Evenings at Five” by Gail Godwin


If love and work, as Freud proposed, are the key components of human happiness, the novelist-composer couple in Gail Godwin’s Evenings at Five have been supremely blessed. For close to three decades, Rudy and Christina have been living and working together in superb synchronicity and creative resonance. When their passionate companionship ends, as it does when Rudy dies, Christina’s grief is overwhelming.

Evenings at Five  is Christina’s elegy. Memory, loss, and regret are central motifs, and temporal perspectives are crucial. As the recurring references to Rudy’s music suggest, time is measured on precise levels of minutes, days, and lifetimes.

Already the title points to an exact, charged and meaningful time of the day: Rudy’s and Christina’s religiously observed cocktail hour, to which the Pope, in their lighthearted joke, calls them in daily reminders.

Beginning like a rousing wake-up call—“Five o’clock sharp”— the first chapter is filled with references to time and place. There is Rudy’s childhood in “Vienna before the Nazis came,” and there is the motto Rudy’s father has inculcated in his son:  “Ponctualité est la politesse des rois”—punctuality is the courtesy of kings.

Just as presence gives precision to our actions and helps us transcend automatic and routine ways of perceiving life, temporality becomes apparent in the shape of fate as it emerges in the form of life curves. Every life will have its own curves of ups and downs shaped by our individual choices and by life itself.

The life curve of Christina and Rudy as a couple has gone from their early career days of meager material resources to their increasingly successful days of wealth and recognition. The death of Rudy marks a final point on their joint life curve, after which Christina feels that she has lost everything that mattered: “the best of her life was over.”

Reinforcing the motif of time in Evenings at Five, there is a startling and frightening episode that occurs after an evening with too much alcohol during Christina’s now ‘ghostly’ cocktail hour. In the middle of the night she wakes up to a blur. Looking at the bedside clock she sees “no numbers, just a watery green blob.” In the bathroom mirror she is greeted by an indistinct face that doesn’t have eyes or a mouth. This is a temporary but nightmarish experience in which the familiar contours of time are symbolically as well as literally swept away. Christina never finds out the exact cause, but one explanation could be that she was “blotto” when she went to bed, as her doctor puts it later, adding that she must stop drinking.

Evenings at Five  underlines how life can change from one moment to another, for better or for worse. When Rudy and Christina meet at an artists’ retreat, they decide, seemingly overnight, to break up from their lives, Rudy leaving an “ordered family life in Manhattan” and Christina a “tenure-track teaching job in Iowa.”

With Rudy’s death, once again, things change overnight. Christina leaves Rudy in the hospital to go home and sleep, planning to return the next morning—Rudy has said that they still have some time—but he dies in the night. Even though she realizes that she couldn’t have known, Christina is heart-broken and reproaches herself for not staying at his bedside throughout the night.

Even when it is expected, even after the “fifteen-year-long saga of Rudy’s organs betraying one another and breaking down,” death comes unexpectedly. Aware of the uncertainty of life, Rudy has always emphasized that one must not leave things too late. Deciding to buy a Yamaha grand, he says: “What am I waiting for? If not now, when?”

Gail Godwin

Drawn in great complexity, with contradictory characteristics, the portraits of Rudy and Christina have temporal overtones: “Rudy blew up quickly, but he blew over almost as quickly. Christina marinated her resentments, then simmered them over a low flame for days.” While Christina can be impatient, she is also witty, patient, and realistic. Rudy is charming, but he, too, can be impatient, as well as arrogant. Then again, as Christina thinks: “If arrogance is the refusal to squander yourself on the unpassionate and the unfascinating, then he is arrogant.”

A temporal perspective permeates the details of life on the minutest levels. There is a pungent variety of mint needed for the drinks; there is “Ralph,” a serrated knife that cuts thin slices of lime; there are special twelve-ounce tumblers left in the freezer to frost up in time for cocktails. Looking back on all these seemingly insignificant details of everyday life, Christina’s sense of time undergoes a change, as does her understanding of her relationship to Rudy. A certain clarity that is unavailable as long as someone is still alive may suddenly and ruthlessly be there when the person is gone. We realize that all these small matters, experienced together with someone who is no longer there, were part of something greater than we realized at the time.

Actually, Rudy has sometimes reproached Christina for not being present, for not listening. She was “absent in his presence, present in his absence,” she now thinks, and she asks herself: “What was I listening to? The ups and downs of my own day’s moment.”  Realizing how impatient she has been most of her life, Christina is imagining Rudy’s presence and listening to him more attentively than ever now that he is gone.

What did I think, that we had forever?” is the heart-breaking question that arises after Rudy’s death.

Remembering the depressed widowhood of Queen Victoria, Christina thinks: “what did the queen have to smile about? Even though she had his clothes laid out every evening, her beloved Albert was dead, and she was fat from all the state dinners, and what was left?” While Victoria’s loss of Prince Albert might seem to parallel Christina’s own loss, Christina forgets that Queen Victoria actually had quite a lot left to live for. She had nine children, some of whom were rather neglected during their mother’s prolonged period of grief.

A blend of fiction and composed memoir, Evenings at Five plunges into a personal and philosophical exploration of loss and mourning. Prominent in some of Gail Godwin’s other novels, too—regret, responsibility, and redemption being key concerns in Flora,  and Grief Cottage  being about a young boy who loses his mother— the theme of grief is central in Evenings at Five.

Christina’s suffering recalls that of Job in the Bible, who in his great suffering searches for an explanation. So does Christina, but she finds no comfort in her religious life, not at this stage, because there is no “compensation or explanation for what she had lost.” Neither Rudy nor God show up when she needs them.

A deep and poignant account of Christina’s temporally and musically inflected movement through the heart-wrenching phases of presence and absence, Evenings at Five  is a masterful depiction of grief.

Leave a Reply