“Just as every grief narrative is a reckoning with loss, every love story is a chronicle of finding,” writes Kathryn Schulz in her eloquent and tender memoir, Lost & Found. “And so, much as my father’s death made me wonder about the relationship between large losses and smaller ones, falling for someone made me think about what finding love has in common with the broader act of finding anything at all.”
This is the deceptively simple premise of this slim book: losing and finding are such seemingly unremarkable elements of everyday life that we rarely pause to think about their significance, until, of course, it comes to losing and finding people, experiences that are among the most profound of our lives and that go to the heart of what it means to be human. Living through these life-changing moments in quick succession – she met her partner shortly before her father died – means Schulz is ideally placed to consider, through the prism of her own experience, the various ways people have tried to make sense of loss and discovery. Like her late father, she possesses a “panoptic curiosity”, drawing on cultural and artistic history, poetry, psychology, philosophy and scientific theory to examine what is at once universal yet intensely personal.
There is no doubt, though, that for all the fascinating digressions into Meno’s paradox or theory of optimal search, our appetite for human stories makes the personal narrative the most compelling thread in the book. Schulz presents her losing and finding in reverse order, concentrating the first section on the death of her father, whose life encompassed its own catalogue of losses. He was born during the second world war, to a mother who, as the youngest of 11 siblings, had been sent to Tel Aviv from Poland to escape the fate of her remaining family, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz. By the time Isaac Schulz arrived in the US, at the age of 11, “he had lost, like Elizabeth Bishop, two cities and a continent, along with almost all of what should have been his family”.
Schulz’s adoration of her polymath father shines through this section, in a way that can’t help but make the reader regret missing the chance to meet him: “He had a booming voice, a heavy accent, a formidable mind, a rabbinical beard, a Santa Claus belly and the gestural range of the Vitruvian Man.” Though she concedes that his death could not be defined objectively as a tragedy – he died at 74, surrounded by his loved ones, after a happy and fulfilled life – it is, inevitably, devastating to her. “It is true that, if you are lucky, there is a seam of sweetness and meaning to be found within it, a vein of silver in a dark cave a thousand feet underground. Still, the cave is a cave.”
Readers familiar with Schulz’s journalism – she is a Pulitzer-winning staff writer for the New Yorker – will know her gift for the mot juste and she deploys it throughout the book in ways that offer us afresh these most shopworn of literary themes, love and death. Of her first encounter with C, the woman she will marry, she writes: “My heightened attention was akin to that of a climber in steep terrain: the peaks high and varied, the views vast and lovely and surprising.”
The book is divided into three sections; the first two, “Lost” and “Found”, deal straightforwardly with grief and love respectively. The third act, like all good romances, ends with a wedding. This section, titled “And”, is more abstract, an attempt to analyse the meaning of conjunction through the literal joining together that marriage entails. It is in this final part that the book’s evolution from magazine essay is most apparent; there is a fair bit of stating the obvious and then bulking it out with numerous examples. But the conclusion is a breathtakingly beautiful set-piece, a celebration of the ordinariness and sublimity of our most fundamental connections: to parents, to children, to lovers, to the forward motion of life, which will inevitably entail loss.
“Our crossing is a brief one,” she writes, “best spent bearing witness to all that we see: honouring what we find noble, tending what we know needs our care, recognising that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep.”