The pain, the suf­fer­ing … but at least it’s eas­ier to write about

The Guardian - Journal - - Front Page - Ian Jack,

In the new is­sue of the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Areté, its editor, the poet Craig Raine, ac­cords an in­ter­est­ing dis­tinc­tion to the Ir­ish writer and No­bel lau­re­ate Sa­muel Beck­ett. The is­sue con­tains sev­eral pieces by writ­ers about their ail­ments; and Beck­ett, ac­cord­ing to Raine, “has some claim to be the most chron­i­cally low-level un­healthy writer of re­cent times”. There fol­lows a long list of med­i­cal con­di­tions culled from Deirdre Bair’s bi­og­ra­phy of Beck­ett: out­breaks of boils and night­time tremors; se­ba­ceous cysts on his neck and in his anus; feet hard­ened by large corns and cal­luses; blad­der trou­ble; se­vere con­sti­pa­tion; bur­si­tis; in­som­nia; gas­tric flus and runny colds; anx­i­ety at­tacks; pleurisy; neu­ri­tis of the right shoul­der: glau­coma in both eyes; a plate in­serted into his palate; and, of course, trou­ble with his teeth. When, aged 63, he won the No­bel, his re­ac­tions in­cluded Dupuytren’s con­trac­ture (in which one fin­ger or more is left per­ma­nently bent) and, to quote Bair, “an­other round of cysts [that] formed in­side his mouth”.

To para­phrase Raine: we of a cer­tain age have all been there, if not quite so com­pre­hen­sively. In his “match­less ge­nius for ill­ness” Beck­ett was “help­lessly fe­cund” and “prodi­gally pro­duc­tive”. How much of this per­sonal re­al­ity can be glimpsed in Beck­ett’s writ­ing isn’t some­thing I’m qual­i­fied to judge, hav­ing read too lit­tle of it. Raine quotes the phrase “the body’s long mad­ness” from Beck­ett’s novel Mol­loy, which hints at all kinds of cor­po­real mis­be­haviour: pow­er­ful forms of the in­fec­tions, erup­tions and eruc­ta­tions that in their milder state marked many child­hoods and which, if we sur­vived them, are far eas­ier to con­tem­plate and di­rectly de­scribe than the mal­adies of later life.

Styes, for ex­am­ple. I had many. The early symp­toms would bring forth a lit­tle tube of Golden Eye oint­ment from the bath­room cabi­net and an ap­pli­ca­tion of its beeswax-like con­tents to the eye­lid. If this failed, as it of­ten did, my mother would take off her gold wed­ding ring and stroke it against the af­fected part – an old wives’ cure, but worth a try. When this had no ef­fect, the full med­i­cal ap­pa­ra­tus was brought to bear. Bo­racic crys­tals were sprin­kled on a piece of lint that had been moist­ened with hot wa­ter; the lint was then backed by a piece of oil­cloth and the com­bi­na­tion held in place over the eye by a ban­dage wrapped around the head and se­cured with a safety pin. Even­tu­ally – it might take a day or two – the lint drew out the stye’s pus and the vic­tim re­turned to his un­ban­daged, un­heroic self.

This is a pleas­ant enough rec­ol­lec­tion and be­longs in the same cat­e­gory as my fa­ther re­mem­ber­ing the onion that was hung in his room (an­other folk cure) when he had scar­let fever as a boy, or my brother de­cid­ing to try to drain a boil by fill­ing an empty lemon­ade bot­tle with steam, plac­ing its mouth tightly over the boil’s head, and then wait­ing for the steam to con­dense un­til a vac­uum was formed that na­ture – the boil, in this case – would nat­u­rally rush to fill. New­comen’s early steam en­gine worked on a sim­i­lar prin­ci­ple, but to bet­ter ef­fect; so far as I know, no boil was suc­cess­fully treated in this way.

When adult­hood comes, the charm of the mi­nor ill­ness is usu­ally left be­hind. With luck – of which Beck­ett, in this de­part­ment, had none – a long pe­riod free from dis­ease reigns. No more but­tered toast will be de­liv­ered to the bed­side by a lov­ing par­ent; but the styes, boils, mumps and measles have gone, and their dead­lier suc­ces­sors have yet to ar­rive. In my own case, which may be com­mon, I ac­tu­ally felt closer to th­ese ter­mi­na­tors in child­hood than I did in mid­dle age. The fact of it shone clearly from a couple of shyly placed pho­to­graphs of two de­parted si­b­lings, whom I never knew. The fear of it was stim­u­lated by men­tions of can­cer in old copies of the Reader’s Di­gest that a neigh­bour brought to our door, so that when I ac­ci­den­tally came across the words Tropic of Can­cer in a school at­las I be­lieved them to be por­ten­tous.

The care that peo­ple took to avoid the word gave it a spe­cial force. The con­tralto Kathleen Fer­rier was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer in March 1951 and died in Oc­to­ber 1953, but “can­cer” is a dif­fi­cult word to find in the singer’s cor­re­spon­dence dur­ing those 30 months. The dis­ease first emerges in­stead as a “bump on mi busto” and later as “mi rheumat­ics” or “screw­mat­ics”. Dur­ing what turned out to be her last pub­lic per­for­mance – in Fe­bru­ary 1953 at Covent Gar­den – her fe­mur snapped, and only a heavy dose of mor­phine kept her go­ing un­til the fi­nal cur­tain. A news­pa­per pro­file writ­ten three months later re­vealed that she had kept from the au­di­ence “the fact that she was suf­fer­ing most painfully from arthri­tis”.

Those days have gone. The in­di­vid­ual’s en­counter with can­cer is a sta­ple of mag­a­zine and book pub­lish­ing, while a dis­tin­guished his­tory of the dis­ease has be­come a best­seller. It seems the best thing a writer can do with an ail­ment is to pub­li­cise it. The new is­sue of Areté has es­says and re­ports that de­scribe eczema, gout, Parkin­son’s, “un­man­aged di­a­betes”, un­ex­pected hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion and the fear of the biopsy re­sult. The writ­ers in­clude Wil­liam Boyd (eczema),

Craig Raine (gout) and Peter Stothard, the for­mer editor of the Times and the TLS, whose rare form of pan­cre­atic can­cer takes five years and many ex­am­i­na­tions by con­sul­tants to di­ag­nose, and who in the end re­fuses – it turns out rightly – to ac­cept the idea that he has at most five years left to live.

They are all fine pieces, of­ten in­flected with the wry jaun­ti­ness that marks a typ­i­cal survivor’s ac­count: an after-the-fact mood that en­ables me (for ex­am­ple) to see com­edy in a lucky es­cape from a burst­ing ap­pen­dix in In­dia. Real ter­ror is hard to de­scribe; in any case, anaes­the­sia has taken away so much of its cause. Here is the nov­el­ist and di­arist Fanny Bur­ney de­scrib­ing the mas­tec­tomy that was per­formed on her in 1811. “When the dread­ful steel was plunged into my breast – cut­ting through the veins … ar­ter­ies … flesh … nerves … I be­gan a scream that lasted un­in­ter­mit­tingly dur­ing the whole time of the in­ci­sion – & I al­most marvel that it rings not in my Ears still.”

This is aw­ful. But the most un­bear­able parts of her ac­count re­late to her an­tic­i­pa­tion of the op­er­a­tion rather than the cut­ting it­self: the break­fast she must try to eat, the sight of an im­mense quan­tity of ban­dages that nearly makes her sick, the wine cor­dial her sur­geon gives her to drink, the weep­ing ser­vants. Faced with the same few hours in Bur­ney’s life, which of us wouldn’t swap them for Beck­ett’s en­tire cat­a­logue of ail­ments? Dis­ease is eas­ier to write about, now that its treat­ment no longer ter­ri­fies the reader.

The days of avoid­ing the sub­ject have gone. To­day it seems the best thing an au­thor can do with an ail­ment is pub­li­cise it

ILLUSTRATION: MATT KENYON

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