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