Thursday, 26 May 2011

Narratives of illness

I've been thinking recently about what books I read when I first got ill. I didn't read about illness, I simply read what I was already reading: novels. I struggled to read French, my huge dictionary clunked beside me in bed, I was trying to hang onto myself, the person I was. I never finished Voyage au bout de la nuit, it's still on my shelves. I persevered and persevered with Midnight's Children. My copy is yellowed now and I cannot open it or smell it without remembering being very ill. And yet it's one of my favourite books.

The only book on ME I had was Dr Melvin Ramsay's slim The Saga of Royal Free Disease (1986) - it is still my bible. I had a couple of 'self-help' books by Drs Anne MacIntyre and Charles Shepherd, but that was not 'til the early nineties - I can't recall exactly (I gave one to a boyfriend, I still have one on my shelf). It was in the nineties that I actually read most illness books, a good few years after getting ill. I borrowed  from an American friend (and still have it, I'm a bad person) Norman Cousins' Anatomy of an Illness (1979) - he used intravenous vitamin C, a treatment I'd also tried with positive results. In a more spiritual phase, I bought a book called The Alchemy of Illness (1993) by Kat Duff. My brother sent me Osler's Web (1996), which I still dip into and refer to. And I still love and dip into Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor (1978) - who doesn't?

These days, when diagnosed with an illness - any illness - you have a treasure chest of books to try - self-help and memoir - not to mention the stories, some gems, that the internet can unearth. Naturally, you devour this information, you need to know exactly what has punched into your life, derailed you. You are sustained by others' narratives. You need reassurance; you need confirmation (certainly in the case of ME, so great has our fear been of not being believed). Of course, the quality of all of these shared narratives - online and off - varies greatly. There have been one or two ME 'self-help' books I couldn't get to the charity shop quickly enough.

The misery/illness memoir really took off in mid-late nineties and by the time I was writing about my own illness the genre had - in my opinion - been done to death so I veered as far away from it as I could. This did not stop some editors from trying to pigeonhole my novel as 'sicklit'.

There are, I think, many more works of fiction on mental illness than physical illness. Perhaps mentally ill characters are seen as more interesting, they are more likely to behave 'badly' (if you are physically ill for a long time you are dull and boring, not taking part. Or you die.). I did read Helen Garner's novel The Spare Room (2008) - about friendship and cancer - I enjoyed it but didn't think it lived up to the hype (the ill character also has intravenous vitamin C, and she is definitely not dull).

Now, when I read about illness (non-fiction), I want to read about other things, not just the illness. Last year, I loved Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, it is very much about other things. And I'm currently reading The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn, I saw Me and My Big Mouth review it. I don't always share Scott's taste in books - he hates Midnight's Children! - but I'm very much enjoying this. It is about other things.

And the writing has to engage me, always the writing.

What I am trying to say  is that when you are  ill in a life-changing way - and you have stopped being stunned by the event - you will probably hunger for illness narratives; but, later, you simply don't need or want them (unless they stretch out beyond the illness and tell you about the world). I know that people who are not ill will see things differently. The world of illness is new to them, unusual and strange.

***A lovely quote from Kat Duff, which I just found underlined in green pen (can't help wondering how long ago I did this and why green pen): ... Frankly, from the point of view of illness, healthy people seem ridiculous, even a touch dangerous, in their blinded busyness, marching like soldiers to the drumbeat of duty and desire.


Mim said...

An Intelligent essay--"always the writing." And yours is thoughtful and spritely.


sylvieromy said...

I was reading Donna Tartt's 'The Little Friend' when I got ill. Someone was wrestling with snakes in a steamy Southern swamp. When I went back to it four years later, I was amazed that I ever had the capacity to see letters so small - they were like tiny illegible dots on the page. So I still don't know what happened with the snakes.

Anonymous said...

Yours was the first book I read (more aptly, inhaled) after I got sick. And now I have four more books to breathe in.

Phew, such relief from the wonder-words that come through you onto my screen.

nmj said...

Spritely, Mim, is such a compliment when so often I feel unspritely. But if my words can be spritely that is good enough.

Sylv, Have never read Donna Tartt, she is one of these writers I feel almost guilty about not having checked out. Is always strange to go back to a book after a few years - I have so many half-read (or half-unread). Agree, small text is ridiculously hard to read.

To 'Anna' who posted a one word test response, it came through okay!

nmj said...

Hey Anna, Just saw your other comment. So glad you enjoyed book. I like inhaled. Some tell me, almost apologetically, they have not yet read TSoM and I say, there is a time to read every book, you should never force yourself to read anything. But if they are reluctant to read any more about ME, which I also understand, I try & say the novel is not depressing, it is different than you think it will be.

Joss said...

Siri Hustvedt's The Shaking Woman is a good read.

Amazing that she seems to have packed my whole degree course into 200 pages.

Now why didn't i think of that?

Oh it would be the being really ill thing wouldn't it. Ho hum.

nmj said...

Hey Joss, Yes, I have read about the Hustvedt, that is one to look out for. I like The Vagabond's Breakfast because it's also about travel and literature and history, perhaps the illness will become more prominent as the book progresses, I'm only a third through. But it is the non-illness parts I actually find most interesting, though of course when you have been chronically and/or seriously ill, that informs your whole way of storytelling. Was also remembering I read a goodish novel a few years ago where the main character has epilepsy - Ray Robinson's Electricity.

Joss said...


Hustvedts books is more about philosophy than illness - she even slags off one of my old ledcturers who I thought had odd ideas about what it is to be a human being myself - so that was fun.

I hope today is treating you as well as possible.