On Being Ill
The beacon of shining health you see before you when I attend readings is a misleading image. Like most other writers I’ve met I was a sickly child who became a physically delicate young man.
Over the years you become inured to the role you have been assigned; the one who gets cancers along with bone, lung, eye, throat and stomach problems, when everyone else barges at life in seemingly perfect health. You miss the opportunities afforded to others. There are sections of your life that simply don’t exist. Remember the scorching summer of 76? I don’t because I nearly died of pleurisy that year, and watched it from hospital windows.
For writers, there’s an upside. Fear of further illness limits your movement, so you write more. You observe dispassionately, and remember with intensity.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Marcel Proust. The author famously spent the last three years of his life writing in his ugly yellow cork-lined bedroom. He was considered a hypochondriac not only by the endless specialists he consulted during his lifetime but also by his critics and peers. However, his correspondence, which detailed every symptom, provides clues to Proust’s real illness. He was most likely suffering from the vascular subtype of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (a rare genetic disorder), but misdiagnosed. Being ill seemed to suit his purpose as a writer, although I find his vivid sickbed detail (and lengthy interpolated sentences that make Henry James seem like a lightweight) too enervating to endure for long stretches.
In her essay, ‘On Being Ill’, Virginia Woolf thought that it is ‘strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to tooth-ache. But no; with a few exceptions—De Quincey attempted something of the sort in The Opium Eater; there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust—literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens.’
Woolf is right – authors rarely discuss their illnesses, perhaps seeing them as mundane and offering limited scope for insight, like elderly patients fixated on hospital visits. There’s also a taboo element; writing is sharing, and illness is personal.
But sick children are a recurring trope in children’s novels. When I was small and suffering from yet another bout of pneumonia I read Ray Bradbury, whose lonely children survived the terrors of childhood and revelled in their own rich imaginations.
Writers who have long-term conditions often find that illness promotes them further into outsider status, from where they can observe more clearly. ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ by Marghanita Laski couples illness with powerlessness, reminding us that there are always those who enjoy controlling the physically and mentally weakened. Indeed, this was a recurring fiction theme for post-war female authors forced back into the role of homemakers.
Sometimes it takes a subversive writer like JG Ballard to turn illness into an advantage. His mentally disturbed and physically afflicted characters are often defined by their flaws, which turn them as untraditionally gifted people. Even the ubiquitous Marvel universe specialises in transforming ruined humans into gods, from the blind Daredevil to the crippled Dr Donald Blake (Thor’s secret identity), the physically grotesque transformations of Ben Grimm (the Thing) and Dr Banner (Hulk), the pacemaker-dependent Iron Man.
I’ve always found it fascinating that America is far more concerned with mental than physical health (online data comparisons are shocking). I think inner toughness or machismo is linked in the American mind to wellbeing, and physical illness must be resolved with proactivity (Overweight? Work out more!) whereas mental health is presented as a universal state that afflicts all by degree. It is, after all, a country where new mental health issues are constantly defined and costly new medications proposed (the Adam Curtis series on the aftermath of Freud in the US is particularly pertinent here).
British doctors long believed in ‘eat an orange, read a book’ health advice, and still have a residual wariness about prescribing medication. Doctors are notoriously resistant to holistic solutions, but I recall being in hospital and reading William Boyd’s exotic ‘Brazzaville Beach’, which to this day I believe aided my recovery. When waiting in hospitals I have sometimes become lost in a book and missed my appointment. Books heal by distancing fears.
Today I have a temperature and a heavy cold, and am wrapped in a dressing gown at my desk filling tissues. no doubt as the result of a sneezing waiter informing us that he was feeling terrible but had still come to work. There were four of us at the table – it was the writer who got sick. But at least I can turn it to good use.