This ought to be a very depressing book since it describes the onset and development of multiple sclerosis in an Oxford don. He is on his way to a drinks party when quite suddenly his legs fail to obey him, ‘It was if I were a puppet,’ he writes, ‘and someone had cut one of my strings.’ He stubs his mutinous foot against the kerb, and falls flat on his face outside the Bodleian Library.
In the ensuing chapters he does not spare us (or himself} a detailed clinical account of the nature of the disease and the grim prognosis: there is no cure (as yet), and the disease has the potential to destroy the brain and the central nervous system, piece by piece, sporadically perhaps, but inexorably.
Amongst many other devastating reassessments of his life and his place in the world, Douglas-Fairhurst was faced with the question of how to tell family, friends and colleagues what was happening to him. He compares this to coming out as gay as an undergraduate, and says that it was more like a process than an event. He struggled to find words that were not ‘ungenerous or ungrateful’ for a Facebook post, which I remember seeing, in which he says that ‘the line between sympathy and pity is one I’m especially keen not to cross. If anything, I’d prefer people to make jokes about it.’
Well, that’s not so easy. One understands his mistrust of the demeaning face of pity, and mistrusts it, recognising that it is mingled with the fear that the horror might happen to you. But, after all that is a socially common response in most people in the presence of serious illness or bereavement. Words stop working, and it is hard to make a joke when one is afraid of making some ghastly breach of taste, like farting in church.
But hang on. Pity and Fear are Aristotelian elements of tragedy, are they not? And yet, despite the grim fact of the disease, this remarkable book does not read like a tragedy. Douglas-Fairhurst pushes away our pity and fear. He is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. It is not surprising that he has recourse to books in order to attempt to penetrate and review the meaning of his condition. As he says to his students at the end of his introductory lecture at the beginning of each academic year, literature is not a mirror, rather it is ‘a lens we could use to refocus our understanding of the world.’
Going back to his ominous fall outside the Bodleian, where he finds himself ‘lying on [his] back, with [his] arms and legs frantically waving in the air as [he] tried to haul [himself] upright,’ it is not surprising that he references Gregor Samsa, who is turned into a beetle in some kind of random cosmic joke. This reference is of course the source of the book’s title and striking cover.
Another book which Douglas-Fairhurst comes across, as he reads around other cases of MS, is The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919) by one Bruce Cummings, who writes under the glorious pseudonym of W.N.P. Barbelion. Parallels with the life and writings of this fellow traveller in the realm of compromised faculties run through the book in counterpoint to the progress of his own disease, but there is a stylistic parallel too. The description on the jacket of Cummings’ book describes it as ‘joyful and despairing, self-lacerating and witty.’
Douglas-Fairhurst makes illuminating reference to a great many texts, notably Peter Pan and the Alice books on which he has written so authoritatively. Other authors include Beckett, Burgess, Joyce, Keats, Tennyson, Heine – among many, many others – and, of course, Kafka – varifocal lenses on other worlds.
‘What I needed was laughter,’ Douglas-Fairhurst says, and later, ‘the worst was not, so long as I could still look at it with a comic squint.’ And there is mischievous laughter breezing throughout the book, forbidding any maudlin false sentiment. The style is often very funny. Take the neat rhetorical flourish in the zeugma here: ‘University is a place where people try to reinvent themselves. Some drop their old nicknames, and others drop their aitches.’
Elsewhere the giggles bubble up from fantastical figurative language, comparable to Dickens’ zany similes and metaphors. For instance:
‘Now my powers of organisation were about as useful as a filing cabinet made of sand.’
‘Within a couple of minutes, I had begun to run – or more accurately lurch like a panicked giraffe – down the street.’
Douglas Fairhurst has, of course, written brilliantly on Dickens in The Turning Point.
For me the funniest moment arises from a wholly unfunny circumstance; one of the symptoms of his condition is urinary ‘urgency’. He describes an embarrassing incident.
‘By the time I reached home I was starting to leak. A few seconds later I found myself peeing into a bush, just outside my front door, while an elderly neighbour walked past tutting and her dog looked back at me with a new found respect.’
Love that dog.
Finally, out of the tragedy of a randomly afflicted life, comes life-affirming laughter, a humanity, courageous but not ostentatious, and a defiant Nietzschean gaiety.