I’m grateful to Lory (of The Emerald City Book Review) for hosting this past week’s Robertson Davies readalong, which was my excuse to finally try him for the first time. Of course, Canadians have long recognized what a treasure he is, but he’s less known elsewhere. I do remember that Erica Wagner, one of my literary heroes (an American in England; former books editor of the London Times, etc.), has expressed great admiration for his work.
I started with what I had to hand: Fifth Business (1970), the first volume of The Deptford Trilogy. In the theatre world, the title phrase refers to a bit player who yet has importance to the outcome of a drama, and that’s how the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, thinks of himself. I was reminded right away of the opening of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In the first line Ramsay introduces himself in relation to another person: “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5.58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.”
Specifically, he dodged a snowball meant for him – thrown by his frenemy, Percy Boyd Staunton – and it hit Mrs. Dempster, wife of the local Baptist minister, in the back of the head, knocking her over and 1) sending her into early labor with Paul, who also plays a major role in the book; and 2) permanently compromising her mental health. Surprisingly, given his tepid Protestant upbringing, Ramsay becomes a historian of Christian saints, and comes to consider Mrs. Dempster part of his personal pantheon for a few incidents he thinks of as miracles – not least his survival during First World War service. And this is despite Mrs. Dempster being caught in a situation that seriously compromises her standing in Deptford.
The novel is presented as a long, confessional letter Ramsay writes, on the occasion of his retirement, to the headmaster of the boys’ school where he taught history for 45 years. Staunton, later known simply as “Boy,” becomes a sugar magnate and politician; Paul becomes a world-renowned illusionist known by various stage names. Both Paul and Ramsay are obsessed with the unexplained and impossible, but where Paul manipulates appearances and fictionalizes the past, Ramsay looks for miracles. The Fool, the Saint and the Devil are generic characters we’re invited to ponder; perhaps they also have incarnations in the novel?
Fifth Business ends with a mysterious death, and though there are clues that seem to point to whodunit, the fact that the story segues straight into a second volume, with a third to come, indicates that it’s all more complicated than it might seem. I was so intrigued that, thanks to my omnibus edition, I carried right on with the first chapter of The Manticore (1972), which is also in the first person but this time narrated by Staunton’s son, David, from Switzerland. Freudian versus Jungian psychology promises to be a major dichotomy in this one, and I’m sure that the themes of the complexity of human desire, the search for truth and goodness, and the difficulty of seeing oneself and others clearly will crop up once again.
This was a very rewarding reading experience. I’d recommend Davies to those who enjoy novels of ideas, such as Iris Murdoch’s. I’ll carry on with at least the second volume of the trilogy for now, and I’ve also acquired the first volume of another, later trilogy to try.
Some favorite lines:
“I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.”
“Forgive yourself for being a human creature, Ramezay. That is the beginning of wisdom; that is part of what is meant by the fear of God; and for you it is the only way to save your sanity.”
It’s also fascinating to see the contrast between how Ramsay sees himself, and how others do:
“it has been my luck to appear more literate than I really am, owing to a cadaverous and scowling cast of countenance, and a rather pedantic Scots voice”
“Good God, don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows … and those horrible Harris tweed suits you wear … And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess. You look ten years older than your age.”
Two of my library reads from this month were about different aspects of mind–body medicine. I expected them to overlap more than they did, actually, and hoped that the second might serve as a sort of well-written rebuttal to the first, but in the end they stayed in different camps: the first is about psychosomatic illness and psychiatric treatment, while the second is about the placebo effect and how alternative and holistic treatment strategies might be complementary to orthodox medical approaches. Both gave me a lot to think about.
It’s All in Your Head: Stories from the Frontline of Psychosomatic Illness
By Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a UK-based neurology consultant. I picked this up on a whim because I knew it had won the Wellcome Book Prize, as well as the Royal Society of Biology General Book Prize. The conditions she writes about go by many names: psychosomatic illnesses, conversion disorders, or functional conditions. In every case the patients have normal neurological test results – they do not have epilepsy or nerve damage, for instance – but still suffer from seizures or lose the use of limb(s). Their symptoms have an emotional origin instead. Many of her patients are outraged by referral to a psychiatrist, as if they’re being told they’re making it all up, but it’s actually a holistic approach: acknowledging the influence the mind has on how we feel.
Along with cases from her own career, the author writes about early doctors who developed the science of conversion disorders, including Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud. I read the book very quickly, almost compulsively; these are fascinating stories for anyone who’s interested in medical mysteries. That’s in spite of the fact that O’Sullivan does not strike me as a natural storyteller: her accounts of patients’ cases are often no more than just one thing after another, and in reports of her own conversations with patients she comes across as robotic and not always very compassionate. Ultimately I believe she does empathize with those with psychosomatic illnesses – otherwise she wouldn’t have written a whole book to illuminate their plight – but it would have taken the writing skill of someone like Atul Gawande for this to be a better book. I’m somewhat surprised it won a major prize.
Note: Chapter 7 tackles CFS/ME/fibromyalgia. These are controversial fatigue disorders, and O’Sullivan is aware that even mentioning them in a book about psychosomatic illnesses is “foolhardy to say the least.” I don’t think what she actually has to say about these conditions is offensive, though (and I say that as someone whose mother struggled with fibromyalgia for years). She allows that there may be physical triggers, but that emotional wellbeing and traumatic experiences or regular stress cannot be overlooked.
Chew on this: “More than seventy per cent of patients with dissociative seizures and chronic fatigue syndrome are women.” The author’s best guess as to why this is? “On the face of it, women turn their distress inward and men turn it outward.”
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body
By Jo Marchant
In this absorbing and well-written work of popular science, Marchant, a journalist with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, investigates instances where the mind seems to contribute to medical improvement: the use of placebos in transplant recipients, hypnosis for IBS patients, virtual reality to help burn victims manage pain, and the remarkable differences that social connection, a sense of purpose, meditation and empathic conversation all make. On the other hand, she shows how stress and trauma in early life can set (usually poor) people up for ill health in later years. She also travels everywhere from Boston to Lourdes to meet patients and medical practitioners, and even occasionally proffers herself as a guinea pig.
A relentless scientist, Marchant is skeptical of any claims for which there is no hard evidence, so when she acknowledges that there’s something to these unusual treatments, you know you can believe her. As Jeremy Howick of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Oxford puts it, “I think it’s more important to know that something works, than how it works.” I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine. The problem, though, is that most medical trials are funded by big pharmaceutical companies, which won’t be supportive of non-traditional methods or holistic approaches.
Do these books appeal to you? Do you have any experience of psychosomatic illness or mind–body medicine?
I don’t participate in a lot of blogger challenges (though I’ll be doing “Novellas in November” on Monday); it’s more of a coincidence that I finished Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s excellent The Tobacconist (translated from the German by Charlotte Collins) towards the end of German literature month.
You may recall that I read Seethaler’s previous novel, A Whole Life, on my European travels this past summer, and didn’t think too much of it. I’d read so much praise for its sparse style, but I couldn’t grasp the appeal. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time: “This novella set in the Austrian Alps is the story of Andreas Egger – at various times a farmer, a prisoner of war, and a tourist guide. Various things happen to him, most of them bad. I have trouble pinpointing why Stoner is a masterpiece whereas this is just kind of boring. There’s a great avalanche scene, though.”
But I’m very glad that I tried again with Seethaler, because The Tobacconist is one of the few best novels I’ve read this year, and very much a book for our times despite being set in 1937–8.
Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s life changes for good when his mother sends him away from his quiet lakeside village to work for her old friend Otto Trsnyek, a Vienna tobacconist. “In [Franz’s] mind’s eye the future appeared like the line of a far distant shore materializing out of the morning fog: still a little blurred and unclear, but promising and beautiful, too.”
Though the First World War left him with only one leg, Trsnyek is a firebrand. Instead of keeping his head down while selling his cigars and newspapers, he makes his political opinions known. This sees him branded as a “Jew lover” and persecuted accordingly. One of the Jews he dares to associate with is Sigmund Freud, who is a regular customer even though he already has throat cancer and will die just two years later.
Especially after he falls in love with Anezka, a flirtatious but mercurial Bohemian girl, Franz turns to Professor Freud for life advice. “So I’m asking you: have I gone mad? Or has the whole world gone mad?” The professor replies, “yes, the world has gone mad. And … have no illusions, it’s going to get a lot madder than this.”
Through free indirect speech, the thought lives of the various characters, and the postcards and letters that pass between Franz and his mother, Seethaler gradually and subtly reveals the deepening worry over the rise of Hitler and the situation of the Jews. This novel is so many things: a coming-of-age story, a bittersweet romance, an out-of-the-ordinary World War II/Holocaust precursor, and a perennially relevant reminder of the importance of finding the inner courage to stand up to oppressive systems.
Freud and his family had enough money and influence to buy their way to England. So many did not escape Hitler’s regime. I knew that, but discovered it anew in this outstanding novel.
Some favorite passages:
I’ve been here in the city for quite a while now, yet to be honest it seems to me that everything just gets stranger. But maybe it’s like that all through life—from the moment you’re born, with every single day, you grow a little bit further away from yourself until one day you don’t know where you are any more. Can that really be the way it is?
And as more than twenty thousand supporters bellowed their assent into the clear Tyrolean mountain air, Adolf Hitler was probably sitting beside the radio somewhere in Berlin, licking his lips. Austria lay before him like a steaming schnitzel on a plate. Now was the time to carve it up. … People were cosseting their faint-hearted troubles and hadn’t even noticed yet that the earth beneath their feet was burning.
(from a letter from Mama) Just imagine, Hitler hangs on the wall even in the restaurant and the school now. Right next to Jesus. Although we have no idea what they think of each other.
Freud: “Most paths do at least seem vaguely familiar to me. But it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity—or, best of all, all three at once—can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”
Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers! In previous years we’ve been able to find canned pumpkin in the UK to make a pumpkin pie, but alas, this year there have been supply issues (my husband blames Brexit). Nor can we find a real pumpkin – they disappear from the shops after Halloween. Without pumpkin pie it doesn’t feel much like Thanksgiving.
At any rate, here’s a flashback to the seasonal posts I wrote last year, one about five things I was grateful for as a freelance writer (they all still hold true!) and a list of recommended Thanksgiving reading.