Inhabiting and reading about the land of pain
I have broken a rib and have taken up residence in the land of pain and ill health. Here, the rules of existence are very different. It’s full of intricate maneuvers one’s body becomes familiar with; of days being defined by the things one can’t do; of pain of different kinds – dull throbbing, sharp jolt, persistent ache – coursing through one’s body; of dependence and helplessness, of being reduced to a husk of oneself.
To make light of my troubles, and to have a rewarding time while being on the rack, I have been reading some (very) slender masterpieces on pain and suffering. You could – even if you are well, as I was when I first read them – do worse than to get these books.
In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated by Julian Barnes: The popular 19th century French novelist suffered from syphilis through his adult life. For the last 12 years or so till his death at the age of 57, he kept a journal in which he noted the spread and grip of the disease. “Daudet discovered,” Julian Barnes writes in his excellent introduction, “that pain, like passion, drives out language. Words come ‘only when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful.’”
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: An international bestseller and winner of the National Book Award in the US, Joan Didion’s memoir about life after the death of her husband of 40 years is chastening, chilling and heartbreaking. Didion shows us what she had in that marriage, in those years, to show up what the void is like with her husband’s passing. “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be,” she writes. And anyone who has grieved knows at that instant the honesty and insightfulness of this writer.
Darkness Visible by William Styron: “In Paris on a chilly evening late in October of 1985 I first became fully aware that the struggle with the disorder in my mind – a struggle which had engaged me for several months – might have a fatal outcome.” Subtitled ‘A Memoir of Madness’, so begins the Pulitzer-winning American legends chronicle of his descent into the kind of depression that brought him to the verge of killing himself. Taut, vivid and riveting, this book – which first appeared as an essay in Vanity Fair magazine – is as full of understanding as anguish.