Saturday, July 11, 2009

Intoxicated By My Illness

by Anatole Broyard (1992)
Editorial Review - Kirkus Reviews Copyright (c) VNU Business Media, Inc.
Writer and New York Times book critic Broyard died of cancer in 1990. Here is a slender volume of writings he produced on the subject of his illness itself, filled out with a handful of earlier pieces on ""The Literature of Death,"" and ending with the grippingly autobiographical short story ""What the Cystoscope Said,"" written by Broyard after his own father's death, also of cancer, in 1948. In
1981, Broyard wrote that ""the vocabulary of death is anticlimactic. It seems that we die in clichÉs."" In his own struggle with illness and the death that it foreshadowed, however, he summoned up an intellectual rigor that attempted to deny either clichÉ or passivity. ""As a patient I'm a mere beginner,"" he wrote: ""Yet I am a critic, and being critically ill, I thought I might accept the pun and turn it on my condition."" And so his effort to think his illness into submission begins. ""My intention,"" he writes in a journal entry, ""is to show people who are ill"" that ""[they] can make a game, a career, even an art form of opposing their illness."" Broyard's own ""art form"" is one, as it always was, that draws on an astonishing breadth of learning and that positively bristles with aphoristic perceptions. ""Soul is the part of you that you summon up in emergencies,"" he writes; and, on doctors and patients: ""The patient is always on the brink of revelation, and he needs an amanuensis."" This is not Dylan Thomas's raging against the night, but instead the consistent and steady application of the thinking mind against the awful austerities and urgencies of death. ""Writing a book,"" says Broyard, ""would be a counterpoint to my illness. It would force the cancer to go through my character before it can get to me."" Courageous, vintage Broyard. The trouble is, though, that death was the winner, and the reader is left not with Broyard's ""intoxication,"" but with regret, loss, and a certain chill and ungainly fear.

The NY Times has had some good articles on prostate cancer recently. These include clinical pieces, a reporter's diary and Patient Voices.