Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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In the days and weeks after his diagnosis, when things seemed frightening and bleak, Douglas-Fairhurst often thought of poor Gregor. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer View image in fullscreen ‘My body was like a dying coral reef’ … Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.

As it turned out, the second scenario was closer to the truth, but at the time it was difficult to be suitably terrified because I simply didn’t know what, exactly, I was scared of.His books include Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist , which won the Duff Cooper Prize, and The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland , which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, and The Turning Point: A Year that Changed Dickens and the World . What’s eerie about this in retrospect (and anyone who reads his book, the first literary account of such a procedure, is bound to feel it) is the way that his isolation – a long pause attended by many masks and gowns – prefigured the pandemic, which would arrive only months later. 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 book ought to be gruelling and it doesn’t shrink from candour about the trials of MS – the pain, anxiety, shame and self-pity, and the thoughts of ending them at Dignitas. The electric shocks that ran up and down his spine if he bent his neck forward made him feel as if he was being Tasered at close quarters; in the mornings, his vision was blurred; his legs grew more unpredictable, and his falls more frequent.

Above all, he discovered the brilliant naturalist Bruce Cummings, whose book The Journal of a Disappointed Man, published under the pseudonym WNP Barbellion in 1919, becomes a parallel text here, with generous quotations from its diary entries and a heartfelt account of the author’s life. In essence, it is a way of rebooting the body’s faulty immune system, like a computer being turned on and off again.Though Samsa is at first cared for by his family, it isn’t long before he becomes a prisoner in his own bedroom, where eventually he dies. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer View image in fullscreen Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in his room at Magdalen College, Oxford: ‘It’s a community.

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