Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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Biography: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Magdalen College. Within weeks, he deteriorated further – had blurred vision for an hour when he woke up, fell over in the street by the Bodleian Library, felt electric shocks tasering his spine if he bent his neck. When a trapdoor opened in Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s life – the abrupt diagnosis, in his 40s, of multiple sclerosis – he couldn’t help thinking of Gregor in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a young man who’s changed into a giant beetle, imprisoned in bed, legs waving feebly in the air. Elsewhere the giggles bubble up from fantastical figurative language, comparable to Dickens’ zany similes and metaphors. 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. As for treatments, though individual symptoms can to a degree be managed, the neurologist could offer no pill that would slow down the progress of the disease, beyond the possibly beneficial effect of taking high doses of vitamin D. My eyes, for instance, have settled down in the last couple of years, which for me is hugely significant. M, too, was sanguine about what might lie ahead – Douglas-Fairhurst carefully outlined a series of increasingly grim scenarios, beginning with whether M would be willing to cut his toenails for him – and he was also funny about it, ready to take the piss. 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.In the days and weeks after his diagnosis, when things seemed frightening and bleak, Douglas-Fairhurst often thought of poor Gregor.

An account of its author’s experiences of what was then known as “disseminated sclerosis” – Cummings died the year it came out, aged just 30 – it had a powerful effect on Douglas-Fairhurst, one he describes compellingly in Metamorphosis. It meant a six-month wait, during which time he developed problems with speech and speed of thought.Weak, vulnerable and permanently attached to a drip, he would be barrier nursed for a month at least. That in turn suggests that life, even for those who feel well, is something we have to navigate and negotiate, and this is where elements of autobiography enter welcomely in - above all, Douglas-Fairhurst's faith in books and the imagination as sustaining presences. MS sufferers who suffer with the more common relapsing/remitting ('good days and bad days') form of the disease, which is more prevalent amongst women. It wasn’t clear the disease definitely would get worse, or how quickly it would if it did,” he says, handing me a slice of homemade fruit cake.

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