Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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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. A series of boxes had to be ticked – involving MRI scans and a lumbar puncture – before he was accepted for treatment.

And part of the agenda here, no doubt, is to make readers just a little more aware of MS (which clearly has a history of misrepresentation) - whichever passport they currently hold. Yes, I’d had many months to prepare for the pandemic – and again, this is going to sound holier than thou, but I think it gave me more empathy for people when it began. Since then, one drug has been approved by Nice [the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence], albeit not a very effective one. And, above all, it's a darkly comic and moving reflection on what it means to be human in a world where nothing is certain. As a fellow Primary Progressive MS survivor, it was heartening to read an account of this condition from such an articulate, well regarded author and academic.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.

Students, he says, tend to think of dons as aliens: “The fact that I was stumbling and slurring probably struck them as just another example of academic weirdness. One understands his mistrust of the demeaning face of pity, and mistrusts it, recognising that it is mingled with the fear that the horror might happen to you. You either struggle against that, or you relax into it, and it turned out that I was one of those who could relax into it. Radio and television appearances include Start the Week and The Culture Show, and he has also acted as the historical consultant on TV adaptations of Jane Eyre, Emma, Great Expectations, the BBC drama series Dickensian, and the feature film Enola Holmes. 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.Reading someone like him, who goes through a worse version of what I’m going through, is a form of homeopathy,” he says. 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. This memoir documents his experience of illness since then, but also ranges back over his earlier life.

But better wilful legs (and knee pads) than some other things: “The less the body works, the more you appreciate any bit that still does. The white lesions revealed by his MRI scan suggested it was likely his central nervous system had already suffered permanent damage. This is a homage to the healing power of reading as much as to the incredible medical advances of stem cell transplantation. AHSCT cannot repair existing damage to the brain and spinal cord, but up to 70% of patients with primary progressive MS who undergo it are able to halt the disease’s development.His books include Becoming Dickens (2011), which was awarded the Duff Cooper Prize, The Story of Alice (2015), which was shortlisted for the Costa Prize, and Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces (2023). A darkly comic and moving memoir on what it means to be human in a world where nothing is certain, from the award-winning Oxford professor.

No one would be able to enter his room without first disinfecting themselves in a decontamination area. Only some days later did he tell his family, and his partner, M, to whom Metamorphosis is dedicated: “We don’t live together, so I had some breathing space.The early part of the book answers that, harking back to his south London childhood, lanky teenage awkwardness and love of acting (“being myself was much easier when I was pretending to be someone else”). Reading', he suggests, 'allows us to work out who we are by imagining who else we might have been, or who we might yet become. In 2013 he was a Judge of the Man Booker Prize, and in 2015 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Biography: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Magdalen College.



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