Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst - review by Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers

Through the Looking Glass

Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces


Jonathan Cape 272pp £18.99

There is a particular problem that books detailing an experience of a debilitating malady pose for the reviewer. For an author who has already undergone some gruelling trial, the slings and arrows from a (generally hale) critic might so easily become the last straw in a catalogue of miseries that the sensitive reviewer will be inclined to hold any carping back. Happily, there is no need for any such exercise of tact in the case of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s account of his discovery that he has multiple sclerosis and his reflections on its radical effects on his body, mind and attitude to life.

Douglas-Fairhurst is a professor of English literature at Oxford, noted for his literary biographies. His book on Lewis Carroll is especially germane, as the influence of the creator of Alice in Wonderland is apparent in the structure of his biographer’s latest book. Douglas-Fairhurst wittily has chapters descend in numerical order, mimicking Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, which acts as a fictional correlative to his own descent into ill health, itself involving many physical falls along the way. Carroll also makes a mark in Douglas-Fairhurst’s philosophical contemplation of the absurd aspects of MS. He compares Alice’s sudden fluctuations in height with the unpredictable and erratic onslaughts his body has become prey to: legs dragging, apparently filled one day with lead, then without warning becoming collapsing jelly; vision now clear, now a misted window, now like looking through the wrong end of a telescope; most testing of all, for a teacher of literature, words first going AWOL from a previously well-stocked mental dictionary and then, worse, vanishing altogether into thin air as his lips struggle to form them.

He is also enjoyably upfront about his former personal vanity and how heavily weighs the loss of his physical attractiveness (I would be like him here and was delighted to be made privy to his beauty regimes). In this, as in all the losses, reverses and devastations, he

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