Great books about sickness

You might have noticed, dear reader, if you are even out there (!), that I’ve been rather silent for the last week.

Unfortunately, I’ve been sick as a dog fighting off a nasty version of one of several nasty Melbourne flus. So, to celebrate my lengthy convalescence, here’s a post on some of my favourtie books on sickness and ill health:

1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

One of my favourite novels by one of my favourite novelists, this interminable mediation of the sickness of Europe is in some ways an instantiation of Jung’s dream, on the cusp of the First World War, of a Europe filled with blood up to the level of the alps. This book deals with the refugees from that holocaust. Marooned in a Swiss santorium, they have nothing to do but talk, which they do, incessantly. One of the truly great, strange achievements of modernism, this is often considered one of Mann’s more difficult works, but also one of his greatest.

2. Illness as a metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors by Susan Sontag

Michael Ignatieff says it best in this short review on Amazon, in which he he comments “Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor was the first to point out the accusatory side of the metaphors of empowerment that seek to enlist the patient’s will to resist disease. It is largely as a result of her work that the how-to health books avoid the blame-ridden term ‘cancer personality’ and speak more soothingly of ‘disease-producing lifestyles’ . . . AIDS and Its Metaphors extends her critique of cancer metaphors to the metaphors of dread surrounding the AIDS virus. Taken together, the two essays are an exemplary demonstration of the power of the intellect in the face of the lethal metaphors of fear.”

Thanks Michael. I like your criticism much better than your political philosophy.

3. White Noise by Don DeLillo

One of the greatest US novels of the late 20th century, perhaps of the 20th century in general, this witty, poignant and sad novel probes the sickness of the spirit as protagonist Jack Gladney, a successful academic who suspects he may be an intellectual fraud, confronts the psychic perils of late modernity and utlimately his own fear of death.  Featuring such timeless set-pieces as the “airborne toxic event”, the Department of Hitler Studies and the Most Photographed Barn in America, this is DeLillo at his crackling best.

4. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Faulkner. If you love him, as I really do, then this is one of his best works. All the famous motifs are here: multiple narrative voices, Southern Gothic, race, pride, violence, family, heat.  I really love Faulkner.

5. The Vivisector by Patrick White

A thoroughly nasty novel about a thoroughly nasty man. This a work about a different kind of sickness, a sickness of the emotions, of the artist as monster, and ultimately about the horrible things White did to his many lovers. I would not recommend this except for its narrative and linguistic mastery, which shows again why White is such an important and poorly understood Australian author. The final chapters are the best, because they are the worst.

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