In 1995 Robert McCrum, literary editor of The Observer and former editorial director at Faber and Faber, suffered a massive stroke. He was only forty-two years old and had just got married. There followed a long struggle to rehabilitate and regain the use of his left side. By 2013 he had been through deep depression and his marriage had ended.
But twenty years later, in 2015, after a fall on the way home from a Pilates session, he was thrown back into fears of infirmity and loss of independence. He saw such a fall as ‘a kind of failure’. He seemed to have survived and to be still 100 per cent himself but it made him worry and question. And out of that incident this book has grown, because now he is in his sixties, and the end of life is inexorably approaching. His mood is that of Prospero in The Tempest
And then retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.
So, given that McCrum wants to reflect on mortality, illness, and aging, how has he gone about it? Very much in the way most people do who address these issues,
He interviews people with terminal illnesses, ranging from breast cancer to Parkinson’s disease. Most of those he interviews are upbeat or are trying to be. He interviews surgeons, and oncologists, staff in palliative care units.
Then, of course, he delves into books about the deaths of famous people. Freud gets a good mark for dying in pain without analgesia, Susan Sontag a bad mark for refusing to go without a great deal of fuss. He covers dementia, where he speaks about Iris Murdoch and Prunella Scales.
In a section where he speaks of the death of the philosopher David Hume, and James Boswell’s intrusive curiosity about Hume’s manner of dying, McCrum says,
Literary ambulance chasing has its macabre side.
I found McCrum’s long disquisitions about his own neurological investigations less than interesting. The book seemed to me to be like a long magazine article, with its interviews with patients and doctors padded out with quotes. However, I did enjoy his account of James Boswell’s ‘creepy voyeurism’ at Humes’ death bed.
…I went to see Mr David Hume, who was returned from London and Bath, just a-dying.
I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room.
He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig.
Boswell takes the opportunity to see if Hume had recanted from his atheism. But Hume remains steadfast.
This book presents a more journalistic view of death than Sigrid Nunez in What Have you been Going Through. Her book was a novel where the characters seemed cold and detached. McCrum tries hard here to present a sympathetic view of the problems of illness and disability. But he is perhaps overly descriptive of his own dealings with the medical profession. And as others have said, the last chapter with the romantic meeting under the apple tree seemed quite out of place.
I’ll have to re-read Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End that she wrote at the age of ninety, continuing to live a reasonably contented life until the age of one hundred and one. A down to earth stoical woman after my own heart.