BREAST CANCER AND THE ABANDONED VILLAGE

I am on holiday for 2 weeks and the next post will be on or before Thursday May 31st

WHAT  ANNIE, IONE AND I DID, AND WHAT I READ IN 1998

 In June of 1998 a few days after her 43rd birthday, my wife Annie noticed puckering in one of her breasts and immediately got herself along to her very efficient woman GP in North Cumbria. At the impressive speed of light (for of course not all hospital authorities are lightning fast) she was referred to a stocky and moustachioed consultant, also in his forties, who in retrospect was perfect for what lay ahead. He had nil bedside manner and was bluff and brusque to the point of comedy, but was a proven and uncompromising expert in his field. He also worked like a maniac and ran clinics where he saw literally hundreds of Cumbrian and South Scottish women about their worrying lumps and told them they were either benign or that they needed immediate intervention. He had Annie swiftly take a mammogram and a needle biopsy and though the latter was inconclusive he turned to us and declared:

“Forty-three and breast puckering? I don’t believe the needle result. There is something definitely not right.”

He ordered an exploratory lumpectomy and sure enough a few days later found a heap of calcified tissue in the breast. We didn’t know that when I drove Annie home, after which, dozy from the anaesthetic, she got into bed and I lay on top of it, and we watched a ponderously second-rate movie Dolores Claiborne, which it transpired was adapted from a Stephen King novel. Since then I have never liked Stephen King movies and his novels even less, though when I think about it I didn’t like them pre-1998 either. The Shawshank Redemption for example is admittedly compelling viewing, but watch it a few times and you will see all the cracks, the inconsistencies, the rank incredibilities, and the conflation of extreme and sickly violence and an oddly cloying kind of wishful thinking.

Let’s call the consultant Mr Wilkinson. About a week after the lumpectomy we had to see him in his office where in rat a tat fashion he told us about the calcified tissue and recommended a mastectomy, lymph node clearance and most likely a course of chemotherapy to follow. This was exactly what was to happen between August 1998 and the spring of 1999, but his matter of fact explanation came as an overwhelming shock to both of us. At once Annie collapsed against my shoulder and burst into sobs.

Wilkinson, truly mystified, turned to look at me.

“What’s wrong with her?”

I stared at the specialist and ought to have been angry, but instead divined that this was the unflinching if graceless expert that we really needed and that sometimes the people we require most in this world are not always the nicest and might even be half mad. He probably really liked Stephen King novels, though being a workaholic no doubt fell asleep on page 24. I pondered, then translated the perplexing phenomenon of a deeply upset woman for his benefit.

“She’s very upset, Mr Wilkinson. That’s why she’s crying.”

“Oh,” he blinked, not at all comprehending, as he drummed his stubby fingers. “But it is very straightforward what we have to do.”

After the mastectomy, he explained that he would reconstruct the breast by injecting fluid, then build it up after the manner of a modest but confident sculptor. All that would begin in August which meant our planned fortnight with our dogs Bonnie and Monty up in a beautiful South Uist cottage had to be immediately cancelled. We also had to tell Annie’s worried Mum and Dad as well as all our friends, and we hid nothing from Ione, but being only 9, thankfully it seemed to pass her by. The night after Annie’s surgery I arranged her little pal Maria to come down for a sleepover and the pair of them raced around above my head hooting hilariously, and of course I really relished that din as it was obvious that my daughter’s innocence knew nothing of the fear of mortality. I had just come back from the hospital where Annie was sat waiting and smiling in the patterned floral blouse I’d bought for her birthday in Alston. With a natural and unfeigned assurance, she was adamant she would survive all this, and I had nil doubt either. That said, I observed her courage very humbly, for in her shoes I would have openly shit myself at such drastic surgery. But she like several other remarkable women I have known with breast cancer, just took a deep breath and opted to get on with it. She was already planning her work schedule months ahead, when the chemotherapy and reconstruction were to start, and she was to drive poor Wilkinson bonkers when she refused several appointments and demanded others.

He gasped. “But you simply can’t put your work first at this stage! You have to have urgent treatment for a serious condition and you…”

“I know that. Of course, I want the treatment, but I also want to have flexible appointments, because I have an important job and I happen to be a breadwinner.  And no, before you say it, the chemotherapy won’t make me sick, I’m confident of that. I definitely intend to carry on and work as normal.”

Right enough, seemingly clairvoyantly, she had nil side effects, for she lost no hair, nor was she even mildly nauseous at any stage. She had an important conference in Belfast in early September and with my encouragement she treated herself to a holiday and drove her hire car over the border to Donegal. Donegal is paradise of course, and having sampled the lovely Gaeltachd, Annie carried on down to Dublin, and went to see a very shocking Sarah Kane play, the last word in defiance and the first word in assertive attitude you might say. Annie did not put it in so many words, but instead of cowering and shivering and worse, she was determined to bloody well enjoy herself in Ireland, and make the most of things. I meanwhile cashed in an insurance policy so that we could have a fortnight’s recuperation in Greece, for Annie had always said that Greek islands were the only place where it was possible to swim in a warm and above all gentle sea. She like me was a doting Portugal fan, but the Algarve often has huge breakers, and the sea along the Costa Verde though beautiful can be bloody cold even in August.

We chose Tilos in the Dodecanese in the end, because of its relative obscurity. It is close to both Turkey and tiny and waterless Symi which has so many Brit expats they even have an English language newspaper, which must surely be some sort of coded warning sign. In 1998 Tilos had only a handful of tourists and the port where we stayed was a tranquil backwater with a silver haired domatia owner who provided breakfast and was infinitely courteous to young Ione. She always chose peach flavoured iced tea, but he always gravely asked her, what kind today, madam, as if the choice and she as discerning customer were of infinite importance. Three other Tilos cameos are worth recounting.

A grizzled and handsome young farmer of about thirty selling watermelons from his van had no English whatever other than the following two words, which he bawled at everyone he believed to be a foreigner:

‘Sexy veetamins! Sexy veetamins!”

Talking of vending, a state of the art supermarket had just opened in the port, stocking massive quantities of every kind of cigarette, for the Greeks have long been notorious as Europe’s most unashamed smokers.  Touching to behold, directly opposite was an old fashioned and grubby periptero, i.e.  a Greek kiosk that specialised in cigarettes, sweets, chewing gum, pens, combs and the like. With the new arrival the old kiosk was severely ailing, and the proprietor had only a few loyal smokers and customers, meaning that much of the time and especially during the midday heat he would stand feebly upright in his kiosk, then bit by bit sag and doze the hours away. More strikingly the proprietor was of indeterminate sex, what in the old days would have been called a hermaphrodite (2 Greek gods in one you understand). He dressed like a man but could have been a woman and he had a look of melancholy and lifelong endurance though he was always greeted very warmly by everyone who passed by.

One midday he was happily asleep and probably dreaming about the good old days when he sold dozens of juddering 200 packs of fags every exhilarating Friday evening… when suddenly an insistent if shy knocking on his glass roused him from one of his few consolations. It was roasting hot and inside his kiosk must have been an oven, a fournos bakery. The knocking came from a tourist called Ione aged 9, wanting a lordly/ladily 10 cents worth of chewing gum. Annie and I standing at a distance were expecting him to show a reflex  irritability, but he merely yawned and passed across the gum and duly gave her the 40 cents change.

Finally there was the abandoned village of Gera (pronounced ‘Yera’, it means simply The Old Place) which was not mentioned in the Rough Guide To Greece but which the domatia owner had told us about with unabashed tears in his eyes, as it was where he had spent his early years. It was deserted in the late 1940s, and was a mere half hour’s walk from the port, presumably the villagers having migrated there for an easier if hard enough life. Our Tilos map was one of those cheerful tourist ones which still flourish alongside the posh digital and cartographic ones you get nowadays in ever increasing profusion. This meant that the distances and dispositions were of an intuitive order, i.e. vague and frequently contradictory and often downright wrong.  As a result, it took us longer than we’d thought to find Gera and we almost gave up. At one point I spotted some insignificant ruins, a mere heap of stones which I claimed must be it, but they were probably much older ruins from a much older abandoned hamlet. Then at last and through some trees and right next to the sea there it was, there was Gera, and our excitement and our emotion were profound. There was Gera which was about forty little cubic houses sprawled along a summit, empty of windows of course, and a kind of seabird grey with half a century’s weathering, looking infinitely biblical and eternal as they faced out to sea and to Turkey, innocuously hidden away by the copse of trees and to all intents and purposes the very end of the world.

Annie and I were helplessly moved and we did not say as much but we both instinctively felt that the desertion of this little protective cove for a new place close by, yet in human terms a million miles away, was rather like our own cruel transmutation. A few months ago Annie Murray aged 43 was without diagnosed breast cancer, that was her old, safe and obviously eternal state. Then only days after her birthday, she was a woman invaded with this thing called cancer, meaning inevitably and completely against her will, she had been obliged to abandon her old secure existence. So it was that Gera at the deepest level represented Annie as she was, as she and it were both hauntingly beautiful and in a curious state of grace called Divine Sadness…which of course you might well disbelieve and will only know yourself once you have tasted it.

 

What I Read in 1998 (from my Reading Diary)

Solzhenitsyn by DM Thomas

The Emigrants by WG Sebald (1944-2001. The brilliant and innovative German writer who taught at Norwich University, UK was massively popular in the late 90s with his books about memory and collective memory loss, e.g. The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. He was tragically killed in a car crash when he suffered a sudden aneurysm)

Light on my Days by George Duhamel (1884-1966. The memoirs of one of my favourite writers, author of the wonderfully exhilarating The Pasquier Chronicles. Duhamel was also a doctor)

Fermina Marquez by Valery Larbaud (1881-1957. A boarding school novel by a poet and novelist born in Vichy of a wealthy spa water bottling family)

Diaries of Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud (his best known novel)

The Retreat by Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018. Israeli Holocaust writer born in the Bukovina and put in a labour camp by pro-Nazi Romanians in WW2. Multilingual, he wrote in Hebrew as he could not bear to write in his first language which was German)

Babylon by Rene Crevel (1900-1935. The 1927 novel of a bisexual communist and Surrealist who was excluded from the movement by Andre Breton. He suffered with TB and like his father before him he committed suicide)

Life in the Tomb by Stratis Myrvilis (1890-1969. A haunting war novel by one of Greece’s best known writers, born in Lesvos when it was under the Ottomans. During WW2 he urged resistance to the Germans but was also fiercely critical of the communist partisans)

Doruntine by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. Albania’s best known author and a massively gifted writer. I interviewed him in Paris in 1997)

The Liar by Martin A Hansen (1909-1955. The 1950 novel of a powerful Danish writer who was active in the Resistance in WW2. He suffered appalling head injuries as a child)

Night and Hope by Arnost Lustig (1926-2011. Czech Jewish Holocaust author who was only a boy of 16 when sent to Auschwitz. The greatest modern Czech writer in my view, though barely known beside say Milan Kundera)

Blindness by Jose Saramago (1922-2010. One of the 1998 Nobel winner’s best known novels as it was turned into a controversial 2008 English language film starring Julianne Moore. The Portuguese genius is one of my abiding literary heroes as he combines phenomenal technical talent and fastidious sentence control with a wonderfully subtle irony)

Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis (1923-2013. Colombian writer much praised by his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Maqroll is the engaging antihero whose adventures run to 7 novellas, the first published 1986)

Reading In The Dark by Seamus Deane (born 1940. This is his prizewinning first novel, published in 1996. Born in Derry, N Ireland, he is also a university professor)

The Time of Secrets and The Time of Love by Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974. Phenomenal Provencal polymath who was both a great writer and a great filmmaker. His 1952 Jean de Florette movie was remade by Claude Berri in 1986)

Noli Me Tangere By Jose Rizal (1861-1896. Novelist and polemicist Rizal, is the Philippine’s greatest national hero as he was a prime agitator against the Spanish colonial occupation. He was executed for sedition by a dragooned Filipino firing squad with Spanish soldiers stood behind, ready to shoot them if they failed to do the grisly job. This excellent and harrowing novel with the Latin title means, Do Not Touch Me)

Rainbow by Wanda Wasilewska (1905-1964). The 1944 novel of a Communist Socialist Realist who was Polish but moved to the Soviet Union during the war. Despite her rigid ideology this is a very readable novel.

Scene in Passing by Robert Neumann (1897-1975). The 1942 novel of a very prolific German Jewish writer who was a convinced social democrat.

Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell (1908-2000. Fine 1948 novel by the legendary New Yorker fiction editor. He is also of interest as he has a character called Ione which is the very rare name my own daughter has)

The Disenchanted by Pierre Loti (1850-1923. Neglected but very readable novelist who was also a navy officer and passionate Turcophile, greatly enamoured of the Ottoman Empire. He is best known for An Icelandic Fisherman)

Dark Horses by Karl Miller (1931-2014. Essays by a fearlessly independent literary editor who was crucial to my own career, as he took my first story The Senor and the Celtic Cross for the London Review of Books, a story which was so long he had to put it across 2 issues. He was ultimately sacked from the LRB which no longer prints short stories and ever since has become ever more complaisant and complacent )

The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh(1904-1967. Very funny 1938 novel by Irish poet and novelist who had a hard time getting established, and was famously irritable as a result. Born in rural Monaghan he also wrote the hilarious 1948 Tarry Flynn)

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler (born 1956 Richard is a New Yorker who lives in Portugal and who had great international success with this harrowing 1996 novel about the Portuguese Inquisition. He also won the 1994 Panurge International Fiction Competition, Panurge being the magazine I founded in 1984)

Bad to the Bone by James Waddington (born 1942. Debut literary thriller about the Tour de France)

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (his 1980 novel)

Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald ( I gave this a star review in the Independent on Sunday)

Plagued by the Nightingale by Kay Boyle (1902-1992. The 1931 novel of the famous American author and activist who was jailed in the 1960s for her anti Vietnam war protests and one of whose husbands was called Baron von Frankenstein. My favourite book of hers is the 1944 Avalanche)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Damascus by Richard Beard (born 1967. I printed this successful UK writer’s fine story in Panurge in 1995, but I didn’t care at all for this uneven and uneasily picaresque novel )

Life, A User’s Manual by Georges Perec  (1936-1982. Epic 1978 masterpiece which took 15 years to appear in English which says much for so called UK culture. Perec was a playful genius obsessed with games, puzzles, acrostics etc and who tragically died aged only 45)

Crocodile Soup by Julia Darling (1956-2005. Courtesy of Panurge Publishing I printed Julia’s first book, a story collection called Bloodlines in 1995, when she was also diagnosed with breast cancer. She also won Joint 2nd Prize in the 1994 Panurge International Short Story Competition. She and I were both longlisted for the Booker in the same year, 2003, as, come to think of it was fellow Cumbrian, Melvyn Bragg. Julia died aged only 49, after a 10 year remission. My wife’s remission was also 10 years long as it happened)

Pleasured by Philip Hensher (born 1965 and a leading UK novelist and columnist. I thought this book was very bad with weird things like clumsy and cloth-eared redundance in some of the sentences. The literary editor at the Independent on Sunday, Suzi Feay, refused to print my review with the wondrously bizarre logic that Hensher’s distinguished publisher could not possibly print anything bad. If ever you think British literary culture might be just a trifle on the cloying Masonic side, you wouldn’t be far wrong)

Salman the Solitary by Yashar Kemal (1923-2015. Wonderful 1980 novel which took 17 years to appear in the UK. Turkey’s greatest writer by far, and also a courageous human rights activist and supporter of the Kurds. Appallingly he never won the Nobel Prize, though surely a far bigger writer than the very talented Orhan Pamuk who did so in 2006)

Dita Saxova by Arnost Lustig (published 1962, translated 1979, and also filmed in the former Czechoslovakia)

The Three Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare (the 1998 novel about an old Balkan folk myth)

Albania, A History by Miranda Vickers

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (1899-1951. Though a Communist his work was mostly banned in the USSR as he satirised Stalinism and the revolutionary work ethic in absurdist existentialist terms This novel was written in 1930, but only published in the USSR in 1987, 36 years after his death

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks (born 1953. A riveting and very convincing 1998 novel about the French resistance, turned into a really awful 2001 film starring Cate Blanchett)

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (1873-1947. The 1915 novel of the great US writer famous for her frontier fiction, including the 1918 My Antonia)

Skellig by David Almond (born 1951. Acclaimed UK children’s writer and this is his debut masterpiece which is written as much for adults as children. He and I co-edited Panurge fiction magazine between 1984 and 1996. His poignant story collection Counting Stars dealing with his Felling on Tyne childhood is another masterpiece)

The Pasquier Chronicles by Georges Duhamel (my copy of this came from the library of the sailing hero Sir Francis Chichester)

The Common Chord by Frank O’ Connor (1903-1966. Pen name of Michael O’ Donovan and a great short story writer who also wrote 2 enjoyable novels that seemingly only I have ever read. Born into an impoverished Cork family with a drunken father and a stoical mother, after Irish independence he fought for the IRA)

Silent Day in Tangier by Tahar ben Jalloun (born 1944. Hugely talented Moroccan writer who writes in French and won the Prix Goncourt)

Consequences of the Heart by Peter Cunningham (born 1944, an Irish novelist whose Monument is a fictionalised Waterford where he grew up. This book is one of 4  Monument novels)

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago (this is the Nobel winner’s 1982 novel which is an 18th  C love story)

Stories of Eva Lunes by Isabel Allende (born 1942. One of Chile’s best known writers and her father was a cousin of the ousted president Salvador Allende who was murdered by Augusto Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher’s friend, in 1973. I love some of Allende’s novels and dislike others, perhaps because her particular type of Magical Realism is not always aimed at the same imaginative depths)

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago (one of my favourites among his remarkable novels, with a fine urbane humour. It was published in 1984)

After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima (1925-1970. This novel was published in 1960. Considered one of the world’s greatest writers, Mishima was also a right-wing nationalist with his own fanatical uniformed militia. Hoping to reinstall the Japanese emperor, he failed in a coup to take a military base, then committed seppuku or ritual disembowelment

Fields of Glory by Jean Rouaud (born 1952. He won the Prix Goncourt with this 1992 novel)

Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima (his 1953 collection)

The Garden of the Finzi Continis by Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000. Born of a prosperous Ferrara Jewish family he joined the anti-Fascist resistance and was briefly jailed for it, much of which is reflected in this famous 1962 novel. It was filmed by Vittorio de Sica in 1970.

The Infinite Plan by Isabel Allende (published 1991)

Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende (published 1985)

Room For a Single Lady by Clare Boylan (1948-2006. I recommend this 1997 novel to everyone and everyone really loves it, my late wife Annie included. Boylan is brilliant at the comical portrayal of feckless fathers and hopeless mothers failing to keep up appearances in impoverished middle class Dublin, as depicted in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

Runaway Horses by Yukio Mishima (published 1969)

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997. This hilarious 1964 novella by the Czech master, is remarkably written as a single sentence from start to finish. It is among other things a string of mad anecdotes, appealing to someone like me who is a lifelong fan of Cumbrian Tall Tales (Cummerlan Tyals)

Ecstasy by Louis Couperus (1863-1923. The 1897 novel subtitled A Study of Happiness by one of Holland’s greatest authors. Surprisingly it was translated into English very quickly, but it took another 100 years before the enterprising Pushkin Press put it out again in the UK)

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (born 1954. Corelli is the word of mouth 1994 runaway success which is certainly very readable, but curiously soft centred and rosy-eyed re the central love affair. The same wishful thinking is evident in his earlier Latin American trilogy of novels which I think are excellent apart from the bonkers fantasy of men and women and pumas living happily side by side. Corelli was made into a film starring Nick Cage which received very mixed reviews)

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson (born 1943. Enormously successful novel about 3 generations of women by an Idaho writer who also won the Pulitzer. It was turned into a 1987 film directed by Bill Forsyth)

A Small Yes and a Big No by George Grosz (1893-1959. Superb memoir by brilliant satirical German artist who was a prime member in the Dada movement. He emigrated to the States in 1933 but he died in Berlin)

House of Children by Joyce Cary (1888-1957. This is his 1941 novel. Not much read these days, Cary was massively popular in his day and in the early 80s I read almost everything he wrote. His mad artist Gulley Jimson in the 1944 The Horse’s Mouth took everyone by storm but in fact Jimson was violent towards women and in my view was a vicarious and uneven bit of wishful thinking by Cary who was formerly a colonial administrator in Nigeria. I think his best book was the 1939 colonial novel Mister Johnson, made into an enjoyable 1990 movie with Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan and Edward Upward)

The Sacred Night by Tahar ben Jalloun (his 1987 novel)

The Palace by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (born 1953. One of the few UK writers of my generation who I would say is of real stature, as she is one of the few who is capable of writing prose of a truly enduring quality. It is telling that her Dad was Guyanese, that her family origins are Channel Island French, that one of her husbands was Venezuelan, and that she now lives in Mozambique. This is the 1998 novel of an authentically cosmopolitan and very gifted writer)

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte (born 1951.The 1990 work of the Spanish novelist and former war correspondent. He writes gripping and very filmable historical novels but was accused of stealing one of her plots by the Mexican writer Veronica Murgula)

Paula by Isabel Allende (the harrowing 1994 memoir about her daughter Paula who died after entering a porphyria coma in 1991)

Count d’Orgel by Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923. A friend of Picasso and Cocteau who was his mentor, this posthumous 1924 novel is about adultery, as was his explosive and autobiographical 1923 The Devil and the Flesh, about a 16 year old boy having an affair with a married woman whose husband was away fighting at the front. He died aged 20 of TB)

 

 

 

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