Sorry to disappoint those (millions?) of you clamouring to read my blog or check out my website. It disappeared over a week ago, but I can assure you I still exist in the real world. And here I am, putting the first brick of my online world back in place.
Last week, when I wasn’t waiting in a phone queue to seek tech support, I was reading. Two memoirs were stand-outs, both published posthumously shortly after their authors had died. The Memory Chalet is by Tony Judt, a historian who contracted the auto-immune disease ALS and wrote over his final two years, dictating to an assistant, as paralysis took over his body. He relied on his ‘memory chalet’ to store his memories (a reference to the ‘memory palace’ that dates back to Greek and Roman authors). If, like me, you’re a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, you’ll know it as Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’. Judt’s book is beautiful, both as a memoir, written in a series of essays, and as an insight into his brilliant mind.
The other memoir is Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, the story of a neurosurgeon who dies of lung cancer at the age of 37, leaving his wife and baby behind. The author studied literature before he became a surgeon, and his writing and his life are exemplary. In the first half, he takes us into his day-to-day work as a surgeon, focussing on the doctor-patient relationship. In the second, he details the progress of his illness and discourses on the nature of death and time. He had helped his patients face death, and now he had to find his own way there.
Both were remarkable men and fine writers. And, in extremis, they found a way to write down their experience for the world to read. An inspiration for all us writers.