Writers and Their Lungs


Guest post on Interesting Literature. With reference to Sterne, Kafka, Proust and Katherine Mansfield, Michael looks at the connection between lung complaints and an author’s style and form.

Read Ye and Wheeze!

To this hour art thou not tormented with the vile asthma that thou gattest in skating against the wind in Flanders? [Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), Vol VIII, Ch 2]

As an extra distraction from the job of writing his life, Sterne gave his own worst organ to Tristram Shandy. Before we object to such a dubious gift, let’s marvel at the wrapping, that image of fluency contending with nature – not to mention the ‘Flanders’ effect (over the sea/close as the garden). Pickling disease with mirth, Tristram reports an episode of haemoptysis at the sight of a cardinal pissing with two hands. For the weak of lungs, every laugh is a dice throw. As an undergraduate, Sterne himself was already coughing blood; making it to 55 without Streptomycin must have required unusual vitality.

Our modern scholars are much concerned with ‘materialist’ explanations of literature, though they refer less often than you might expect to, say, the size of a novelist’s writing table, which may be cramped, or to a novelist’s lungs, which may be very cramped, as determinants of style or form. In Tristram Shandy, illness serves as dancing master to an abundant and cheerful art. To be copious in the manner of Sterne, one must know what it is to feel that killing tightness. 600 pages in length, his book breathes for him.

The ‘Methode de Cumberbatch’ recommends reading In Search of Lost Time in the following order: Part 1; Part 6; Part 2; Part 3 (saving Parts 4&5 for periods of imprisonment, or exile). Following this method will leave you around 1,200 pages short of completing the experience. Conversion to most religions would probably require less stamina, but might not persuade you to look at blossom trees as angels. Proust’s novel is long, the episodes are long (a 112-page salon visit, a 214-page party), the sentences are often long (10 lines on a deaf man watching milk boil). One watches for paragraph breaks as a civilian on a commando hike yearns for a bench. The paragraphs are long.

Proust suffered his first asthma attack at the age of 9, and died of asthma exacerbated by pneumonia at 51, telling those at his bedside, ‘I have just coughed three thousand times – I think that’s the record’. That his fear, and experience both chronic and acute, of breathlessness, were creatively productive is accepted by biographers and critics. ‘Proust’s syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffocating,’ wrote Walter Benjamin, adding that, ‘A physiology of style would take us into the innermost core of this creativeness.’ [‘The Image of Proust’ (1929)] We’ll note Benjamin’s use of the subjunctive: has such a physiology been persuasively undertaken? Yet I wonder about ‘reproduces his fear’, which seems to allow the disease a power of stylistic determination (albeit a most extravagant one), when we might regard the style, and form, of Proust’s novel in terms of overcoming, and in terms of the peculiar happiness of the asthmatic that attends either the end of a bout or the distraction from breathlessness, e.g. by music, that may occur during a bout. Such happiness would then be the source of Proust’s stamina, the courageous standard of his writing, which by far exceeds the strength of many healthy readers.

At the beginning of Kafka’s first effort at a novel, we encounter an image that will become familiar: ‘[Karl] had painfully to find his way down endlessly recurring stairs, through corridors with countless turnings’ [America, Chapter 1]. Such stairs and corridors recur in America (1927) and The Trial (1925). Now if you can resist metaphysics, what is obvious is that the image of stairs without end means the torment of failing lungs, of the body that can’t breathe. I don’t know whether the terrible story of Therese’s mother coughing blood in the street before her final ascent of ‘countless stairs’ and search for lodgings in ‘oppressive corridors’ [America, Chapter 5], foreshadows or coincides with Kafka’s own experience of tuberculosis (which seems to have been diagnosed around 1917, killing him in 1924). In The Trial (composed later than America), the air has become bad as well, sometimes to the point of developing an interior haze. How one wishes Titorelli’s window would open!

You may insist that the stairs suggest the Law that hunts K, explanation of which arrives at neither apex nor foundation: ‘The hierarchical structure of the Court was unending, parts of it were invisible even to the initiated’ [The Trial, Chapter 7]. Then they would be a kind of theological symbol. Except that the Court/Law is not suggested by the stairs, by the corridors and attics of this novel: rather, it is formed of them, conducted upon them. If you like, the Law is the awful, comic, dream of the body that can’t manage stairs. Or recalling the grandest furnishings of the empire in which Kafka was born, we may imagine it as a caprice that delights in tormenting the tubercular. ‘One of the great Baroque forms where actual and implied movements meet is the ceremonial stairhall,’, writes Robert Harbison: ‘The stair is normally a useful device but in the ceremonial version becomes at least as much of an instrument of delay as of progress’ [Reflections on Baroque (2000), Chapter 1]. In The Castle (1926), Kafka’s final novel, stairs have been done away with for a hill upon which K makes not even an attempt. Bureaucrats appear to be the obstacle, but in fact, castle-hill is Kafka’s own burial mound; heaped up with rare energy.

Hear the final section of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘At the Bay’ (1922), Beryl Fairfield alone in her room at night. Everything is voice and variation. Second-person interior monologue, first-person interior monologue, tagged direct thought, mocking self-address, third person reporting, free-indirect style, fantasy dialogue, fantasy dialogue revised, talking bushes, responsive furniture – even the sea joins in: the whole world breathing. Hypotheses about subjectivity, intersubjectivity and conjuration, should make room for the brute fact that Mansfield was dying of TB. Her art abounded in what she now lacked.

These instances of writing as convalescence verge on Nietzsche’s principle of the ‘commanding need’: ‘Regarding all aesthetic values I now avail myself of this main distinction: I ask in every instance, “is it hunger or superabundance that has here become creative?”’ [The Gay Science, Section 370]