Strange Bodies(5)
Author:Marcel Theroux

    As Hunter talked warmly about his cherished pieces, I confess I had to fight an inward spurt of resentment. At the age of almost forty, and after a lifetime’s commitment to the study of English letters, I could barely afford to buy books in hardback; the last holiday I’d taken with my family had been spent on board a narrowboat on a rainswept canal in the Midlands; whereas Hunter, a hobbyist, a mere dilettante, was able actually to own unique objects of irreplaceable historic and scholastic value. I checked myself for an instant and recognised that my snobbishness was a defensive reflex. I was ashamed of my real reasons for coming to the lunch. While I may have insisted that I was simply curious to meet Hunter, properly, at root, I was hoping that it would be to my financial advantage. And so, with the forensic gift for nuance that had made me a talented literary scholar and virtually hopeless at everything else, I saw the truth was a horrible reverse of the stereotype: on this occasion, the rich man cared only for literature, while the scholar was just in it for the money.

    ‘What you’re asking is fairly straightforward,’ I said to him. ‘There’s a lot of extant material in Johnson’s own hand. I have a sample of it here. Comparing them would be a pretty good place to start.’

    ‘Unfortunately, the seller isn’t keen to have the letters copied as he says they’re in a very fragile state.’

    I said nothing, but my expression must have betrayed my scepticism.

    ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ said Hunter. ‘It made me suspicious too. I’ve seen the letters, and they look like the real thing, but all I have for now is transcripts.’

    He took a sheaf of A4 paper from the inside pocket of his navy blue jacket. It was folded longways down the middle and consisted of half a dozen closely typed sheets. ‘I understand the limitations of what you can do,’ Hunter said reasonably. ‘I don’t expect a cast-iron guarantee. I just want your professional opinion: is it likely to be Johnson, or not?’

    As I glanced down the first page, I noted the faithful transcription of original spellings. I could hear an almost wistful note of surprise in my own voice when I remarked to Hunter that the letters appeared to be new to me. Although I would never have said it to Hunter, on reading the first few lines of the first document I caught a glimpse of something so clearly recognisable – the gait of a loved one on a distant hillside, the smell of my children’s hair, the varied sensations evoked by my mother’s cooking – that its authenticity seemed to me both undeniable and impossible to analyse. Out of habit, I began rationalising the feeling: it was something in the sinuosity of the sentences, a few familiar contractions, a pet word or two. But beyond that, there was something more; a quality which I embarrassed myself by wanting to call soul.

    Hunter mistook my silent rapture for either doubtfulness or reluctance, and with no way to assuage the former, he used the only means at his disposal to deal with the latter. Withdrawing a Coutts chequebook and Mont Blanc ballpoint from his other inside pocket, he said: ‘Naturally, I’m not expecting you to do this gratis. I was thinking, five or six, say six? And assuming it’s genuine you’ll write me a document authenticating it.’

    On the other side of the table, I fought the astonished flush of pleasure that was brought to my face by the realisation that Hunter Gould was writing me a personal cheque for £3000. ‘I’ll give you the same on delivery,’ Hunter added as he scrawled the jagged spikes of his signature.

    I pocketed the cheque awkwardly and said I’d be delighted to help.


    I cannot make you understand what it is to look at the moon through this stranger’s eyes and know that I will never hold my children again.

    Sometimes I wake up on the ward with a pain in my chest that feels like my heart breaking. Yes, my heart breaking. The description lacks either medical or literary merit, but it ameliorates nothing to know that my house of suffering is bricked and barred with clichés. Tears, heartbreak, pathetic fallacies of weeping skies and bleeding sunsets: these aren’t lousy approximations of lived experiences, they’re the nerves and fibre of human life itself. I was never a Whorfian, and yet I have woken up to find I am made of words.

    And all that I am – the meat of me and the 167 key markers coded and recombined in infinite variation – can only express with more embellishment these seventeen syllables of Onitsura: This autumn I’ll be looking at the moon with no child upon my knee.


    Once in a while, if our therapeutic outcomes are consistently positive, we get permission to visit the museum. It houses artefacts from the old Bedlam and paintings and art works by our predecessors.

    There are carvings from the former entrance: Melancholy and Madness as huge stone figures, old admission papers, a vitrine full of restraints – cuffs, a leather collar, gags, a harness.

    Most of all, I am regularly astonished by the power of the art. In William Kurelek’s The Maze I see a fleshy labyrinth that still feels like a good summation of my predicament. It shows the cross-section of a cranium, filled with tableaux of nightmarish memories. The works of the parricide Richard Dadd trouble me with their hints of buried violence. But my favourite is a huge piece by Jonathan Martin, the nineteenth-century arsonist who tried to burn down York Minster. It is a mad apocalyptic panorama of London in flames. In crabbed but legible handwriting on the reverse he wrote a long account of a dream he had. I found it so moving that I have committed it to memory:


    2ndly I dreamt towards the morning that I saw 12 Rainbows in the heavens, they crossed each other, and I stood under the yard-shed, and the patients all around me observed it, and one said I count eleven rainbows. I thought when he said that, the rainbows moved from the heavens, and became like an army of soldiers engaging and intermixing with each other, they came direct from heaven towards me, and I felt the reflection of the fire and the patients made sport of it. I reclined upon one knee and prayed that God would have mercy upon their ignorance; and I thought the rainbows would have overthrown the Hospital: and I awoke out of my sleep.

    Because I am an educated man there has been a certain amount of favouritism shown towards me at the Dangerous Humans Unit. One of the psychiatrists, Dr Fenella Webster, clearly fancies herself as a literary figure. She’s had me in her office a number of times to discuss Jane Austen and to air her theories about the so-called question of Shakespeare’s authorship. Like most anti-Stratfordians, she has no feeling for the poetry itself and the insights she offers are second-hand, but she has taken a shine to me and lobbied for me to have access to a computer. Strictly speaking, the internet is out of bounds, but I’ve found a way to connect. And though my faculty email account has been closed, my personal correspondence is still online. It’s thanks to Dr Webster that I am able to work on this testimony.

    Twice a week, she and I engage in wholly useless therapeutic wranglings in which she tries to make me admit that I’m not who I say I am. I’ve given up trying to make her understand the peculiar awfulness of my condition. I’m a demi-man, a simulacrum, a tattered coat upon a stick. And I can’t escape the feeling that Yeats knew, in the vatic, unwitting way of poets. After all, he underwent a procedure of his own, the Steinach, to rejuvenate himself. A mouth that has no moisture and no breath, breathless mouths may summon; I hail the superhuman; I call it death-in-life and life-in-death. Its exactness chills me.

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