If you believe that literature – as the narrator of Patrick McGrath’s 1993 novel Dr Haggard’s Disease says about love – “should not reassure, should not attempt to soothe, or give comfort, but should, rather, excite,” then this is the book for you. It’s certainly the book for me: I’ve read it four times before now, and my admiration for its artistry, strange beauty and creative brilliance only has me drumming my heels in merriment more each time.
(If you buy a copy now – second hand, of course, as shamefully it’s out of print – it might not look like the above, but I love this cover and now I’ve worked out how to use my scanner, there’s no stopping me.)
On the surface – the “roiling … churning” surface – Dr Haggard’s Disease is a story of love lost: a doctor in 1930s and 40s England recounts the story of his lost lover to her son.
I was in Elgin, upstairs in my study, gazing at the sea and reflecting, I remember, on a line of Goethe when Mrs Gregor tapped at the door that Saturday and said there was a young man in the surgery to see me, a pilot. You know how she talks. “A pilot, Mrs Gregor?” I murmured. I hate being disturbed on my Saturday afternoons, especially if Spike is playing up, as he was that day, but of course I limped out on to the landing and made my way downstairs. And you know what that looks like – pathetic bloody display that is, first the good leg, then the bad leg, then the stick, good leg, bad leg, stick, but down I came, down the stairs, old beyond my years and my skin a grey so cachectic it must have suggested even to you that I was in pain, chronic pain, but oh dear boy not pain like yours, just wait now and we’ll make it all – go – away -
But as always with McGrath, the story and the way the story is told are two different but linked elements. Already, in the opening paragraph above, there is much to tease us. Who or what is Spike? What’s with the bad leg? Why does he trail off so oddly? And as the pages pass, there are more ominous clues to the circumstances in which Haggard is telling us – or rather James, the son of his lover – his story (“Don’t move, darling boy. Don’t fight it”), and the story-behind-the-story which to begin with is only hinted at but sets our suspicions soaring (“dear boy you’ve undressed behind those screens yourself!”).
Early in the book, Haggard is told by another man, “Wife died ten years ago, never quite saw the point of things after that.” This concise appraisal reflects Haggard’s own preoccupation: he doesn’t see the point of things after losing his lover, but rather than dwindle and decline, he creates a sort of religion of his own overblown suffering, with fully biblical expression (his father was a rector and Haggard was expected to follow him into the church). We learn that no more than a year passed (1937-8) between his time of grand passion and his retirement to the south coast of England, where he chooses a grand gothic (but worn out) house, reflective of his “broken body and spirit” which nonetheless contains “the restlessness of a wild and changeful heart.” What can have happened in such a short time to account for such a change? That, and the terrible aftermath, is the essence of Dr Haggard’s disease.
McGrath’s handling of the air of wartime England and of the atmosphere between the principal players, is masterly. Here is the first flirtatious exchange between Haggard and his lover. (The names are positively Dickensian in McGrath’s novels. Here we have ravaged Haggard, overbearing husband Ratcliff, and the woman torn between them: Fanny. So he does jokes too.) Haggard has declared his intention to give himself over “to a life of pleasure.”
“I’d have thought pleasure was a worn-out idea, given the times, wouldn’t you?” …
“But tell me an idea that isn’t worn out.”
“Passion,” she said.
“Passion?” I was something of a stranger to that idea! “I should have thought that passion, at least, was about pleasure -?”
“Oh no,” she said quickly, “it’s not about pleasure at all. Passion is very serious. I know you take it lightly, but you’ll learn one day what a serious responsibility it is. It’s the best we’re capable of, civilized human beings.”
Civilized human beings. How strange I would find it, later, to recall a time before I heard her say those words, express that ideal – there seems a curious weightlessness to it now, as though all existence prior to your mother was just a form of floating, a fantastic, ethereal, childlike condition that did end, yes, with the gravity of the responsibility of passion – but all of that was yet to come. “The best?” I said.
“But passion always dies,” I said.
“Spoken like a medical man,” she said, as our plates were removed. “For you, passion is a disease. It causes suffering, comes to a crisis, and dies.”
The story is both creative and destructive as told by Haggard, whose mind “played tricks on me” even as it was able to “see the larger patterns, the higher truths.” Elgin, the house by the sea which he takes over, becomes an extension of himself, “something massive that has lain inert and dormant for years, being roused, shuffling to life again” and powered by “a huge monster heart, pumping and thumping through the shuddering, flickering structure in which I sat.”
The question that must be asked then is whether this soaringly perverse tale has any universality, or whether it’s art for art’s sake (and there’s nothing wrong with that). What it does is reflect normality through what Dr Haggard is not, as well as presenting moments where his humanity, in moments when he is not consumed by his own feelings, can show through: such as when he encounters an elderly patient who has her pain relieved with morphine:
I prepared a needle and asked the dying woman whether she wanted it now. “Yes,” she murmured, “yes I do. I won’t be going out just yet, Marjorie, I haven’t finished with the injections.”
On our way downstairs Marjorie Hale-Newton asked me what I thought her mother meant. I knew only too well. “She means,” I said, “that she’s at least getting pleasure from the morphia.”
“Oh I know she is,” said Marjorie. “She gets very impatient with me if I make her wait.”
“Don’t make her wait,” I said. “Let her have it when she wants it.”
But even this simple expression of humanity may have another explanation. And if only Dr Haggard could note his colleague’s advice, as a doctor, that “vast majority of people who’ll come to you, doctor, vast majority, have ailments that fall well within the scope of the body’s healing powers. Immense capacity to heal itself, the body, but it’s got to be persuaded.” Dr Haggard will not be persuaded that his dead love affair requires healing.
As you can see, I could talk about this book for hours (and almost have done). The only way to experience it, to complete the story, and to discover the terrible and brilliant ending, which remains for me one of the strongest and most grotesquely tender images I have ever read, is to read it yourself. It is a masterpiece that, although certain to disappoint after this introduction, is the richest and strangest thing I have seen all year, even fifth time around.