by Candia McWilliam

SRB Diary: My Annulled Eyes

October 19, 2009 | by Candia McWilliam

“The greater we are, the less we may feel that circumstances press greatly upon us”. These words and I cannot be sure that they were these words exactly, came at me powerfully from the tape unabridged version of Middlemarch some nights ago – and I felt very small. I cannot be sure of the exact words without rewinding the tape for I am living in another country, like Venice in some ways, like an idea of Hell in others, where I can’t, as I would invariably have done before, take a note or (I know its van-dalous) make a mark in the book itself while I’m reading.

I am living in the country of the all-but blind. I’m a newish resident, not quite acclimatised, wobbly.

It’s been about two years. Forms of time have lost their old weight. I tend to measure time now by whether it offers a moment or a promise of a moment of some kind of sight. I can see a bit after a long period of sleep, so that, for example, I am writing this in bed, pressing on a board with pen and paper, in the complete dark, at one in the morning, a juncture when an hour or so of blurry seeing may arrive for me. I cannot see my words as they appear on the paper. Tomorrow I shall unknot them for you.

The other goodish wedge of time is between four and five in the morning, the suicide’s hour or the farmer’s hour, however you look at it. I can scrawl a bit. I used to have fairly legible handwriting; never could touch type; never could really type decently; now can’t type at all.

Even in that hour, I can’t read, or read as I understood it. I can look at picture books very slowly with a pleasure almost too intense, as when for a few lire (euros now) a Titian shows itself to you in a dark, out of the way church.

How did I make the move to this country? I made no plans for it, indeed could-n’t have invented so perfectly suited a punishment, so tailor-made a complaint for myself, for love, toffee or tablet. Seeing has always, to a perhaps extreme extent, been my sense of choice, in itself a hubristic thing to make. Reviewers have objected to the over-visualisedness of my work, its cramping perceived detail, its hyperaesthesia and so on. I have had all my life visual rage, as Dr Johnson said of himself that his rage was oral.

I couldn’t ever see or read enough. It came from both parents and it is perhaps cubed in me by my physical ineptitude. But I found myself here, writing in the dark sentences I’m unsure will be legible in the morning (so it’s a bit like writing in drink), even though these sentences are written for others (you), not those anxious notes one writes to oneself in the night about cities to be built, lost tunes, things undone, letters to the dead.

I started my travels towards blindness though I didn’t know it at the time, in 2006. I attended the Word Festival in

Aberdeen, at kind invitation of Alan Spence. The light in the city and in the intimately grand intimate precincts of King’s College moved me. The light seemed a very high white. I was as covetous as ever of visual detail, the civic badges set in black stone, thickly and richly painted, gold and red, leopards and roses, the garden azaleas and rhododendrons. The ticks of granitic sparkle in the air bit my face and eyelids. My eyes were sore and I couldn’t meet anyone’s eye, which was horrible. I ascribed it to the pleasure of being in Scotland, to overexcitement, to that faceted winter air of a Scots spring, to tapped emotion, to hearing poems read by their makers, which always does me in.

I’d started to read for the Booker Prize, of which I was a judge that year, with a group of people so discreet and congenial that it was set down as a ‘dull’ year,
i.e. no telefriendly fuss. The concurrence of my eyes’ malaise and being a judge of a literary prize is pure coincidence. I’ve done one prize or another annually for about two decades. At no point did I feel I was being asked to read more in physical terms than I normally do (did; I must remember, did). I just might not have chosen every one of the books I read. And yes, I did read them all, that extraordinary most frequently asked question.

I read about a novel a day, except in the case of one whopper that took two days and a night, and that magnificent bouncing tome plus hundreds of annotations I left to my regret, in a Blooms-bury club for Quakers and others of a quiet and serious disposition, where I was staying towards the end of the judging process, and where I hung off the end of the small pre-War bed.

That was the day after a security alert made it very hard to travel by air down from the Edinburgh Book Festival, and impossible to do so in possession of a fountain pen or a phial of scent, to each of which items I am suspicious attached, so I trained it south on a standing-room-only SupaSquasha to King’s Cross, and was surprised when someone I did not know came and got me and made me sit down because I so clearly could not have stood – in any sense – the whole distance. No penny had yet really dropped with me, but I was already looking distinctly odd. For example I was continually grimacing and girning as though I had Tourette’s Syndrome; I was reaching for sight I know now like a cat trying to be sick, in spasm. I knew by spring I was growing mildly photophobic. I had gone to the doctor.

This was in Oxford, a city you might consider as readerly as it is writerly. The GP thought I might be reading a bit much and gave me drops.

I continued to read for the Booker Prize, finding the work, if anything, less wearying than I’d been used to, since it was of the munching, note-taking, ordered, sequential, forward-moving kind, rather than the omnivorous unscheduled open ‘quest’ kind favoured by (some) novelists on the trail of their private dragon; and of course there was a small let-up in trying to subsidise my dragon-chasing with reviewing and so on.

I reread, with increasing physical difficulty and consciously-focussed mental attacks, each book on the longlist and the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize between four and eight times. The GP referred me to an ophthalmologist who said that I read too much and gave me drops. I was surprised that this could happen in a city many of whose inhabitants I knew read so much more. Who were their doctors?

Who, for example, was the doctor of the aquiline the Reverend Professor Sir Henry Chadwick, north of 90, round the corner from me whose splendid head-scarved wife popped him in the car daily at 8am for the library to contemplate and write about St Augustine and the City of God? I peered at them gratefully from my window; as long as they were there, reading was not a thing you could do too much of, I felt.

The longlist meeting for the Man Booker Prize came. I felt sick when I was photographed, but that could have been vanity. I could not open my eyes, least of all against the photographer’s flash. But at a press conference in the luxurious City atrium of the Man Group, who sponsor what is now the Man Booker Prize, a woman from The Times named Dalya Alberge (I remember thinking, “So you are the owner of that great name; what a pity I can’t see you”) asked me why such-and-such was in my opinion a good book. I spoke out of a head emptied of thought by bright annihilating fear. I heard the curling vaporous shifty nonsense coming from my own gob into the bank of bright lights and cameras.

Our cool and kind chairperson took over. She did not say, “What Candia means…”. I had the sense one has in dreams of mouthing unheard in thick dark in the face of an interrogative deadly glare. It’s the proleptic nightmare of taking a stroke. God knows how it is for ‘celebrities’ with all that painful light; they must have leathern eyes. I was starting to fall over in the street. I am abstemious. That is, I abstain.

Well, I thought, my eyes have brought me so much pleasure, maybe it’s payback? A cheap thought and I fear some sort of Scots thought too.

The PR people of the Man Booker were quite understandably anxious that I not let on that it appeared that I was losing my one use for them, i.e. my capacity to see (I’d less sense that they wanted what one might understand as my capacity to read).

I saw more ‘eye people’. I was given artificial tears in sterile plastic droplets, commercially known as Minims, to insert into my red dry eyes from sterile plastic lachrymals; I was measured for spectacles with inbuilt wire ‘matchsticks’ to prop up my famously shut eyelids; these specs are known as ptosic props and bring relief to many. I was scared of weepy-sounding Lundy Logs (“Gracious, how Lord Lundy cried”!); I was a guinea pig for an as yet unpatented widget to clip to my spectacles in order, intentionally, to irk my brain. I called it ‘the Distraction’; nickname notwithstanding, we did not bond.

My Chinese neurologist neighbour visited me in my small vertical Oxford home; she carried a bag of quinces. “Can you see me?” she asked. I could smell the quinces powerfully, their dusty sweet musk and a kind of cool waxen smell, luminously yellow in itself, like the little yellow section of paint Proust’s writer-character Bergotte sees the moment before he dies in the View Of Delft by Vermeer that he so loves. I could smell quince-yellow. I could not see my neighbour. I put up my hand to pull my eyes to make sight, like someone playing with binoculars.

“Ah”, she said, “the sensory geste”. I didn’t know what she meant. “You have blepharospasm. Your eyes are fine but you brain won’t open them”, she said. And so it is. ‘Blepharos’ is the ancient Greek for eyelid; and spasm, well, you know. People suffer these dystonias of different parts of the body, even of the major limbs. Web sites are prudently cagey. “Blepharospasm is a difficult affliction to diagnose. It may lead to considerable isolation and psychological affliction”. It is certainly in my case an absolute rotter to treat. I am glad that it is I, and not someone I love, who had this odd blanket over their cage.

By now the PR people from Man Booker were truly anxious that no one know they had on their hands effectively, that remote ancient ideal, a blind judge. They were invariably considerate of this unforeseen Banquo. I was sat for the great Guildhall beano, tidied away in a corner between friends and across from a literary editor who described me later, quite correctly, to the gossip sheets as very boring.

The word used by doctors is ‘functionally’ blind. By now I’d bought a foldaway white stick from the RNIB web site (I know) and had been the recipient of several injections of Botulinum toxin into the muscles of each eye socket. I’m glad to say that a high proportion of blepharospastics respond well to Botox. I don’t. I got blinder. Nor, before you ask, did I get at all prettier. Much the reverse.

By November 2006 I could not read, could not bear light and was being seen by, if not seeing, a number of doctors. My younger son said, “I know it’s a vulgar question, but are your other senses compensating?” Actually, a wee bit, they are, appreciate, which I did not, Joyce and Mrs Gaskell (what dancing partners), to be shattered by Beckett, Peter Carey, George Eliot, and to love Hardy’s description and try not to fear the strain in his plotting. I am still in love with Prince Andrei and Charles Stringham.

Among the greatest treats have been archive recordings of the dead talking: Auden; Larkin; Cecil Day-Lewis; Waugh on his friend Alfred Duggan; Max Beer-bohm teasing W.B. Yeats, an impossibly grand yet stammering Elizabeth Bowen.

I cannot, could not continue, to read like this without public libraries. Talking books cost the earth. As with ‘real’ reading, rereading is yet another layer of pleasure. Some take it better than others and all are to a degree dependent upon the reader/actor. That’s, maybe, another story. Much contemporary fiction is just too thin to hold itself in the air. There’s nozon about the big one that got away. I spoke to cheery Odette, who said she’d email me right back. Reasonably enough, that mighty searching engine couldn’t find On A Bridge by Marcelle Proust.

There is in this sightlessness another resemblance to Venice (the whole thing is of course awash with metaphors). If I keep going carefully though the narrow dark unencouraging alleyways alone, I may come upon an open square, a metal chair, a small table, a cup of bitter coffee, a glass of water and that thing I long to hold, to touch, to open, to enter fully again, a book whose pages may once more collaborate with the reticulations of my brain and together, through my re-employed eyes, make something, book and – is it? – soul, something that will be and will have been new and old, light and dark, illu- but only hearing and smell. Music is too much for me. I cry, and I’m a useless crier, though all the doctors recommend as much of it as possible. I’ve gone right off food, but the drugs keep me fat. So no sneaky benefit that way.

So far (I have to have faith even if it’s a mug’s faith, that I shall again see) the last books I read with my eyes were the manuscript of Pilcrow by my friend Adam Mars-Jones which demonstrates incidentally in its accounts of disability how extraordinarily lucky I am to be mobile, and The Devil’s Footprints by John Burn-side and his latest poems which I read to review for this paper, and Edwin Morgan’s thrilling most recently-published book of poems.

It’s a good last repast when you consider how easily it might have been Grazia or Think Yourself Thin. But then, I didn’t know these were adieux; I hope they man be aux revoirs.

So now it’s CDs and tapes. I prefer the latter; they’re chewier, less fragile, sandwiches to wafers, even though far more temperamental, and technologically doomed. They make a luscious lips-macking snap before the story goes on, while CDs are a bit smooth for me. With both, so much depends on the voice of the intervening protagonist, even the protagonists, the actor(s), in the most private of relations, between words and reader, writer’s and reader’s synapses.

How is it like Venice here in the fluctuating dark? Well, I’m always lost, continually banging into things, but ever aware of the presence of those and that which I love and seek.

A friend has lent me the flat of a deceased American artist of advanced years and learning, as it were a Common Reader of the generation before my parents’, so that all around me breathing though unreadable are richly foosty volumes of Auden, Edmund Wilson, Emp-son, Francis Haskell, Stendhal, Byron, the old brown clothbound Phaidon works on the old masters, Chateaubriand, Proust, Edith Wharton, Montaigne, Henry James. There are heavy boxed sets of long-playing recordings of opera and runs of symphonies, and complete sets of softening discontinued journals. I hope I can feel their contents seep into my days like water into mossy foundations.

If all this sounds fatally passive that’s what happens when you’re walloped by fate. It is a test of character, and this, apparently, is what I’m like, like paper to a stony roller. The trick of it will be to reverse my bad habit and to make the paper float into the words carved into that inky roller.

My tall thin Oxford house was nearly my hot tomb. The oven spontaneously combusted. The emergency services, as politicians routinely say, were beyond praise, brave, intelligent and, even I could see, shockingly good to look at, including the forewoman.

My children and husbands’ insistent affection and practicality facilitated this move to London, the city I have long superstitiously feared, like the type of provincial Scot I am. For years I had thought that when the last child was fledged, I would come home to the north, but now, just for now, I am following my annulled eyes and the people who are looking into the brain that has closed them down. These doctors are in London though from as far away as

Karachi, Dumbarton, Bombay, Rome, Dehli, and Lahore. No America yet thank God, which is where the brain cake of blepharospastics has been approached and cut with some reported success.

I am blind but there is nothing wrong with my eyes; it is a function of the deep brain, what tough boys call the reptile brain, the lizard brain. Either way you don’t want to stick a spirtle in there, and I have long had a fear of knives.

I listen to talking books day and night. They are as different from “the reading experience” as can be. I can’t scribble in their margins, I hardly take notes (I fall over when looking for the pen, paper, etc). But they are some approximation to what fed me, words in shapes forming and reforming according to the movement of the author’s imagination.

Until the 10th of July 2007, I was too proud to listen to talking books. It took the intelligent persuasion of a friend, who is now patiently waiting for me to grow up and grasp audible.com, a web site you can download talking books from. Meanwhile I guzzle nineteenth-century novels, lived for months on, by and with the Russians, though I came to think that listening to them in English is in itself two kinds of abridging, took on Dickens, whom I so foolishly gagged on as a child, see more and more in the Pal-lister novels about silence in families, am less snooty about Barset, have come to point saying who’s not up to it; they sell in bricks.

I am continually and self-indulgently rereading Proust round and round (literally) while all the other listening is going on, though long before I was half-blind I stupidly gave away half of my unabridged Cover To Cover recording of John Rowe reading Scott Moncrieff’s translation of In Search Of Lost Time. I own and much appreciate the Naxos/Neville Jason abridged version, but the other day, craning, I rang Amaminating and shaded, shifting always like light on water over stone, thinking engaged with thought, light over dark over light over dark.

Until then, it is my fervent wish that someone record The Smoking Diaries of Simon Gray read by the author. But, oh the browsing you can’t do on audio, the dithering, the grazing, the magic arbitrary reach and connection. How to read the visually unique Lanark on audio, and where are BloodParadiseA Disaffection? In my dreams.

From this Issue

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by Harry Reid

Close But No Cigar

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