Goodbye, Anatole, Please Come Back
Review of Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death by Anatole Broyard.
There should be a special shelf for books you wanted passionately to admire, books that it breaks your heart not to have loved. This is one of them. Anatole Broyard was an extraordinary writer with a breadth of knowledge that took your breath away. I thought—I hoped—he’d have something amazing to say about his experience of dealing with cancer. What he winds up saying in this book deserves our respect—if only because he skillfully avoids every cliché, platitude, and bromide about dying (all the ones we already know and which are precisely why we turn to a book like this: because most of what’s written about illness and death is intolerable). Broyard said no less, and was surprised to find, at nearly the culmination of a literary life, that he could scarcely turn to literature for comfort or even for reliable information. A literature of illness, he said, barely exists. And so, perhaps, Intoxicated by My Illness deserves praise simply for existing on that slim shelf of books about death and dying that don’t require us to engage in scream therapy or adopt an entirely new worldview or get religion or subscribe to the belief that death is something other than a enormous rip-off. And yet this book is so diminished, in all the senses of the world, so frustratingly low on content. A long short story, which is far from the most interesting thing in the book, takes up a third of its length. Other sections are repetitive and fragmentary. It certainly wasn’t Broyard’s duty to write anything at all about his experience with cancer, dying, the nearness of death, at least not for the public. But he (or his family) chose to publish what he did write. I’m not sorry to have read Intoxicated by My Illness, but the experience made me long for a different Broyard, and that’s perhaps just a way of saying how acutely I feel his absence, in this book and in the world.