Dr. Haggard's Disease
by Patrick McGrath (1993)
Vintage (1994)
192 pp

A few years ago (well, look at that: precisely three years ago tomorrow), I posted a review on Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum (click here for my review). In that review, I noted that my choice to read McGrath was heavily influenced by John Self’s enthusiasm for the author. In the comments to that post, John Self said, “I’d recommend Dr Haggard’s Disease next, as a richer brew than Asylum, both linguistically and structurally” (click here for John Self’s review). So it took me a while, but now that I’ve read it I heartily agree: McGrath’s Dr. Haggard’s Disease is an ambitious, dark work written by a true wordsmith who is, it must be said, having a great time here as he lead us where we’d perhaps rather not follow — but we must!

Well, it’s Halloween season again, so I thought it appropriate to review a book set on a stormy cliffside manor, wherein an articulate but troubled mind seeks to heal itself from love lost once because the woman was married and twice because the woman died. This is Doctor Edward Haggard, who lives in this manor because really he just wants to get away from everything. The town is small, filled with the aged, but World War II is raging across the channel and not too far away fighter pilots take off for battle, only a few of them returning. The book begins with this very curious opening paragraph:

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 to see me in the surgery, 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 onto 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 gray so cachetic 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 —

Sure, this opening paragraph suggests a turbulent past — there’s the cane and bad leg (Spike) — but to whom is Dr. Haggard talking? What pain has the “dear boy” suffered?  And why does the opening paragraph trail off in such a strange way? McGrath is meticulous when setting up his stories. It is important to know — and we know soon — that the story the narrator is telling is nice, but perhaps more important is the method. Dr. Haggard’s mind is lucid enough to keep up appearances, but so deeply has Haggard delved into his suffering that it and its source cannot help but cast a shadow over everything.

We learn very quickly that “you” is the young pilot James, the son of his lost lover, Fanny. We also learn fairly soon that Haggard and Fanny met (at a funeral) in October 1937, which isn’t really that long ago — James was already sixteen at that point — but in the short time a love affair reached its peak temperature (from which Haggard hasn’t cooled down), the lover retreated and then died, and Haggard has retreated to the sea. And already Haggard is telling young James not only about how Haggard and Fanny met but (back to that strange first paragraph) how he and James met. What is going on here? What has brought about this telling? Why does James care about Haggard?

And just what, while we’re asking, has compelled Haggard to be so explicit about how much he’s suffered since the love affair ended?

I knew now there’d be no easy relief from the pain aroused from within, the pain I’d foolishly thought almost extinct. [ . . . ] [T]ime, I’d thought, would lay these inner ghosts,  and surely, to have left the city where the affair had taken place, surely this must help the process of time, help begin to heal the rawest of the wounds, ease the more ferocious, the more savage and implacable of the hurts I had sustained? But no, apparently not. Apparently I was not yet to enjoy the luxury of a simple melancholy, not yet to know resignation, and the ability to recall the loved one’s memory with tenderness rather than pain. [ . . . ] It occured to me that I couldn’t simply wait for time to heal me, I would have to set about deliberately healing myself, for it was absurd to be the slave of feeling. Feeling, I told myself, is only one facet or dimension of experience, and by what law must it predominate over the rest.

A fantastic paragraph. McGrath knows how to write about love of the torturing variety: “I was not yet to enjoy the luxury of a simple melancholy” — fantastic. Furthermore, it is obvious that, whatever Haggard has done to heal himself, it hasn’t worked.

The story — a dramatic monologue in prose form, which became more and more disturbing as it progresses (reminding me of the poem “My Last Dutchess”) — takes us in and out of the love affair, to the conflict between Haggard and Fanny’s husband, who happens to be the chief pathologist at Haggard’s old hospital, and finally to the strange relationship Haggard has with James. It’s a haunting tale, made all the better by the great voice McGrath has given Haggard: sophisticated, broken, tempestuous. If you’re looking to spend some time with the unsavory this Halloween season, step right up and meet Doctor Edward Haggard. You won’t like him and you won’t like what he has to say, but you’ll love how the tale is told and the shivers it will summon.

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