“Titian Paints a Sick Man” — Roberto Bolaño

“Titian Paints a Sick Man”


Roberto Bolaño

At the Uffizi, in Florence, is this odd painting by Titian. For a while, no one knew who the artist was. First the work was attributed to Leonardo and then to Sebastiano del Piombo. Though there’s still no absolute proof, today the critics are inclined to credit it to Titian. In the painting we see a man, still young, with long dark curly hair and a beard and mustache perhaps slightly tinged with red, who, as he poses, gazes off toward the right, probably toward a window that we can’t see, but still a window that somehow one imagines is closed, yet with curtains open or parted enough to allow a yellow light to filter into the room, a light that in time will become indistinguishable from the varnish on the painting.


The young man’s face is beautiful and deeply thoughtful. He’s looking toward the window, if he’s looking anywhere, though probably all he sees is what’s happening inside his head. But he’s not contemplating escape. Perhaps Titian told him to turn like that, to turn his face into the light, and the young man is simply obeying him. At the same time, one might say that all the time in the world stretches out before him. By this I don’t mean that the young man thinks he’s immortal. On the contrary. The young man knows that life renews itself and that the art of renewal is often death. Intelligence is visible in his face and his eyes, and his lips are turned down in an expression of sadness, or maybe it’s something else, maybe apathy, none of which excludes the possibility that at some point he might feel himself to be master of all the time in the world, because true as it is that man is a creature of time, theoretically (or artistically, if I can put it that way) time is also a creature of man.


In fact, in this painting, time — sketched in invisible strokes — is a kitten perched on the young man’s hands, his gloved hands, or rather his gloved right hand which rests on a book: and this right hand is the perfect measure of the sick man, more than his coat with a fur collar, more than his loose shirt, perhaps of silk, more than his pose for the painter and for posterity (or fragile memory), which the book promises or sells. I don’t know where his left hand is.

How would a medieval painter have painted this sick man? How would a non-figurative artist of the twentieth century have painted this sick man? Probably howling or wailing in fear. Judged under the eye of an incomprehensible God or trapped in the labyrinth of an incomprehensible society. But Titian gives him to us, the spectators of the future, clothed in the garb of compassion and understanding. That young man might be God or he might be me. The laughter of a few drunks might be my laughter or my poem. That sweet Virgin is my friend. That sad-faced Virgin is the long march of my people. The boy who runs with his eyes closed through a lonely garden is us.

From Between Parentheses.

Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill (Book Acquired, Some Time Last Month)


The kind people of Paris Press were good enough to send me a reader copy of their 10th anniversary edition of Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” which they’ve collected with “Notes from Sick Rooms,” an essay by Julia Stephen—Woolf’s mother. Paris Press’s blurb:

Published together for the first time, Woolf and Stephen create a literary conversation between parent and child, patient and care giver, from the vantage points each experience in the world of illness. Originally published by Paris Press in 2002, this new edition doubles the length of the original book and includes a new introduction to Notes from Sick Rooms by eminent Woolf scholar Mark Hussey, and a new afterword by Rita Charon, founder and director of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University, along with the original introduction to On Being Ill by Hermione Lee, Woolf’s biographer.

Lee’s introduction seems to be an expansion of a piece she wrote for The Guardian in 2004; in that piece she wrote:

The story of the body’s life, and the part the body has to play in our lives, is one of Virginia Woolf’s great subjects. Far from being an ethereal, chill, disembodied writer, she is always transforming thoughts and feelings and ideas into bodily metaphors. She writes with acute – often extremely troubling – precision about how the body mediates and controls our life stories. Body parts are strewn all over her pages. Rage and embarrassment are felt in the thighs; a headache can turn into a whole autobiography; dressing up the body is an epic ordeal; and a clenched fist, feet in a pair of boots, the flash of a dress or the fingertip feel of a creature in a salt-water pool, can speak volumes.

Nowhere is her attention to body parts more eloquent and intense than in the essay “On Being Ill”. It is one of Woolf’s most daring, strange and original short pieces of writing, and it has more subjects than its title suggests. Like the clouds that its sick watcher, “lying recumbent”, sees changing shapes and ringing curtains up and down, this is a shape-changing essay.

Woolf announces her theme in a long, winding opening sentence that showcases some of the “shape-shifting” Lee alludes to:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down in the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth-rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.


And what of Stephen’s essay? It’s a practical, concrete, and mostly pragmatic approach to caring for sick people. Some parts compel more than others, as when Stephen discusses the absurd flights of fancy that might afflict the ill. In his introduction to “Notes from Sick Rooms,” Mark Hussey tries to amplify connections between the two texts that are either obvious (the texts share a common subject) or speculative (Stephen’s essay “foreshadows the wit and sharp observation that is characteristic of her famous daughter’s style”).  Hussey’s comments are best when they provide basic context and don’t try to force the reader into making connections. There’s also an afterward by Rita Charon, an internist, who again tries to synthesize the two texts. I suppose context is important, but there’s a sense of inflation here that I’m not entirely sure either essay (Woolf’s or Stephen’s) necessarily merits.

The Spare Room — Helen Garner

We’ve all had house guests who stay too long. But what happens when a house guest who overstays her welcome is dying? What if you invited her there hoping to prove in yourself some measure of humanity, humility, maybe even heroism, by taking good care of her? What if you found her irritating? Grating? Self-absorbed? What if  she didn’t seem to even notice what a great caretaker you were? What if she didn’t seem to appreciate your prowess as a host? What if she outright ignored the disease that was killing her, just refused to even mention it, denying you any hope of closure? Worst of all would be the shame that compounded all of these feelings about the dying house guest, the sense that you are wrong, inhuman, cowardly, right? Helen Garner’s novella The Spare Room (new in trade paperback from Picador) tackles these questions and the emotional turmoil behind them in measured, spare prose making a compelling and rewarding read.

Little irks me more in journalism than a book review (or any media review, really) that seeks to intertwine the personal dramas of the reviewer. I am about to do just that right now, gentle reader, so you are forewarned. Stop reading now if you wish and know that Biblioklept recommends The Spare Room. It’s a marvelous piece of writing, one that gives proof to the cliché “brutally honest.”

Reading The Spare Room I could not help but identify with its narrator, an Australian woman in her 60s named Helen who takes care of her free-wheeling, slightly daffy, cancer-infested friend Nicola. I am not an Australian woman in my 60s, but, like Helen, I know what it is like to live with and care for a person whom you love who also happens to be dying. From the time I was 12 years old, my maternal grandmother Mama Dot lived with my family. The doctors, prognosticating wise men all, gave Mama Dot just a year or two to live and my folks wanted her to spend that time with us. She was very sick, and, as if to prove the verity of certain stereotypes about Southern women,  she was also very stubborn–mulishly so (the woman could hold a grudge). She went on to live another 10 years with my parents, during which time both my brother and myself of course left the house (but always came back to visit). I loved her very, very much and, perhaps as a result of that love, fought with her constantly and fiercely about any little thing. Unlike the narrator Helen, who bottles up her irritation with Nicola (particularly her fury at her friend’s pursuit of quackish cures), I found it easier to confront my grandmother about her faults in illness–her lapses of memory and judgment, her lack of cooperation, her unbearable slowness. I could even be mean. But like Helen, I always felt bad about it too. What makes The Spare Room such an affecting, gripping read is Garner’s honesty, her ability to capture the negative, selfish feelings that we all must feel when comforting the sick.

Narratives about the dying often disengage the emotional turmoil of the caretaker by applying a veneer of sentimentality, morality, or even whimsy. Garner handles her subject matter with a realism that denies sentimentality and faces the ugliness of death head on. Her narrator is compassionate toward her friend but it’s always clear that the book is not about Nicola–it’s about how Helen reacts to Nicola. It’s about what it means to be selfish at the very moment you are trying to be selfless. It’s about how hard it is to get past your flaws as a human being. Take the book’s humor, for instance: The Spare Room is frequently hilarious, yet the humor never seeks transcendence or escape. When Helen seems to mutter to her audience, “God bless morphine” at the beginning of a chapter, she isn’t drolly avoiding her friend’s pain–she’s thankful that the drug has given both of them a night’s sleep. Similarly, her observation that the “station was a seven-minute walk from my house, twenty if you had cancer,” reveals that Helen’s selfishness is wrapped in minute details, details that compound in the narrative and build tension toward its awful final sentence (a final sentence that I won’t spoil by revealing here, dear reader).

The Spare Room is a tightly-compressed novella that one might read in an afternoon or two, yet the book will undoubtedly stay with most readers for a long time to come. We might not all be like Helen (and, thankfully, not all of our patients are as trying as Nicola) but there is certainly bound to be some measure of her in even the best of us. Garner has captured here some of that rage against the dying of the light that Dylan Thomas encouraged of us, and she’s revealed that that rage, falling impotent against illimitable death, might end up aimed at those we love dearest–as well as ourselves. Highly recommended.