John Self over at The Asylum recently urged me to pick up a Patrick McGrath novel, and since I’d already read and enjoyed Spider and The Grotesque, I took Self’s advice and picked up Dr. Haggard’s Disease.
It’s difficult to know just where to start with this book. But I might as well start with the statement that I am still chewing over the story and its possibilities even as I write this post. For, you see, Dr. Haggard’s Disease is told by an unreliable narrator, and so after closing the cover I am left questioning the accuracy of the presentation of events.
The book generated all sorts of lively discussion in this house: Is love a disease? Well it can be. Thwarted love and obsession certainly are unhealthy mutations, and in Dr Haggard’s Disease, love falls squarely into the unhealthy variety, but then again Dr. Haggard’s disease could refer to something else entirely….
The unreliable narrator in this story is Dr. Haggard, and as the novel begins it’s WWII and Dr Haggard is living a reclusive life as a country doctor. Haggard’s constant companion is referred to as ‘Spike.’ There’s a certain amount of mystery about Spike and it may seem possible that Dr Haggard has some loony locked in the basement, but those of us who have Spikes of our own recognise Spike for what he is.
One day, Haggard unexpectedly receives a young visitor, RAF spitfire pilot James Vaughan. James opens the conversation with the statement “I believe you knew my mother.” It’s a harmless enough sentence–6 simple words that open a dark chasm of pain, thwarted love and obsession.
Some years earlier Dr. Haggard worked as a surgical intern at St Basil’s Hospital in London. His bleak shrunken little life is split between grueling, exhausting shifts at the hospital and his meagre, inhospitable little room in a boarding house on Jubilee Road. One day while at a funeral, he spots Fanny Vaughan, the bored, beautiful and dangerously neglected wife of St Basil’s senior pathologist, Ratcliff Vaughan. Then, as fate would have it, Haggard meets Fanny at a dinner party. While Haggard is lonely, socially inhibited and sexually naive, Fanny is confident and bold. And the very first time they meet, Fanny turns the conversation to the subject of passion when Haggard states:
“But tell me an idea that isn’t worn out.”
She looked away, apparently contemplating the question. The frown persisted, a delicate vertical wrinkling of the white skin of her forehead.
“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 someday what a responsibility it is. It’s the best we’re capable of, civilized human beings.”
And so begins a brief, passionate affair between Haggard and Fanny, and the affair becomes–for Haggard–an addiction.
The novel goes back and forth in time–from Haggard’s present life in his isolated country home of Elgin to his exquisite and ultimately painful affair with Fanny. As the tale unfolds, Haggard is revealed as an unhealthy man–both physically and mentally. Some of this unhealthiness is a direct result of the affair, but the rest…well that’s up for grabs, and it’s also where the issue of unreliable narrator comes into the scheme of things. Is Haggard (a morphine addict) delusional? Can we trust his version of events?
McGrath’s novel delves into the sheer seductive, obsessive physicality of Haggard’s elicit, stolen moments of passion: the irresistible urge for union, sinking into heady physical sensation of total pleasure , the luxury of running his hand along the cool, alabaster skin of his lover, the hints of perfume that remain long after the encounter and then the long, unendurable wait until the next:
“I was desperate to see her again. I needed to nourish my love upon her being, as though my love were a ravening parasitical creature which if it could not feed upon her would feed instead upon its host, causing agony. Missing her was no state of tranquil melancholy, it was active, it was fiercely energetic.”
Haggard’s description of his addictive obsession for Fanny as a “ravening parasitical creature” that must “feast” upon its object “instead [of] upon its host” is similar to Haggard’s morphine addiction that also demands to be fed:
“The morphia had silenced Spike, replaced his ache with that pervasive vital warmth that seemed somehow always to compose me.”
So morphine addiction is similar to passion–both need to be fed, both are addictive, and both can be destructive. And this leads back to Fanny, Haggard’s vibrant yet ultimately elusive lover who notes: this is a story about “passion not pleasure.” Two entirely different things.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the book’s presentation of the medical profession. Haggard is at first seen (through his own narration, of course) as a humane, caring alternative to Fanny’s husband the Pathologist and the bombastic, boorish surgeon Vincent Cushing. Both Cushing and Dr Vaughan carve up the dead with ghoulish relish, and Fanny ponders “what is it that makes men spend their lives poking through the diseased bits of dead bodies?” This question echoes throughout the novel and begins to haunt Haggard after Fanny complains that the smell of formaldehyde lingers in her husband’s repulsive touch.
But while Dr. Haggard is different from his London counterparts, he isn’t much better. His ‘humanity’ towards patients translates to shooting them up with morphine and selling them coloured water in medicine bottles. He buys the country practice partly because it’s stuffed full of elderly patients with a “fair bit of cancer,” and just like his predecessor, Peter Martin at Elgin, he has no faith in the power of medicine. He covers his lack of faith in his own profession by telling himself that the quackery he peddles promotes the body’s own healing power. Oddly enough at one point in the novel he notices a woman’s “yellowish-greenish tinge” and silently wonders if she suffered from “jaundice.” When the woman becomes his patient, however, he resorts to his usual quackery and chalks her “neurotic” ailment up to an unhappy marriage.
For me Dr Haggard’s Profession is the best McGrath so far. Although this is a novel that explores the destructive powers of obsession, on another level there’s a subtle layer of menace that permeates the pages. After all it’s rather terrifying to explore the idea that suited ‘professionals‘ who are supposed to oversee and manage our health can be closet loonies eyeing our diseased bodies while contemplating the excitement of an autopsy.
I should add here that I am not a fan of dizzy romances. In fact I’m suspicious of the word ‘romance’. But Dr Haggard’s Disease is no romance, and if you’re already familiar with the psychologically complex novels of Patrick McGrath, you won’t need to be convinced about that. McGrath’s favourite themes are mental illness and adultery, and both are amply represented here. McGrath’s psychiatrist father was a medical superintendent at Broadmoor, so it’s easy to connect the dots concerning early influences on this author’s life.
On one final note, I now continually imagine Jeremy Irons in the film role of Dr Haggard. He does those tortured parts so well….