On January 6th the charge nurse invited me to the Pines moving picture show, but the invitation [was] thickly encased in rules.
She said in part: “You are on the list to go to the movie tonight. You may wear makeup, if you wish, but you may not talk or laugh. You are to be ready by 7 o’clock, in your robe and slippers. You will be called for by a male [attendant]… but you are not to speak or to laugh with your escort. Your temperature and pulse will be taken as soon as you return to bed and if your temperature or your pulse has increased you will not be allowed to go to the next moving picture show.”…
After supper I was so excited my heart pounded like a jungle drum … I smeared on lipstick, wet my hair with drinking water and thought “This is living!”
I thought the picture itself rather a tactless choice for the joyous entertainment of patients in a tuberculosis sanatorium. It was Greta Garbo in Camille.
commentary: Two major pointers made me read this book. I have recently read Dark Circle by Linda Grant, and Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, both set among TB patients – and then my good friend Lissa Evans talked about this book in a Guardian feature about funny books. (By chance, Lissa’s new book, the excellent Wed Wabbit, was on the blog last week.)
And now, excitingly, I think this may be the first book ever that Lissa and I disagree on! It is an amazing, gripping book, and one I found hard to put down, but I did not find it funny, I found it terrifying and affecting and sad and desperate, but only occasionally did it make me laugh.
This is what Lissa said in the Guardian:
Hovering between loneliness, terror and utter boredom, MacDonald writes about her seclusion in a way this is painfully, barkingly funny… Her style is completely her own, the sprawling sentences packed with anecdote, incident, bang-on simile and throwaway wit -it’s like hearing a conversation between someone who keeps forgetting to breathe and another who keeps asking ‘what happened next?’And that is an excellent description. MacDonald has lightly fictionalized her own experience in a sanatorium near Seattle in the late 1930s, writing it as a memoir. As I had learned from the other two books, these hospitals created their own worlds in their attempts to help, with their own rules and bizarre & Byzantine systems.
When MacDonald first arrives she is on complete bedrest, and that means she can’t talk, laugh, sit up, wear makeup, read, write or ‘get excited’ or interact with the opposite sex [the extract above is when she is a long way on the road to recovery]. The staff enforce the rules rigidly – which is fair enough as they believe they will cure or at least help the patients. But there is a Kafka-esque feel to it – no-one keeps the patients informed, it is thought best that they don’t know what is going on with their prognosis and treatment except moments before any change.
It’s like a giant old-fashioned boarding school, but without even the vestige of fairness you might find there, with a touch of Maoist China: everything is described in terms of rewards and punishments, so, as above, if your temperature or pulse changes you are ‘in trouble’. And of course the right results do not necessarily go to the ‘nice’ people: everything is quite random. The patients are constantly reminded that if they don’t keep to the rules they should go home and leave their bed free for someone who IS worth helping. MacDonald is forever being told off for her attitude, for asking too many questions, for ‘talking French’ (a discussion of cookery terms).
To some extent she believes that the staff are right. ‘The Medical Director… said constantly that people with TB were ungrateful, stupid, unco-operative and unworthy’ she says, while explaining that he was in fact incredibly kind and helpful to the patients.
I found the book riveting, and felt it documented something that has gone now completely. And there were funny moments – I loved the ‘fat little woman who wore pink-flowered sleepers [pyjamas] and looked like a piggy bank.’
But if I want to be amused I will re-read one of Lissa’s books.
Betty MacDonald wrote a massive bestseller in 1945, The Egg and I, about her life on a chicken farm in a rural spot in Washington State – it IS a very funny book, and one I should write about sometime. I lived in Seattle at one time, so both Egg and Plague had a very welcome familiar feel. My daughter and I also enjoyed Betty MacDonald’s children’s book Nancy and Plum – blogpost here.
Small pictures from a sanatorium brochure. Text advert from a different brochure. The poster is part of a WPA Art Project from the late 1930s, from the Library of Congress.
The book La Dame aux Camellias is here on the blog.