‘I can’t grip a pencil’: Maggie O’Farrell on Covid, convalescence and writing the comply with as much as Hamnet


On the third day of a Covid an infection, I’ve a really vivid dream. In it, I’m being pushed in a wheelchair down a protracted windowless hall. Above my head is a string of rectangular fluorescent lights and, as I transfer by way of their weak circles of illumination, I’m disconcerted to search out that I’m sporting a selected purple dressing robe, about which all the pieces is acquainted: the row of pearlised buttons, its fuzzy nap, every ribbed cuff. I do know the place I’m: the basement of a hospital by which I spent a very long time as a baby whereas incapacitated by viral encephalitis. Within the dream, nonetheless, I’m undoubtedly an grownup, however the hated garment has in some way stretched to suit. I wake with a lurch, to search out myself in my bed room, the plumes of steam from the atomiser reminding me that I’m in mattress with Covid.

There are occasions when your physique is aware of one thing earlier than you do. After I attain for my watch, to see what time it’s, I discover it laborious to maneuver my arm; when I attempt to transfer apart the quilt, my fingers refuse to grip. I determine to get away from bed however when my ft hit the ground, my legs crumple beneath me, simply as they did again in 1980 when, aged eight, encephalitis was consuming its manner by way of my synapses.

A&E within the throes of a pandemic is a unprecedented atmosphere: stuffed to capability, understaffed, overwhelmed, with determined folks sitting on flooring or in doorways or mendacity on gurneys. Everyone seems to be masked, watchful and tense. When an inebriated man with a clinking bag of bottles pulls down his masks to cough, a number of folks shriek and attempt to transfer away. However there’s nowhere to maneuver to.

I’m taken from the ready room fairly rapidly, to a cubicle, the place the weary physician appears to suspect I’ve suffered a stroke. I shake my head. That is no stroke, I say. The way in which I really feel is horribly acquainted: the ataxic trembling, the muscular weak spot, the shortage of grip. It feels just like the return of outdated signs, like coming head to head with a long-lost adversary. I don’t point out my dream; this physician has a pandemic on his palms, in spite of everything, and doesn’t require ramblings about prophetic visions.

A wheelchair – naturally – is summoned to take me to a ward housing a miscellany of Covid sufferers. Not those with the anticipated signs of respiration difficulties or sky-rocketing temperatures however these with atypical reactions to the virus: there’s an especially pale girl with purple-black stains on her fingertips, and one poor soul who’s writhing in agony with belly ache however no one can perceive the language he’s talking.

The night time wears on. Nurses circle us. Extra sufferers arrive; medical doctors disappear and reappear. A translator is discovered for the writhing man and ache reduction is given. My shaking intensifies and a nurse comes and watches me, thoughtfully, earlier than going off to make a telephone name. I start to hearken to an audiobook: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. It’s a e-book I’ve learn many occasions. I attended lectures on it at college; I do know passages virtually by coronary heart. Parts of it surge by way of my head as I lie there: the upcoming occasion, Clarissa’s loves each misplaced and unrealised, Septimus’s alienation, the sparrows singing in Greek, the intriguing act of eradicating doorways from their hinges.

One element, nonetheless, retains catching my consideration, rising up from the textual content to hook its claws into me. Clarissa Dalloway is described by her neighbour as having “a contact of the hen about her … vivacious, although she was over 50, and grown very white since her sickness”. The sickness is, after all, influenza, essentially the most feared illness of the time, and in naming it Woolf makes her heroine a survivor of the deadliest pandemic of the twentieth century.

Woolf herself suffered a number of bouts of influenza; she writes about it virtually elegiacally in her essay On Being Unwell. Mrs Dalloway is about in 1923, 5 years on from the Spanish flu pandemic that killed 50 million folks – double the variety of deaths within the first world warfare. The phrase has its roots within the Medieval Latin “influentia” – it was as soon as believed the illness was the results of unfavourable astrological affect – and has been eroded by the trendy world to the a lot much less intimidating “flu” (maybe a type of etymological wishful considering).

Woolf’s character strives regularly to make gentle of her indisposition, her brush with dying, as she makes her manner about London. Clarissa permits herself to worry about her “pea-stick determine”, admits to the “oddest sense of being herself invisible”. The kernel of fact about her well being is ascribed to a sense of “suspense … earlier than Huge Ben strikes”, and most tellingly is inserted into midsentence parentheses: “(however that could be her coronary heart, affected, they mentioned, by influenza)”. Mrs Dalloway, it seems, is in denial.

Mrs Dalloway.
Venessa Redgrave within the 1997 movie adaptation of 1997 Mrs Dalloway.

Regardless of a number of readings, I had by no means earlier than observed the mechanisms of sickness and restoration at work within the novel, and I’m riveted by the coincidence of our pandemic and Woolf’s, separated by virtually precisely a century. The novel retains me firm all through the lengthy night time, and throughout the subsequent day, when I’m shunted from division to division. I’m with Septimus and his forlorn spouse as I queue for a scan; I greet the occasion visitors alongside Clarissa as I anticipate the outcomes. When the neurologist tells me that, no, I haven’t had a stroke, that Covid seems to have reactivated the mind irritation I skilled as a baby, I take into consideration Clarissa and her smothered nervousness about her coronary heart, her capacity to solely admit to it in a throwaway apart about Huge Ben. Maybe all of us develop strategies to outlive the knocks of serious diseases, methods to choose ourselves up and face the following day and the following. Like a tree that grows round an iron railing, we take in the tough truths about our our bodies and we supply on.

The neurologist says, with solely slight uncertainty, that he’s certain I’ll get better and that relaxation is essential. So I’m going residence and fairly actually crawl again into mattress. Convalescence is an artwork I perfected at a younger age. The important thing for me is books, books, and extra books: pile them excessive beside your mattress or on the couch subsequent to you; open, learn, repeat. I can’t fake to be good on the persistence a part of being a affected person however mendacity nonetheless whereas studying comes naturally to me. After Mrs Dalloway, I conduct a seek for extra sickness in fiction. I need books about fevers and contagions; I search characters who, inside the timeframe of their novels, cross by way of the hearth of an infection. These Covid issues, as I’m keenly conscious, are retaining me from my work on a novel about Lucrezia de’ Medici. She makes a short and silent look in Robert Browning’s My Final Duchess, and should or could not have been poisoned by her husband. I determine, whereas doing tedious physiotherapy workout routines, that she too will undergo an sickness, and I need to see how different writers handle the subject. What does illness do to folks?

I examine Anna Karenina and her illness, introduced on by the weakening results of emotional turmoil, and the way she has her hair minimize off. Emma Bovary undergoes an identical indisposition (which begs the query whether or not Nineteenth-century novelists believed that fevers had been introduced on by infidelity – or maybe simply uninteresting spouses?). In Sense and Sensibility, the passionate Marianne heads off right into a rainstorm to search out her beloved’s home, and is then struck down by what sounds very like influenza. Márquez was clearly intrigued by the results of sickness: in Love within the Time of Cholera, he performs on the double meanings of cholera/cólera, which encapsulate each a scientific reference to an epidemic and likewise rage and fervour. And the inimitable José Arcadio Buendía, from One Hundred Years of Solitude, is altered from a strong patriarch right into a shrunken fool-soothsayer who have to be tethered to a tree. Our Spoons Got here from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns, has as its climax an unflinching account of a destitute girl within the grip of scarlet fever making an attempt to make her manner throughout London whereas clutching her new child daughter: not one for the faint-hearted.

I do get better, simply not as rapidly as I’d have appreciated. The phrase I land on is “infirm”. I’m infirm for a number of months after Covid: I can’t grip a pencil or a fork; I can’t stability; I’m coated in bruises from crashing into tables and doorways; I require a persist with stroll, and so my mom produces an Outdated Testomony-prophet-style workers that belonged to a useless relative. I really feel it provides my hobbling a sure gravitas. As quickly as my pincer grip returns, I practise with a pencil and paper: my letters are the shaky approximations of a preschool baby for per week or two, then they get smaller and smoother, and earlier than lengthy my slanted scrawl is again. Most essential, my capacity to sort makes a reappearance, so I’m in a position to end my novel. Lucrezia contracts a fever and with it – maybe unsurprisingly – come bodily shakes, convulsions and a startling readability about her place in life. Such is the way in which with sickness.

Lucrezia de’ Medici, who may or may not have been poisoned by her husband, as painted by Agnolo Bronzino.
Lucrezia de’ Medici, who could or could not have been poisoned by her husband, as painted by Agnolo Bronzino. {Photograph}: Alamy

This isn’t an account of my post-Covid struggles, largely as a result of, in contrast with some folks, I acquired off very calmly. There have been moments, sure, after I felt engulfed by despair however in my coronary heart – which, in contrast to Clarissa Dalloway’s, was mercifully unaffected – I knew I’d get higher. I had, in spite of everything, recovered from this earlier than, hadn’t I?

4 months on, at a follow-up appointment on the hospital, the physician runs by way of neurological exams and confirms that I’m kind of again to the place I used to be pre-Covid. I inform him that the majority of my signs are vanishing, apart from a persistent ache in my left lung and a painfully swollen ankle. He’s typing one thing into his pc when he says: “Covid tends to hunt out and reawaken outdated areas of irritation.” I inform him that, aged 12, I had pleurisy, which left me with scarring in that precise spot; I chorus from mentioning that I sprained that ankle falling off a kerb exterior a nightclub in my 20s. He nods as he hits the return on his keyboard. “There you’re then,” he says.

In On Being Unwell, Woolf writes: “How large the religious change that [illness] brings, how astonishing, when the lights of well being go down, the undiscovered nations which can be then disclosed.” The state of sickness has a curiously diversified momentum: it retains us static, in a room, in a mattress. It halts us in our tracks. It concurrently pulls us again, to our youthful selves and our reminiscences of childhood illness and disempowerment, and, maybe most essential, it propels us ahead: once we are incapacitated, we lengthy for a future with out the shackles of ailing well being.

Maybe as we emerge from our pandemic, we have to be sure that we take with us what we now have discovered, to retain the sober wisdoms of illness. Mrs Dalloway could search to shuck off her weakened coronary heart, to plunge herself into events and attire, however she is aware of she can not. Everybody she meets, as she is simply too conscious, considers her “modified”. And but, she is crammed with pleasure on the sight of flags flying above Bond Road, at “darkish and prim” carnations, at “slow-swimming completely satisfied geese”. What the novel can train us is that it’s permissible, typically even obligatory, to put consciousness of our weaknesses in protecting parentheses, to nurse them in a personal place, in order that we could maintain up our heads and stroll on by way of life.

I make my manner out of the hospital, leaning on my useless relative’s stick, rubbing the spot of my pleuritic ache, limping on my dodgy ankle. That is the religious change or undiscovered nation of my Covid: the virus has made me without delay eight, 12 and 23 years outdated, all in the mean time I’m approaching 50, which is nearly Clarissa Dalloway’s age. Covid has returned me to all that I grappled with as a baby with encephalitis, and the lung an infection I contracted as an ungainly preteen, and incongruously the blithe twentysomething who stayed out too late and pretended all these issues by no means occurred to her in any respect. As I make my manner throughout the automobile park, all these selves appear vividly current, inside me and alongside me, as if the 4 of us are an unfolded chain of paper-people, for ever certain collectively, fluttering within the stiff breeze. However then my physique, after all, knew this all alongside.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell is printed by Tinder (£25) on 30 August. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Supply fees could apply.

Be a part of Maggie O’Farrell for a Guardian Dwell occasion about The Marriage Portrait on 31 August. You’ll be able to be a part of the occasion at Kings Place in London or through the livestream – e-book right here.

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