Saturday, 14 March 2015

Press Replay

This is what I wrote two years ago. There is very little I can add. I am tremendously privileged to have a research leave every seventh term, just about once in two years.

I don't have a book project this time, but I have several large and difficult chapters that I agreed to write long ago in moments of weakness, hoping that something would come in between. As usual, it hasn't, so THE TIME HAS COME. For some inexplicable reason, I am giving three keynote talks at conferences in the nearest future and for two of these I only have a vague idea of what I am doing. All in all, the amount of text I have to generate will add up to a book.Therefore I need to plan carefully.

In the next few weeks I will have to grade last term's papers. I will try to do it as soon as possible to take it off my mind. Doctoral supervision is not affected by research leaves so any moment a draft may land in my computer, anything from a chapter section to a finished thesis. I will deal with it when it comes.

The graduate admissions are almost done for this round, and I don't have to attend meetings. My diary is wonderfully empty except for some dinners with good friends or visits from grandchildren.

Soon it will be warm enough to dig in the garden, and my physiotherapeut has mended my shoulder. I am building a gorgeous dollhouse. Can life get any better?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Deep in a dream

I have been in doubt whether to share this experience. It is far too personal. But there are people out there who will have been through something similar, and you, my dear reader, can experience it one day, or your loved one. This is a kind of thing that we know happens but “it cannot happen to me”.

Let me tell you: it can.

Since I am alive to tell the story it obviously had a positive outcome, but most of it is my reconstruction based on what I have been told. What I remember is bizarre, as dreams are, and unless I had evidence of a plastic hospital ID-band (and, presumably, a record sent to my doctor), I might believe that I have dreamed it all.

What I know for sure is that last Sunday I went out for dinner with a colleague visiting Cambridge. The day before, we worked on our joint paper. Staffan drove me to the restaurant, picking up G from her place on the way. I remember ordering, and I remember the canapés and the amuse-bouche. I remember we talked about taking a cooking course in Italy. I eventually remembered, on prompt, that we discussed G's son's scholarly plans. The next couple of hours is a second-hand narrative. Apparently, we had a lovely meal, except that one course contained peanuts, which I had firmly told the waiter I didn't want because I had eaten this course previously, and although I am not allergic to peanuts the taste was too strong for the delicacy of the rest. There were two desserts, and apparently I liked one of them better than the other. G paid the bill, as agreed, the restaurant called us a taxi, we chatted and made plans for meeting on Tuesday afternoon to work further on our paper. G got off at her place, and I continued.

There is no clear evidence of the following, but I got home, supposedly paid the taxi and opened the door with my key.

Staffan's evidence is that I was cheerful, telling him about the meal, including sending the peanut dish back to the kitchen. According to him, I changed into sleeping gear, presumably brushed my teeth, took my pills and went to bed.

Next, some hours later, he heard me calling from the bathroom. He says I was lying on the floor, with my legs in the bathroom and the rest of me in the corridor. I could not get up, but, he says, told him quite soberly to call an ambulance. When we arrived at the hospital, I was asked lots of questions to which I, Staffan says, replied coherently and accurately, in the right language. Among other things, they asked me when the Second World War started. They took blood tests, blood pressure, ran me through brain scan, did all kinds of tests. Everything was fine. Only I don't remember anything of this.

As I said, dreams are bizarre, and I dreamed I was in an ambulance, but I had been inside an ambulance, although not as patient, so I wasn't at all perplexed. The ambulance was going back and forth between home and hospital, and I thought it was fortunate that we live so close to the hospital. (We don't. We live on the opposite side of town from the hospital. My work is close to the hospital). I dreamed that I was lying on the floor in a hallway of an unfamiliar apartment, and again, I wasn't surprised because that's the kind of things you dream. It wasn't in any way an unpleasant dream so I wasn't eager to wake up. I dreamed somebody asked me to look up and down and left and right, and this is exactly what my optician had done last Saturday so it was quite logical to dream it, although in the dream it wasn't my optician but some weird figure from a horror movie. I dreamed I was telling people around me that I was in withdrawal because, close after kidney stones, medical withdrawal is the worst experience I have ever had in my life, and I was very anxious that they gave me my pill. I also dreamed that I was in a euthanasia clinic in Holland, as described in Ian McEwan's novel Amsterdam, and that people around me were just hallucinations caused by lethal drugs. I wasn't particularly upset about it because in the dream it was all properly pre-arranged. I dreamed they pushed me into a tunnel for brain scan, but in the dream I knew it had happened many years ago in Stockholm, so I wasn't worried. There was something else I was worried about in connection with the brain scan, possibly that I would get lost in the corridors – just as you do in dreams. I was worried that they would forget to bring me out of that tunnel. I dreamed I was wearing my blue fluffy slippers and wondered why. I dreamed I was dizzy and thirsty and had to use the bathroom. I frequently dream that I have to use the bathroom and cannot find it, or the toilet disappears just as I am about to sit down. Therefore I wasn't at all surprised when they moved me from the bed I was lying on to a chair with a hole. It's just the kind of thing you dream. (I checked with Staffan later – it happened). I was anxious that I had to attend a symposium (which had been last Friday). I often dream that I am at a conference and don't know what I am supposed to speak about. I was also anxious to know why G was in Cambridge because it didn't make sense, but then of course it was just a dream. I was still begging for my pill, but they told me I should take it in the evening, as usual. I said it was evening and I had to take my pill. I continued insisting that I was in withdrawal and therefore dizzy. Someone without a face told me I was getting anti-dizziness injections which I found pleasurable. I was not at all surprised that I was in hospital, but I was surprised that I was wearing my bathrobe and fluffy slippers. Yet this is exactly what happens in dreams: you dream you are in front of students in a lecture hall wearing a bathrobe and slippers. I was embarrassed because my nightgown sleeves were frayed. Also, the world was blurry (Staffan had not brought my glasses). They told me I could go home soon, and I thought it was fortunate that we lived so close to the hospital. There was no sudden awakening and realisation that I had been dreaming; everything was clear and logical. I asked Staffan what day and time it was. I got scared. I wasn't sure what had happened and what had been a dream. I kept asking the same questions over and over again until he told me, mildly, to shut up.

I read some work on memory studies for my recent research project, and what I know is that every time we retrieve a stored memory it gets arbitrarily connected to something else, real or fictional, and stored again in a distorted form. It is therefore pointless to try to remember. What I may now think I remember can just as well be a false memory prompted by something I have been told. Let's face it: I have a total memory gap of fifteen hours during which people around me perceived me as rational and coherent.

They think I fell and hurt my head. It's a theory as good as any other. Why did I fall in the first place? They think I had an ear infection. But all tests were normal.

“Humans are suddenly mortal” (Bulgakov). Yet another reminder of your own mortality is never pleasant, but it is also a reminder of utter vulnerability. I didn't do anything wrong to cause my fall. I cannot prevent it happening again.

This very moment I should have been on a plane to Bergen, Norway, going to a conference that I had been very much looking forward to. It is not the first time I have to cancel conference participation at short notice. I never learn. But it is the first time I have experienced amnesia. I don't like it.

Conclusion: once again, appreciate the time you have, because you don't know when it may run out. Value people around you who spend the night in hospital beside you in an uncomfortable chair. Reconsider your priorities. And make sure your nightgown is not frayed.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Two amazing women


Last week we had a very distinguished guest speaker, Juliet Dusinberre, the author of Alice to the Lighthouse, one of the best critical studies of children's literature, written almost thirty years ago. She talked about Beatrix Potter, and this talk very nearly made me change my mind, once again, about the value of biographical information for literary studies. I didn't know much about Beatrix Potter beyond basic facts (I guess, most of them from the movie, Miss Potter), and the letters and diaries that Juliet spoke about were really illuminating. One of our students wrote an excellent blog post about this talk, so I won't repeat it.

What struck me, however, was the similarity of Potter's life and struggle to her contemporary, the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf. Once upon a time I was a Lagerlöf scholar (published a book and several articles), and even then I wasn't interested in her biography, and even then I was wrong because there were many facts in her life that were reflected in her writing and therefore worth knowing. For instance, the loss – or threat of loss – of the childhood home surfaces in all her novels. When she got the Prize – first female writer ever to receive it – she bought back her father's estate, and, much like Potter, kept buying adjacent land and expanding farming. As rich and famous, she still had to challenge her male fellow writers and was often referred to as "fairy tale auntie". Unlike Potter, she wrote novels, but she also wrote one book for children that is, at least internationally, better known than her novels, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Among many remarkable things she does in this book, commissioned as a geography textbook, she is a passionate animal rights promoter. Could she be familiar with Beatrix Potter's books? Possibly. Could Potter have read Nils? It was translated into English early. Does it matter? Not really.

Of the many famous words by Lagerlöf, my favourite is from her diary: "Today I sold twenty sacks of flour and a short story". That could have been Beatrix Potter.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

More from the Western front

After I finished FiveChildren on the Western Front I couldn't help thinking about the allusion, and I decided to re-read Remarque. As It turned out, it was one of those books that you believe you have read when you actually haven't. I know I read Three Comrades as teenager, and possibly The Black Obelisk because I remember the cover of the book in Russian. But apparently I had not read All Quiet on the Western Front, and I am glad I hadn't because I know I wouldn't have liked it and wouldn't have understood much. It is a slow read, and when you are young you have no patience for slow reads. It must be something neuroscientists still have to explain, but teenage brains just cannot cope with slow and deep reading.

But now I am mature enough and in the right mood to enjoy this wonderful and terrible book which I haven't seen mentioned a lot in the centenary discussions. I also see clearly where Kate Saunders has got her ideas from. Although of course for the English soldiers it wasn't the Western front. It was the one and only front.

It is hard to believe that All Quiet on the Western Front was written so long ago. It feels as if it was written today. First-person, present tense. And a disturbingly postmodern ending.

I also thought that today it might have been marketed as a Young Adult novel – the protagonist is nineteen – but YA didn't exist then. And the novel is exactly about being forced from childhood into adulthood. And the author lets the protagonist die rather than grow up disillusioned. 


It was an extraordinary reading experience and completely serendipitous.