Anatole Broyard was a daily book critic for THE NEW YORK TIMES and later an editor of THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW. His wit and intelligence, always highly regarded, were exponentially evolved by his diagnosis with a critical illness. The book can be divided exactly in half, in terms of its own lifefulness, by this timeframe. The sections written in the company of death are brilliantly lit, mind-opening, radically imaginative. In comparison, the reviews of “the literature of death,” written in 1981 and 1982, and a thirty-some-year-old short story based on his father’s death are a palpable letdown. (The story uses an unfortunate, dated metaphor: The protagonist exorcises his anger at death by, in effect, raping his father’s lifeful young nurse.)
The title essay is heady with a grand, unsentimental clarity. Unabashedly in love with words, Broyard drops language jokes everywhere: “I understood that living itself had a deadline.” He enjoys the irony of being a critic with a critical illness.
In “Toward a Literature of Illness,” he praises novelists who have tackled the topic—first among them Thomas Mann and Malcolm Lowry—but only Oliver Sacks gets his vote in the nonfiction category. Bernie Siegel, Norman Cousins, Susan Sontag—no one, he says (challenging himself to fill in the gap), writes about “the imaginative life of the sick,” about “how illness transfigures you.”
“The Patient Examines the Doctor” and “Journal Notes” should be required reading in medical school. Broyard refutes the exclusion of a person’s style and soul from this most wondrous and terrible time. We must, he says, have the most beautiful death we can, telling our own unique story to the end. Broyard’s goal was to be alive when he died, and this healing, free-wheeling narrative is proof that he succeeded. His challenges, if taken seriously by the medical system, would help the rest of us to do the same.