Friday, April 5, 2013

Memoirists: Wilfrid Sheed

A few years ago, I happened on a copy of Wilfrid Sheed's In Love with Daylight, which I read with interest but then gave away. More recently, I happened on another copy, and bought it, though I may give that copy away too. I had not quite forgotten how good it is, but even so the reminder was welcome.

The subtitle of the book is "A Memoir of Recovery", and the book relates three recoveries: from polio, from alcohol and anti-depressant dependency, and from oral cancer. I have the impression that at least the second of these is much written of these days. I doubt it often is with the skill that Sheed brought.  The temptation when writing of Sheed is to just quote him, and why bother to resist?

On Ativan:
Ativan turned out to be a perfect little Jeeves among pills, tactful and anonymous, tucking one into bed every night and slippering out of the room.without leaving a trace.... Zooming the lens back to that period, I'd have to say that Ativan played fair, in the sense that Agatha Christie played fair, scattering clues in my path that I easily might have picked up on if I'd wanted to.
On carrying on while falling apart:
 It has always been a notion of mine that sanity is like a clearing in the jungle where humans agree to meet from time to time and carry on in certain fixed ways that even a baboon could master, like Englishmen dressing for dinner in the tropics. But I'd never realized how little you could bring to the meeting. Proceeding virtually on automatic pilot, I was apparently able to produce a good enough replica of a normal human being to fool the average onlooker indefinitely.
On giving up alcohol:
Closer inspection sugggested that the giant wave was something of an illusion. What I was actually being hit by was a series of incredibly bad moments, unbearable but brief, and with a small but perceptible breathing space in between. And what I did with this space was the key. If I panicked, the panic would join the moments together, the way the mind's eye joins frames film into a movie; if I tried to escape, I would be hit again on the way out, and again and again, seemingly faster and faster after that.  And if I tried to look on the bright side, I would really have my face mashed in.
  The trick I finally tumbled to that night and the next could alternately be described as passive resistance or steering into the skid.
In the end, Sheed survived his booze, pills, and oral cancer by almost 25 years.

Of his novels, I have read The Boys of Winter, which I thought entertaining, and Max Jameson, which I did not. Today I passed up another novel of his on one of Second Story Books's outside carts. All three, not surprisingly, are set in the publishing world where he spent his professional life. Sheed is in what I have read steadily breezy--lapidary prose is not what he is after. I do mean to find and read his Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents.

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