Hell and survival, by Marilyn French

October 04, 1998|By Lisa Schwarzbaum | Lisa Schwarzbaum,Special to the sun

"A Season in Hell," by Marilyn French. Knopf. 272 pages. $23. Marilyn French, whose seminal novel "The Women's Room" is one of the sacred texts of the 1970s feminist movement, has spent the better part of the 1990s in an ongoing, devastating medical crisis. Diagnosed in 1992 with metastasized esophageal cancer - usually fatal - and thrown into aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, French also at one point fell into a coma for six weeks.

She developed agonizing arthritis, recurring kidney infections and diabetes. She broke her back - three times, as her spine, brittle from radiation, crumbled with compression fractures. More than once she considered suicide. As of publication, she has been declared free of cancer. Still, her 69-year-old body bears permanent wounds from her ordeal.

Job comes to mind. So, for French, does the symbolist poet Rimbaud, whose prose poem about his own tortured life, "Une Saison en Enfer," inspired the title of her medical memoir, "A Season in Hell."

But French's account skips poetry, as well as childhood reminiscences and the spilling of memoir-style secrets. Her narrative is not for the squeamish, or for those seeking a Norman Cousins-style upbeat approach to beating the devil of illness.

It's not mordantly funny, like Evan Handler's description of his leukemia treatment in "Time On Fire: My Comedy of Terrors," or richly moving like Reynolds Price's presentation of his spinal cancer in "A Whole New Life." Nix that.

"I have contempt for wishful thinking and comforting illusions," French writes. And what's bracing about her depressing story is just how obviously exhausted, furious, irritable, resilient, status-conscious, businesslike, terrified and vulnerably mortal this matriarch of modern feminism is.

The patient is generous with her appreciation of nurses (nearly all female) but brutal on most doctors (nearly all male), whom she handles with - she says so herself - "control" and "suspicion." She's grateful for the extraordinary support of her large circle of friends (many of them famous, including Gloria Steinem and TV anchorwoman Carol Jenkins), and of her grown children.

And she's perceptive about sexual politics even in situations as everyday as a hospital - bedside visiting, noticing that "women were visited mainly by other women; women were the caretakers for patients of both sexes."

French is, she knows, lucky. Throughout her hellish season, she was able to keep writing (remarkably, she published two novels - "Our Father" and "My Summer with George" - between crises). She traveled extensively and led a jam-packed social and cultural life.

She has substantial financial and societal means. ("I was treated [in the hospital] as a person of status," she says forthrightly. "The situation for people without status was very different.") She got to produce a book out of her misery; most hospital patients just get to produce debts.

A friend of mine, when battling cancer, said he far preferred reading about sick people suffering horribly than sick people transcending illness beatifically, because at least his crummy situation wasn't as horrible as theirs. That French doesn't emerge from "A Season in Hell" with a vibrant, one-day-at-a-time love of life, but just a brusque, bemused understanding that she's still here, may be her greatest contribution to the literature of healing, and the memoir form.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a regular contributor to national magazines and a critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was previously feature writer at the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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