A Pound a Glimpse

Daniel Smith

  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
    Cape, 242 pp, £16.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 224 10182 0
  • The End of Epilepsy? A History of the Modern Era of Epilepsy, 1860-2010 by Dieter Schmidt and Simon Shorvon
    Oxford, 208 pp, £39.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 872590 9

In 1926, Graham Greene received a diagnosis of epilepsy. In all likelihood, he didn’t have the disorder. His only symptoms were three isolated episodes of lost consciousness: once in the school chapel at Berkhamsted; once in the London home of his psychoanalyst; and once in the offices of the Times, where he was working as an assistant editor. But the neurologist he consulted thought these episodes were sufficient grounds for the diagnosis, and the news nearly led Greene to throw himself in front of a speeding tube train. He was 22 years old and engaged to be married. He’d written two unpublished novels. The diagnosis threatened to upend all of his cherished plans for the future, not least his plans for a family: his analyst had told him (not quite accurately) that epilepsy could be inherited. But what unnerved Greene was something less rational. He seems to have felt that he had been prematurely and indelibly marked. Epilepsy wasn’t just a difficult chronic condition, like migraines or gout. Nor was it something dishonourable he could at least blame on his own behaviour, like syphilis. It was an affliction, an awesome, inexplicable curse. As he wrote decades later in A Sort of Life, the first volume of his autobiography, ‘epilepsy, cancer and leprosy – these are the three medical terms which rouse the greatest fear in the untutored and at 22 one is unprepared for so final a judgment.’

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