What I believe in the morning I doubt at night. What I'm sure of at night is fantastic in the morning.
That our emotions and fears are hardly trammeled by our nightmares may seem an obvious point, but at least our nightmares have boundaries. We all know the sensation of being ensconced in some terrible predicament and then realizing that this situation so differs from the world we know that we cannot be awake (a deceased loved one is alive and kicking; persons of the same age appear twenty years apart; and a job and a country we have never known now constitute our everyday). Yet another feeling is equally familiar: in the midst of some perfunctory task, we are reminded of something that occurred and yet could not have occurred, and we impute this event to our second existence. Our second existence comprises a motley collection of thoughts, sentiments and visions – some utterly trivial and peripheral, others clearings in the hedge of our soul's labyrinth – two worlds that bend into one another like a weeping willow and its lake, mirror reflections distorted by the ripples of wind that disturb our serenity. We are drawn to that willow and that lake like we are drawn to the oxygen they contain, but we sense a strained hum in the clouds that gather upon our approach. A distant melody that brings us to this fine novel.
We begin on the eve of the Second World War on the seaside villas and villages that surround this body of water, although we will return to London in short order. It is in London that the eponymous physician, a callow resident at St. Basil's, one of England's preeminent teaching hospitals, comes to meet an older woman called Fanny Vaughn. What separates Vaughn from all other women in the world will not be immediately obvious to the reader, nor is it to Haggard himself. All too often fiction assumes the idealistic shapes of legend, and the flawlessness of the goddesses that haunted the Hellenic mind is imposed upon the earthbound mortals from which we may choose our beloved. With Fanny Vaughn, however, little advance is made towards her coronation. She is a simple and bright woman who appeals to a niche within Haggard that the diffident doctor had always hoped would exist:
That night, dear James, your mother took my heart by storm – took it without a struggle. In those first moments I can't have been very articulate, I never am when I'm excited, I tend to become formal, but she understood .... As she leaned over, her gown rippled with reflected light from the chandelier, and what a truly lovely woman she was, I thought – already I was fascinated by her, the pale, perfect skin, the slight, slender figure in the shining sheath of satin. Her dark hair was cut close to the head and gleamed in soft waves in the candlelight.
Faint light tends to fawn over blemishes, and Haggard spends most of his days before and after Fanny Vaughn in natural dimness. Yet the more important question is why Haggard is addressing Fanny's son when stories like these, if in second person, are usually made out to the object of their affection. Unless of course we are dealing with a confession.
The confession reveals nothing unexpected. Haggard falls in love with the wife of the hospital's chief pathologist (that the latter wastes most of the novel in vain attempts to diagnose his wife's indifference must count as one of its least subtle motifs) and relinquishes the details of their intimacies, albeit with little grunting and moaning, as a diary made out to Fanny's only begotten son. There are scenes of exquisite tenderness made even sweeter by the fact that Haggard is now a morphine-addicted cripple with little appetite or vim; there are also more than a few observations on the state of his wretched soul.
I understood that our love affair would influence me profoundly – define me profoundly – for the rest of my life, and this being so, I chose, freely, not to forget. I would not, I decided, allow the memory to atrophy, to wither and fade, I would keep it fresh, I would nurture it, make of it an object of worship and construct an altar in my heart where I could perform, nightly, my devotions. I'd realized you see that I was one of those rare men who, having loved, come to understand love as the most significant spiritual activity a man can undertake. Love, for me, is not ephemeral, it is not a transient emotion, a passing state, a passage or flight into madness or ectasy; I see it, rather, as an exalted or even sacred condition, a condition in which all the highest and best of human faculties are exercised.
Somehow Haggard understands that happiness will inevitably elude those who sit and read poetry on the verandas of their discontent; those quiet minds wait and wait for life to resemble poetry, which it cannot. True poetry's path must resemble the entrails of life, the pain and redoubtable joy that can only be lived firsthand and relived through the magic of art. I suppose it would be kind to mention that for much of our story Haggard is indeed depicted as a faithful lover in the spiritual sense. He loves Fanny for what she is, not what she means to him, which could be a fair definition of genuine affection. But the errors he commits, and they are numerous, force his delicate, womanly hand into gloves that suit a much bolder personality. Could anyone truly love a sappy underachiever, if Edward really is cut out to be a physician, which is not the sustained opinion of some of his superiors? Edward has answers for all these questions, copious answers, but not things he would like to hear repeated.
Apart from a luxurious yet concise style, McGrath's great asset is his immunity to popular culture. Never do the banal and easy comforts of lesser writers whisper to Edward, who sits impeached in Elgin, a cliff-bound manor inherited from a recently deceased uncle – the same uncle, mind you, who he had claimed was ill to provide excuses for his adulterous absences. And when Fanny finally decides to call the whole thing off, he is neither surprised nor hurt. For him to be surprised, she would have had to leave everything, including her burgeoning pilot of a son, and be with him in a world that was not amicable to betrayal; to hurt him, she would have had to tell him that all this meant nothing. But she does, in a way, neither. She pays him a specific compliment whose opposite is implied of her husband, a brutish man who always smells of formalin and chooses to examine cadavers without gloves (The explanation? They restrain him in his analysis; and after all, he reminds his colleagues, pathology only works upon the failure of organic functions). Haggard proceeds with the affair knowledgeable of his unrequited devotion, at least outwardly, and then incurs a stab of recognition that will only be hinted at from the following passage:
Do you know the feeling – you may not be old enough – the ghastly lurch of shock, I mean, that comes when, having thought about a thing for days on end, and then suddenly encountering a point of view in which previously unimaginable categories are employed, all values abruptly shift?
On more than one occasion does Fanny ask Edward to "use his imagination" instead of informing him properly of the minutia that always make adultery a futile romp. The complications that arise, however, are more than he could have ever imagined. On second thought, there is little that Edward Haggard's imagination cannot concoct.