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Terribly terrible and wonderfully wonderful

Geoff Dyer finds a personal account of manic depression spoilt by gush and ceramic bumble bees; An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison, Picador pounds 15.99
Since antiquity," wrote William Styron in Darkness Visible, "in the lament of Job, in the choruses of Sophocles and Aeschylus, chroniclers of the human spirit have been wrestling with a vocabulary that might give proper expression to the desolation of melancholy." It might be a perennial theme but as the success of Styron's "memoir of madness" made clear, it has recently become a lucrative one too. What Peter D Kramer - author of Listening to Prozac - in an excellent recent essay called "autopathography" is the growth genre of our time.

From a publisher's point of view, Kay Redfield Jamison was a doubly attractive catch in that she is "a world authority" on the manic-depressive illness from which she suffers. While clambering up the greasy pole of academic advance-ment, she was also engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the very demons whose study she was mastering. Lurching from frenzied distraction to paralysing despair, she had to reconcile her professional certainty that manic depression was an illness - which could be controlled by medication - and her personal reluctance to treat it as such. Throughout her life she's been torn between the sometimes exhilarating contraries of illness and the tolerable yet deadened normalcy provided by lithium.

So far, so moving. But let us be quite clear: to suppose that Jamison's book is somehow entitled to whatever plaudits, concessions and sympathy are appropriate to the life it records is to succumb to chronic critical delusion.

As Styron noted, conveying the experience of madness brings language to the edge of inexpressibility. It is understandable, then, that in recounting periods of severe illness Jamison should write of "a pitiless, unrelenting pain that affords no window of hope... and no respite from the cold undercurrents of thoughts and feelings that dominate the horribly restless nights of despair." The problem with writing like this is that it deadens where it seeks to accentuate, becomes a form of hysterical rhetoric.

Similarly, there is only so much terribleness that words like "terrible" and "terribly" can convey. In terms of Jamison's stylistic antinomies, being ill is terribly terrible and being well is wonderfully wonderful. What Tennyson called "the cruel madness of love" is, not surprisingly, "wonderful and terrible".

In other words, it is not only in extremis that Jamison's language struggles to make its mark: it is pretty hard pressed to do justice to the quotidian. Perhaps all her academic tenure-mongering has taken its toll, for she often lapses into unconscious resume prose: "I have written extensively in medical and scientific journals..." It is natural to thank her husband for being "unbelievably wonderful" in the acknowledgements, but this alerts us to how much of the book is written in the style of the acknowledgements. Particularly intense moments call for a mix of acknowledgementese and resume-speak:

"Throughout the setting up and running of the clinic I was fortunate to have the support of the chairman of my department..."

Simultaneously breathless and anodyne, this style comes to a head when Jamison spends a year at Oxford. She finds her college "incredibly beautiful", her suite of rooms "lovely" and the dons "remarkably interesting." At Oxford, moreover, she can give free rein to her much professed love of music, poetry, literature and opera.

Jamison makes no bones about the fact that during her periods of mania and depression she makes intolerable demands on the people around her; by the time of her Oxford fellowship, I found myself wholly on the side of the less than wonderful doctor whom Jamison "seemed especially to annoy" even during her intervals of normality. If we're being utterly frank, Jamison's precious, self-exalting ideas of perfect evenings - "long dinners and fine wines", culminating in discussions of "literature and music over late-night coffee and port" - came pretty close to driving me mad.

I don't want to be unsympathetic, but can anyone have any feeling for writing and still express their most intense emotions in sentences beginning "To this day..."? "To this day I keep a large ceramic bumble bee in my office." "To this day I have neither reopened nor reread any of his letters." "To this day, I cannot hear that piece of music without feeling surrounded by the beautiful sadness of that evening." My favourite, though, is this flight of air-miles fancy: "Since that day, whenever possible, I fly British Airways." I mean, really.