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Choosing against life

January 05, 2003|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

Peter Handke

Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

New York Review Books: 80 pp., $10.95 paper

*

The Angel and the Dragon

A Father's Search for Answers

to his Son's Mental Illness and Suicide

Jonathan Aurthur

Health Communications: 362 pp., $12.95 paper

*

Judging whether life is worth living or not is, as Camus famously wrote, the fundamental question of philosophy. Yet he clearly understates the problem. For those who kill themselves, there can be no second-guessing. That decision is merely the surcease of pain. Hardly an answer, it is the beginning of the anger, the sorrow, the guilt, disbelief and shame for those left behind. But the real legacy of suicide is a story, a reiteration of Camus' question tied onto every memory and every memory recast, reshaped and re-imagined to provide an explanation for an event that has none. Perhaps no two authors could be more dissimilar in their ventures into this territory than Peter Handke and Jonathan Aurthur, and it is precisely their differences that make their stories important today.

"A Sorrow Beyond Dreams," written in 1972 and first published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1975, is Handke's account of his mother's life and death. Prosaic, poetic, elliptical and self-conscious, it is an exacting picture of the shock and grief that await those who have inherited the ruins of a suicide. "The Angel and the Dragon" is messier and more desperate. The story of Charley Aurthur's life and his death in 1996, told by his father, lacks literary concision but gains momentum in its inconsolable grappling with the meaning of mental illness.

Charley Aurthur was by all accounts a talented and precocious child. He was born in 1973 of activist (and soon to be divorced) parents, grew up in Culver City, played the piano with obvious aptitude and wrote. By the time he turned 15, however, a shadow, tinged by insomnia and abrupt mood swings, had begun to dim his talent. Then, the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at college, he took a weekend trip to Yosemite and, while driving home, totaled the family car. A week later, he was sitting with his parents and a psychiatrist, who recommended that he be hospitalized. It is every parent's nightmare: Aurthur and his ex-wife soon learned that the accident and Charley's subsequent behavior -- jittery, dazed, anxious and weeping -- were most easily understood as the symptoms of a psychotic break.

The Aurthurs' introduction to the world of mental illness was precipitous. For his part, Charley experienced disorienting extremes of delusion and despair, reconstructed here through his letters, poetry and journal entries. His doctors debated whether he suffered from manic depression or schizophrenia. (Their diagnoses were often guided by the effectiveness of specific medications, which after one suicide attempt became an extraordinary cocktail of Navane, Cogentin, Klonopin, lithium and Wellbutrin, cut by an occasional session of psychotherapy.) Aurthur was no better prepared emotionally -- or financially -- than Charley and found himself searching the past and the present for a clue as to why his once seemingly balanced child had changed and what could be done to set his life right again. He ranged broadly through the written landscape -- from Michel Foucault to A. Alvarez, from Kay Redfield Jamison to Kate Millett -- scrutinizing biomedical and psychosocial treatments and fast confronting his own powerlessness in the face of Charley's rapid decline.

Mental illness is a phrase you won't find in Handke's account of his mother's death, yet it surely waits in the wings. While attempting a factual account of his mother's life, told with a journalist's precision ("The Sunday edition of the Karntner Volkszeitung," his story begins, "carried the following item under 'Local News': 'In the village of A. (G. township), a housewife, aged 51, committed suicide on Friday night ....' "), Handke can't help but fall through the occasional trapdoor. "This story," he concedes, "

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