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Recovering the words lost -- and himself

October 12, 2008|Beau Friedlander | Beau Friedlander is the editor in chief of He lives in Brooklyn.

The Shadow Factory

Paul West

Lumen Books: 116 pp., $23

WHEN I was 24, I lived in Sweden, where I was obsessed with the poet Tomas Transtromer. He'd suffered a stroke in 1990, and while I wanted to meet him, it seemed a fool's errand, since he'd lost his command of the English language and much of his native tongue.

Eventually, I met two members of the Swedish Academy who encouraged me to visit Transtromer. Soon I was invited to an island called Runmaro, where I met the poet and his wife. It was awkward but enjoyable. The poet I loved was still there, discernible through the garble of his muted mind.

Transtromer had just finished a memoir about losing language after the stroke. It seemed like a Buddhist koan to me. How do you write without language? I was young, and it was the first time I'd heard the term "aphasia." I remember asking what it meant.

All these years later, Paul West has answered my question in his latest book, "The Shadow Factory." The author of 22 works of fiction and 17 of nonfiction, West had a stroke in June 2004. Since then, he has suffered from Broca's aphasia. He cannot process numbers and has only three hours a day in which to write. (After that, language escapes him.) In "The Shadow Factory," West chronicles the untellable: what it was like for a writer to live without language and his struggle to get it back.

Mem mem mem. These are the syllables West mumbled after his stroke. For any author, this would be a tragedy, but in West's case, it goes into the realm of the cosmically horrid. West occupies the English language as only a graduate of Oxford can. As a student there, he had to slog through every incarnation of his native tongue and experience major (and many minor) masters of prosody and prose. Known for having an endless vocabulary, West writes with the sensitivity of an artisan. In his work, word choice is subtle yet definitive in a more or less metaphysical way.

Early on here, West writes that "a large number of us spend much of our time getting nowhere at all and fattening up our internal systems with fat nothings." Sad that. And yes, the book is dark. But lest "The Shadow Factory" appear unremitting in its sorrow, it has much to delight and amaze us, including West's confused accounts of his physician, Dr. Sanjeev, perfectly cast as the unwittingly cruel-by-profession stooge-cum-sage.

There is the obsession with food, a dangerous proposition for West because he cannot swallow properly. He is in rare form writing about "blameless salmon" or heady music that summons dreams of lion steak dinners.

What endures finally is the way that West, addled by a hard blow to his spiritual core, somehow manages to drag himself back inside the membrane of language by an act of sheer will. "I formed the habit of forcing language back on itself," he writes, "beyond even its failure to communicate anything at all, to see what was there."

In the end, of course, it is West himself who is there.

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