Review: One Hundred Names For Love
A devoted wife's chronicle of her stricken spouse's recovery of his rare and imaginative word-power is an inspiration
Diane Ackerman: drawing new nature from old, strength from catastrophe
By Diane Ackerman
W. W. Norton, £19.99
If ever a medical memoir wrested beauty from the bleak, One Hundred Names for Love, by Diane Ackerman, is it. At 74, Ackerman's husband, Paul West, suffered a calamitous stroke that laid waste to Broca and Wernicke's - vital speech centres of the brain.
In a lightning strike, West, author of more than 20 novels, retired professor and man of letters lost his entire lexicon: gone were the use and understanding of everyday nouns and verbs, vanished the double-cream richness of words that rendered his life a literary banquet.
All that remained to him was a lone, repetitive syllable with which to express rage, desolation or pleading: "mem, mem, mem." Besides this "global aphasia", West, in that immediate post-stroke phase, could not perform the simplest tasks, was unable to read the newspaper, tell the time, swallow safely or maintain his balance.
Even the memory of his name and his wife's had fled. Yet this is the man who was never before short of a new and playful, soaringly original endearment: "Lovely ampersand of the morning" he would serenade Diane, "she for whom all flowers bloom early."
Even in bread-and-butter prose, the couple's creative climb back (an emotional Everest indeed) from ruin to repair could not fail to inspire. But Ackerman is herself an acclaimed poet and naturalist: her literary sparkle and startling imagery makes this tale ten times the book it might have been. "Words", she aptly reflects, "are such small things, like confetti in the brain, and yet they colour and clarify everything." Even when misused: in a miracle of overnight improvement, West suddenly proclaims: "I speak good coffee!" Meaning, as he immediately self-corrects: "I speak wonderful English."
Increasingly, amazingly, and despite getting through five, none-too-helpful speech therapists, he really does. Ackerman spots that standard speech exercises and workbook questions such as "Can pearls fly?" "Can bags frown?" only bemuse someone of her husband's towering imagination. Why ever not?
To re-ignite his dampened brilliance, she suggests instead that he starts dictating his experience. She immerses him in "non-stop conversation therapy", cuddles a way back to closeness, and takes heart from visiting neurologist Oliver Sacks, who advocates total disregard of the medical opinion that post-stroke improvement has only a short window of opportunity.
Progress, says Sacks, is ongoing. So it proves: a doctor reviewing West's scan four years on assumes from the scarred and ravaged battlefield of his brain that the patient has been in a vegetative state. He is incredulous to learn that West is communicative, perhaps happier than before his stroke, swims a lot and has written several more books.
At 80, West once again caresses his wife with word-play ("O parakeet of the lissome star"), and peppers his manuscripts with words like "revenant", "estaminet" and "synoptic". Life, though different, admittedly diminished, is not at all to dread: "A bell with a crack in it may not ring as clearly", Ackerman affirms, "but it can ring as sweetly."
Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer