Magdalen Fellow and Professor of English Literature Robert Douglas-Fairhurst recently gave a talk at the London Review Bookshop on his latest book Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces. The talk was chaired by Dinah Rose KC, President of Magdalen, and involved readings from and a discussion about Robert’s book.
Metamorphosis, an intensely personal memoir about Robert’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, is described as ‘a darkly comic and moving reflection on what it means to be human in a world where nothing is certain’. In her introduction at the event, Dinah described the book as ‘funny, moving, and feel[ing] like we’re inside [Robert’s] head, which is an amazingly intimate and raw experience.’
Robert detailed the circumstances of writing the book and outlined the inspiration he found in the work of other writers. It was from one of these books that he found the title of his own: Franz Kafka’s novella of the same name in which Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into an enormous insect.
Robert shared that he felt much like Samsa in the days and weeks following his diagnosis and that Kafka’s Metamorphosis allowed him a new perspective on his own situation. There couldn’t really have been a better way to title the book.
Metamorphosis also begins with M and ends with S, providing an easily identifiable nod to MS. However, Robert admitted that ‘mysterious or mess would have achieved the same effect.’
Books are like lenses that allow you to view the world in a certain wayProfessor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
“For a lot of people,” Robert said, “books are like lenses that allow you to view the world in a certain way.”
Listening to Robert speak with frankness and humour, as well as applying a razor-sharp line of literary criticism not only to the texts that inspire him, but to the events of his own life, was a wonderful experience. His conversation with Dinah ranged from very funny to very honest – and often achieved both at once.
It was a pleasure to see so many of you at London Review Bookshop, and to meet so many of Robert’s former students.
Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces is published by Penguin and can be bought from all good bookshops and online retailers.