Take Two Classics and Call Me in the Morning

Review of Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin, The Novel Cure

Sydney Morning Herald / The Age, September 28, 2013

Whenever I’m sick, as I have been this week, I always reach for a book. Tissues? Fine. Soup? Whatever. The core thing is: where’s the Wodehouse?

I’ve been diverted from this cold not by P.G. but by The Novel Cure. It is, as the cover says, an A-Z of Literary Remedies by two self-described bibliotherapists, Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud. Both are better known for their artistic practice: Elderkin, one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists, and Berthoud a painter. But their attention to bibliotherapy – ”the prescribing of fiction for life’s ailments” – is no mere gimmick. Bibliotherapy has existed in one form or another since readers started reading. In The Novel Cure, the authors advance the tradition, ”trawl[ing] two thousand years of literature for the most brilliant minds and restorative reads, from Apuleius … to the contemporary tonics of Ali Smith and Jonathan Franzen”. And they do a good job. The Novel Cure is whimsical and erudite, a collection of literary cures for life’s problems, both physical and spiritual.

There are prescriptions for standard medical ills (Jules Verne for hayfever, Maxence Fermine’s Snow for headache) and the side-effects of human interaction: hangovers, lust, and man flu. But the authors’ romp through conditions harder to find in household medical texts is the best part. They suggest novels for wanderlust and ”innocence, loss of” schadenfreude and lovesickness. Symptoms of the latter ”can be remarkably palpable, including fainting, wasting away, withdrawal from life and addiction to chocolate. All of these afflictions can be most tiresome for one’s friends and family”. Similarly, being a ”Daddy’s girl” ”never did anyone any favours”. The authors prescribe Jane Austen’s Emma, tell fathers to stop doting and daughters to see ”rails, going off the, for some inspiration”.

”Cult, being in a” is a more life-threatening predicament. ”Should you ever find yourself receiving an unnervingly enthusiastic welcome by a previously unheard-of community” that wants you to cut ties and give your cash away, ”vaccinate yourself immediately with” Peggy Riley’s Amity & Sorrow.

”Dictator, being”, is more difficult still, in circumstance and cure. After all, ”Your average dictator is more likely to sit down of an evening with a manual on how to rule the world and avoid being superseded than with a good novel”. This doesn’t dissuade our authors from suggesting one (Ismail Kadare’s The Successor, if any dictators are reading).

Elderkin and Berthoud treat the grittier side of life too, shifting tone from tongue-in-cheek to sensible aunt when they offer books for ”selling your soul” (Doctor Faustus) and broken dreams, breaking up and ”death, fear of”.

But it’s not all cancer and heartbreak. The authors delight in the very English problems of ”tea, unable to find a cup of”, ”egg on your tie”, and that old chestnut, ”determinedly chasing after a woman even when she’s a nun”.

You can’t fault them, then, for breadth of focus.

Elderkin and Berthoud handle their varied subject matter deftly. The Novel Cure remains serious without taking itself too seriously, gives advice without preaching, and advocates, with warmth and humour, the importance of literature as a therapeutic medium. They show an enviable breadth of reading; so much so that their condensed reviews of 2000 years of literature make the book as good for picking out your next read as for finding a cure for ”Stiff upper lip, having a” or ”vegetarianism”.

A note of caution, however, if reading The Novel Cure on public transport: it will make you laugh. Very loudly.

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