“The question is not how to cure or how to be cured but how to live.” – The Other Side of You, by Salley Vickers

November 11, 2008 at 7:52 pm (Art, Book clubs, books)

other Inspired by the profusion of provocative ideas swirling gracefully through Salley Vickers’s book,  the Literary Ladies enjoyed a bracing discussion Friday night.

The Other Side of You concerns a British psychiatrist, David McBride, who receives enlightenment about his own life from an initially recalcitrant patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank. At the same time, the novel has a much wider subject matter; namely, the possibility of personal and social redemption in a fallen world.

I’ve written about this book before, once to recommend it to readers who care about fine literature; and again to quote from Michael Dirda’s review. (Dirda, who writes for the Washington Post Book World, himself has a luminous prose style.)

As the discussion commenced – with Yours Truly as leader – I pulled out my copy of The Other Side of You, and lo! it was festooned with post-it notes in three or four different colors, plus a cunning little commodity called “book darts.”(I suggested buying them on the sleeve. The problem with the little canister is that when you open it, the small, lightweight book darts tend to scatter all over the place.)

Here are just a few of the memorable passages that cried out to be marked:

It is a commonplace that it is part of life’s tragedy that while it must be lived forwards it can only be understood backwards…

Walking is a famous loosener of thoughts. [See Thoreau’s essay “Walking.”]

Outside, I made out the shape of the ginger tom poised on the fence and beside him, in weird juxtaposition, I could see a reflection of my lamp and my patient in the blue armchair, the few feet between us expanded into an unnavigable mirage of air.

(This vivid image occurs at a crucial turning point in the novel. Elizabeth is about to break through a wall of silence in order to tell David her story.)

These next two quotes are from a conversation David is having a with fellow psychiatrist and close friend Gus Galen:

‘…the Greek potters could tell the very second at which a glaze turned in a kiln from red to black. They didn’t need a thermometer. They trusted the blink of an eye.’

‘A suicide is someone who wants to take a shortcut to one of the only certainties: death and taxes. Only taxes aren’t as sexy as death. You could argue that suicide is getting straight to the point: it’s a fast-track method of transportation from one realm to another.’ (Elizabeth has been referred to David for treatment following an attempt to take her own life.)

And then this rueful observation by David:

Age and disease and death may destroy our physical being but it is other people who get inside us and damage our hearts and minds.

Elizabeth Cruikshank – a married mother of two –  had a lover, Thomas Carrington, an art historian whose special interest was Caravaggio. In particular, the painting The Supper at Emmaus is crucial to his work – and to this novel. Here are David’s thoughts as he stands before it, in London’s National Gallery:

I’d not taken in the painting properly when Gus showed it to me first, inspecting it only out of politeness and  curiosity – mostly about my new acquaintance. Now it hit me with the delayed force that the revelation they were witnessing plainly hit the two amazed fishermen, when the friend and colleague they had loved – and walked and talked and lain down and slept with – on lousy straw and rocky, inhospitable soil, and starved with, and eaten supper with the night before he died, and believed dead and gone for ever – rematerialised out of the blue to share this other supper with them and knock them back to life.

The Supper at Emmaus

The Supper at Emmaus

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Salley Vickers is trained in Jungian therapy, and Jungian constructs are obliquely referenced throughout the novel: ‘Gus believes that somewhere we all know everything, and  that what is generally called intuition is merely a stronger than usual capacity to disinter information and bring it to light.’ We talked about times in which you’ve answered a question or made an observation rooted in knowledge that you didn’t know you possessed – or couldn’t even imagine how you’d come by in the first place.

Wikipedia’s entry on Carl Gustav Jung lists three of his most notable concepts: psychological archetypes, the collective unconscious, and synchronicity. (Yes, I know, Wikipedia is often criticized for oversimplifying things, but that oversimplification provides a useful starting point for those new to a complex subject. Synchronicity alone is such a provocative idea; I’m going to come back to it, I hope, in a separate post.)

The Other Side of You is rich with allusions to the arts. In addition to Caravaggio, the inexpressibly sad ghost of John Keats hovers over this narrative. At one point, Elizabeth and Thomas visit the Keats house at  the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. (I did the same some forty years ago.) I have quoted  Joseph Severn’s letter on the poet’s death elsewhere in full.

At one point, Thomas refers to the folk song “Raggle Taggle Gypsies.” Elizabeth has never heard of it. (She’s got gaps in her education, apparently.) Thomas then quotes a verse – or, one version of a verse:

‘She kicked off her high-heeled shoes, /All made of Spanish leather-O, /And it’s out in the street, /In her bare, bare feet, / To dance with the Raggle Taggle Gypsies-O.’

wheat On Watching the White Wheat, one of the chief treasures of my CD collection, The King’s Singers convey, with an urgent, hushed agitation, this ballad’s sense of impending doom.

The title of this novel comes from a verse in The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

Virtually every character in this novel is haunted – in some cases, beleaguered – by the shadow of what might have been.

Our group agreed that the numerous references to art, history, and literature enrich Vickers’s book tremendously.  British novelists are particularly adept at doing this, viz. The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey and Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News, which I am currently about half way through.

The quote I used in the title of this post comes  from Gus Galen, David McBride’s “hearth companion.” (Definition: “A devoted friend…Someone who sleeps beside you at the hearth and watches your back in a fight.”) For his humaneness and his loyalty to David, all of us loved this character.

I could go on about this novel, but I think I’ll conclude here with a hearty recommendation. You may be thinking that we’re dealing with a weighty tome here, but the paperback beside me is only 262 pages long. Many riches, tightly packed…

Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers

[Biographical information on Salley Vickers was not easy to find. In the end, the best source was – you guessed it – Wikipedia.]

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harr Just one addendum concerning Caravaggio. If you haven’t read Jonathan Harr’s The Lost Painting, you really should. This is nonfiction that reads like fiction (better, in some instances). You’ll be amazed when you find out where this masterpiece finally turns up.

The Taking of Christ, by Caravaggio

The Taking of Christ, by Caravaggio


2 Comments

  1. Art and Intrigue: Caravaggio’s Angel by Ruth Brandon (with a diversion to Cornwall)) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of this mother lode of dramatic material. One of my favorite examples of this paradigm occurs in The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. On this post you’ll find images of two of Caravaggio’s works: The […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] World Over – Julia Glass The Other Side of the Bridge – Mary Lawson The Other Side of You – Salley Vickers Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love – Ian McEwan Trauma – […]

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