Tag Archives: surgery

64. Edinburgh Revisited, and Lizzy Siddal on the ‘absolute diabolical’ Dr. Robert Forrest

Me & Kevin MacNeil (by L.Siddal!)

I have an unalloyed positive view of The Twitter as a social medium: through its good offices I’ve ‘met’ an awful lot of very interesting people and had any number of stimulating exchanges (however succinct.) Twitter is of course a very useful shop-window and literary trading-post for dedicated book-bloggers, which is how I e-met @LizzySiddal, author of the Lizzy’s Literary Life site. Lizzy is a big devotee of the Edinburgh Book Festival and kindly came along to my reading on the opening day. In the LRB book tent afterward we had a good chat and she snapped the picture herewith of myself and Kevin MacNeil. And she subsequently wrote up the proceedings at her blog, an extract from which I beg her favour to reproduce as follows:

Kelly describes writing The Possessions of Dr Forrest as a gesture of love to the gothic novel and to Stevenson in particular. Thus his novel preserves many of the characteristics of the original: the London setting, the structure and narrative style. He uses diaries and letters though not email. I’m a traditionalist, he said, in the sense that I still punctuate my text messages! His narrators are mostly male. 1 detective, 3 doctors (albeit with different specialisms). In keeping with the intensification of 21st-century angst, all 3 doctors are in crisis. Professional respectability and success is no guarantor of personal happiness. Ironically it is the psychiatrist Dr Hartford who is suffering the most.
“My profession long ago dispensed with Satan, of course, but initially advanced no further than to the notion that madness thrived in the sufferer’s blood, and could be drawn out by a sensible application of leeches. What are the fruits of wisdom that centuries of enquiry now bestow upon me? “Get some drugs into this man! Dampen down those symptoms!””
Psychiatry may have dispensed with the devil but this novel isn’t so adamant. Torment comes in many forms and most of it – in the pre-confessional sections of the novel certainly – emanates from females. The balance is redressed – somewhat- by the male-induced problems of Eloise – Dr Hartford’s patient and the sole female narrator. The greatest destruction, however, is the crazed ambition of Dr Forrest.
His disappearance right at the very beginning of the novel starts a downward spiral that eventually sucks in everyone. We can see this happening, even if the characters can’t but it’s not until Dr Forrest’s confessions that we understand the absolute diabolical nature of his actions. Never likeable, even when viewed through the sympathetic eyes of his friends in prior sections, he transforms through his own words into the most loathsome and contemptible creature I’ve ever read. Just how low can you go? Think about it and I’ll wager Forrest goes lower. Jekyll and Hyde? Jekyll and Hyder, more like.
I’m happy to report that I saw no Dr Forrest in the author (at least not at the festival). And I don’t believe that it was a mask. Kelly is such a genial character. Happy to chat on twitter (@RichTKelly) I love his dry, sardonic wit. On surgeons: The sense of their own prowess is so high, they are happy to have observers see the genius in their own hands. At the signing I had to ask how writing this darker than dark novel affected his head. Well, he said, my wife was very glad when I was finished. She wanted it out of the house!
You have been warned.

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61. On that ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

illustration (c) Cam Kennedy

Early on in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest a police detective named Bill Hagen, who has been handed the case file on the disappearance of the eminent cosmetic surgeon, makes the following observations on the evidence:

“The photos we obtained show a fellow very presentable for his age, if somewhat saturnine in looks. Physically he was in decent shape though a habitual drinker, and partial to some soft drug use. ‘A man of night and day’ is how his friend [Dr Grey] Lochran describes him, albeit fondly, attributing this to what he calls ‘a touch of the Jekyll-and-Hyde’ inherent in the surgical profession. That is to say, the incredible rigour of the work produces a commensurate need for a private cutting-loose, what in Forrest’s case Lochran quaintly calls ‘carousing.’ (Mr Hyde can take other forms too, I would say: Lochran, initially open and affable, can switch to a very stern and short-tempered force coming down the phone-line)…”

Now, I appreciate that a reader coming to Doctor Forrest with a basic sense of the scenario might consider the foregoing just a little too ‘on-the-nose.’ Must the immortal Henry Jekyll, and his equally deathless shadow Edward Hyde, be invoked in a modern story that would seem already to owe no small debt, both structurally and in smaller ‘touches’, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous creation(s)?
I can see that argument. My defence is only that the idea of ‘a touch of the Jekyll-and-Hyde’ being ‘inherent in the surgical profession’ is not one I invented myself but rather a theory that was expounded to me by a surgeon with whom I spoke when I was first researching the general terrain of the novel. But maybe I’m making too much of a minor coincidence? Given the enduring force of Stevenson’s allegory, might it not be that many more professions could be characterized by that touch? Politicans, schoolmasters, bus drivers, oral hygienists…?
Moreover: the sense in which that surgeon meant when I spoke to him was that ‘Hyde’ is the professional steeliness of the surgical practitioner, such that when Jekyll is at home or otherwise supposedly at leisure, with partner or family or whoever, still the phone call from the hospital might come, and ‘Hyde’ might have to start dispensing swift and hard-edged wisdom down the line on an emergency matter, having moments before been playing catch-ball with his toddler or whatever.
So the Mr Hyde in every surgeon (contra moi) is not some dissolute, depraved wraith. But then precisely what was the depravity of Stevenson’s Hyde? Just how dreadful are his crimes? The reader is not really to know, for Stevenson gives us only glimpses – the brutal trampling upon a girl-child, the killing of Sir Danvers Carew. The mystery of what Jekyll-as-Hyde really desires or is driven by, precisely what evil force in himself Jekyll unleashed, is a quite considerably thick fog. The moviemakers, with an eye on the contemporaneous Whitechapel ‘Ripper’, nearly always interpret the force as repressed lust – a respectable cloak of Victorian hypocrisy shrugged off by the pursuit of lustmord. (Perhaps this is why Vladimir Nabokov in his celebrated lecture on the work urges his students to forget, ‘obliterate’ in their minds all staged or cinematic adaptations of it.) But the dramatists were onto this angle immediately after the book’s appearance in 1886. Recently I was interested to learn that Stevenson complained about a stage version of Jekyll to the editor of the New York Sun in 1887. “… [P]eople are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality”, he wrote, insisting that it was Jekyll’s “selfishness and cowardice” that let out the beast Hyde, “not this poor wish to have a woman”.
How about that perhaps equally poor wish to have a man? Nabokov was keen to tease out the shade of the homoerotic in Jekyll: the absence of women from the story, the intriguing coincidence that 1885 saw the criminalization by parliament of homosexual acts between men. I’m not persuaded, but perhaps it’s better to say I am in (at least) two minds. The gothic mode always exhibits some interest in the taboo or the ostensibly perverse – ‘the unspeakable’, stuff that dare not speak its name – and I’m happy for the mist of ambiguity to remain around Jekyll and Hyde.
A word on the structure of the story, and Forrest’s debt to same: Ian Rankin, a celebrated and most perspicacious admirer of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, wrote a fine foreword to a re-issue of the text, extracted in the Guardian. Stevenson fans will find much to celebrate in Rankin’s piece – in particular, perhaps, his stress on the story’s ‘complex narrative’, which is much more tricksy than those umpteen film versions that doggedly take Jekyll’s point of view from inside his laboratory as he struggles to perfect his ‘transcendental medicine’. Whereas in Stevenson, as Rankin points out, “Jekyll himself figures only as a friend of the other characters and narrators – right up until the revelation provided by his “confession”. We start the book in the company of two gentlemen called Utterson and Enfield…”
Can readers who encountered the films before the original take the same pleasure, the proper pleasure, in the story’s unfolding? “Sadly,” Rankin writes, “we’ll never know the thrill experienced by this explosive book’s original audience. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a work of suspense, but we all know the twist these days, don’t we?”
All I can say is that while still a schoolboy I’d seen about a zillion adaptations of Jekyll without having savoured the ur-text, but only once I had Stevenson did everything become clear, gloriously so. For me much the best film of Stevenson’s tale is actually the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton version of Valerie Martin’s hommage/rewrite Mary Reilly, but it was a picture that thrill-seeking audiences didn’t warm up to. It looks better every year, though – like its inspiration.

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14. Veil, Visor, Disguiser: Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage

The following is extracted from The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, as police detective Hagen questions Forrest’s friend Dr Grey Lochran about a curious mask of black leather that has been found in the search of the missing Forrest’s apartment:

I sighed. ‘That is – an invention of Robert’s? A piece of product design he took to market. None too successfully, alas.’
‘What’s the gist of it then?’
‘They call it cold therapy. A cold-compress mask, for patients recovering from a procedure on the face – face lift, eye lift.’
Hagen had stood and plucked the mask off the table; now he was fumbling to separate and sort the varied flaps of PVC. Finally he raised it to his face and stood there, mutely black-visaged, for so many silent beats that I was made a touch queasy by the off-key jocularity. At length I realised he was studying his reflection in a mirror behind me. Finally he lowered the mask, bemused.
‘Produces something of a sinister aspect, doesn’t it?’
‘Quite. A touch of the fetish. I’d guess that’s partly why the trade failed to embrace it. I told Robert it’d look better on Halloween night than in a recovery suite. But that only tickled him. He wouldn’t be told. Not on matters of taste…’


This mask, you will already have guessed, makes further unnerving appearances as the story progresses.
I am an unabashed admirer of masks, at least when it comes to the business of storytelling and drama. Behind the mask, for actor as for character, one is truly free to be somebody other than oneself. Of course there’s also the theory in sociology, pertinent to fiction, that social life itself is but a stage on which all of us, at times, wear our faces as masks… But above all there are umpteen great stories deriving from the mystery of face-masks that offer a frozen vision of beauty, only to conceal a grisly truth on the part of the wearer. Masks – like clowns – are sometimes funny, and mainly creepy. But they can offer considerable poignancy too.
‘My face frightens me; my mask terrifies me even more…’ So laments Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) in what is perhaps the finest of all mask stories, the grisly and yet lyrical 1959 French film Les Yeux Sans Visage / Eyes Without A Face directed by Georges Franju. The evil fate of the Phantom of the Opera may inspire pity, but how can it compare with that of Christiane, a mere slip of a girl, awfully disfigured by her own father, somehow retaining her innocence while confined to a chateau that crawls with quiet lunacy? Christiane’s obsessive doctor-daddy (Pierre Brasseur), cause of the car crash that left her face ‘an open wound’, tasks his nurse (Alida Valli) to kidnap collegiate females as grist for radical face transplants that never quite ‘take’. (At dinner after one such doomed effort Génessier bids his daughter smile, but ‘pas trop.’) Scob is a forlorn doll as she wanders the chateau’s corridors in her white mask and raincoat with high collar and short sleeves. Denied human intimacy, she has an eerie communion with the ravening Great Danes her father keeps in the basement; they, finally, will be the agents of her revenge.
Georges Franju was a fascinating character: he co-founded the Cinémathèque Française and directed the grim slaughterhouse documentary Le Sang des Bêtes (1949), but had a love of fantasy (see also Judex, 1963) that achieved its full dark bloom in the form of Christiane’s waxen mask. Below is a clip from Judex, quite the best passage in the movie, which unfolds – surprise, surprise – at a masked ball. Below that is the marvellous finale of Les Yeux Sans Visage.

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11. Kevin Macdonald on ‘Doctor Forrest’ + David Cronenberg’s surgical skills

Kevin Macdonald is of course the director of, inter alia, the documentaries One Day in September (Academy Award winner, 2000) and Touching the Void, and the feature dramas The Last King of Scotland, State of Play and The Eagle (pictured.) He kindly read a proof copy of The Possessions of Doctor Forrest and gave my publisher this approving quote:

‘Not even David Cronenberg, master of body-shock horror, has come up with anything as chilling as the tale that unfolds in DOCTOR FORREST. Mr. Hyde suddenly seems a quaint and pleasant companion…’

You can imagine I’m very pleased, indeed flattered, by the associations therein. Of Mr Hyde and his unfortunate benefactor I will say more very soon. Of David Cronenberg I would simply say that he’s always been a hero of mine, an incredibly bold film artist, and that throughout my researches in surgery that preceded the writing of Forrest I was continually reminded of Cronenberg, so completely has he made the theory and practice and aesthetics of the surgical his personal property in cinema. (He owns the image of the operating theatre just as Kafka seems to own the letter ‘K’).
Cronenberg’s masterpiece, it seems to me, is Deadringers (1988), though he may well have another one in him. I find it hard to imagine a more elegant, profound fable about sexual difference – our bodies, how they define us and separate us, this set against the oh-so-human urge to merge and conjoin and be something other than what the mirror says. Again, only Cronenberg could have so fully embraced the gynaecological art as fit material for film drama. There is a gynaecological ‘moment’ in Doctor Forrest – I think of it as ‘the speculum scene’ – and I suppose it’s a sort of tip of the hat to Cronenberg, Deadringers, and the concept of ‘inner beauty’…
Health warning: if you are the owner of a female body you might conceivably feel a tad less enthused by Deadringers‘ storyline and mise-en-scene. The film is partly about female vulnerability, but it plays some unnerving notes in that line. This clip is about as reserved as Cronenberg gets yet, in its effect, not for the fainthearted.

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