Have you heard of The Satanic Verses? Probably, yes, if only because of the furore following its publication: accusations of blasphemy and a fatwa against the author, Salman Rushdie. And The Comforts of Madness? I’d guess not; at the specialist second-hand bookshop where I found my copy, the staff recognised neither the book nor the author. Yet in 1988 both books won Whitbread awards in their categories – and it was The Comforts of Madness that walked away with the Book of the Year Award.
The Satanic Verses was Rushdie’s fourth novel. His second, Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize. In 1995 he won the Whitbread novel award for the second time with his sixth novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh. Rushdie is rightly regarded as one of Britain’s great contemporary writers; in 2007 he was knighted for his services to literature.
By contrast, in the ten years following Comforts of Madness although Paul Sayer published several novels, falling sales forced him to give up writing professionally and he took a job as a school cleaner. In 2010, twenty-two years after he beat Rushdie to the top Whitbread award – three years after Rushdie’s knighthood – he eventually published another novel but only because the Royal Literary Fund stepped in to help.
Go on a creative writing course and I can guarantee at some point you’ll be told to write about what you know. Sayer seems to have followed this advice because The Comforts of Madness draws on his experience as a psychiatric nurse.
The central character, Peter, is catatonic and the story is told entirely from his point of view. It’s a bold choice, because a narrator who doesn’t move nor talk is a limiting factor when it comes to developing any kind of plot: Peter literally can’t move the action forward in any way. So, unsurprisingly, it’s a slim book, 128 pages in my hardback copy, which is short by modern expectations of a novel.
But its quality not quantity that counts. Peter is a delightfully unreliable narrator as we follow him from psychiatric hospital to experimental rehabilitation centre and back, via memories of his childhood. It’s a touching and darkly humorous tale. Quirky characters come and go around him: the Major, a fellow patient, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Peter; Tom and Anna, the ambitious, unorthodox and sometimes unethical duo who run the rehabilitation centre; Alison, Peter’s melodramatic older sister. And it touches on some interesting questions. Is catatonia a choice? If so, to what extent should it be treated? Peter wonders at the “efforts to galvanise me, metamorphose me into something fulsome, a whole approximation of the kind of creature they believed I should be…it came easily to them, for I did not, could not speak up in my own defence.”
If Peter, like the toad he found when he was a boy, wants nothing more than to be left alone to sit under a stone, “withdrawal from life as a way of lifting myself above time,” what then? “What right had they?” to move him from the psychiatric hospital to the rehabilitation centre. “But then, what were my rights?”
Rating: ** Worth reading