Book Reviews

“The Old King in His Exile” by Arno Geiger

Translated from the German by Stefan Tobler

I’m beginning to notice something of a trend in my reading. Writers who have a parent living with Dementia will often take the opportunity to write about the experience. Many of these books are much more interesting and, dare I say it, better written than the regular Dementia biographies. In The Old King in His Exile, Austrian novelist, Arno Geiger turns his attention to his father and charts the progress of his illness over several decades. The slow progression of the text was one of the main things I enjoyed about this book. Geiger has made a point of letting the story take its time. 

“With this book, I wanted to take my time. I saved up for six years. At the same time, I wanted to write it before my father died. I didn’t want to tell his story after his death. I wanted to write about a living person. I felt that my father, like everyone else, deserved to have an open-ended destiny.”

The book reads more like a novel than a regular biography. There are small snippets of conversation included, frequent trips back into the past as Geiger presents the reader with his father’s history and small vignettes of everyday life. It is beautifully written and meandering in tone. There’s a gentleness I loved about the way Geiger approaches his father’s illness. He gives the older man room to be what he needs to be. There’s no sense of rushing his story, no sense of trying to impose sense upon the narrative. This is not Dementia utilised as a plot device. This is carefully and respectfully bearing witness to the last few years of a loved one’s life. I particularly loved the image Geiger used to describe his father’s gentle decline.

I half-remembered a phrase about ending something in beauty. If my father carried on like this, then the same would be true for him as I had once read in a Thomas Hardy novel, which talked of an old man who approached death as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line – changing his direction so slowly that, in spite of the nearness, it was unclear that the two would ever meet.”

I know I will return to this text. It has offered me a blueprint for how to write about a person living with Dementia with dignity, respect and above all things, space. It seems almost wrong to have to point this out, but many Dementia memoirs are more focused upon the person recording the life, than the person whose story it actually is. The Old King in his Exile is definitely Geiger’s father’s story, yet in writing it with so much openness and genuine fondness, Geiger constantly reveals more and more about his own character.

The Old King in His Exile was published by And Other Stories in 2017 

Book Reviews

“The Father” by Florian Zeller

Translated from the French by Christopher Hampton

With a big screen adaptation forthcoming later in 2020/early 2021 I thought I’d revisit French novelist and playwright, Florian Zeller’s incredible play Le Père, (or in English, The Father). Zeller makes bold, creative decisions with this play which explores the Dementia experience of an older Frenchman named André. André becomes the lens through which we see the world. The characters, dialogue, time frame and set of the play are all deliberately ambiguous as Zeller attempts to capture the confusion of André’s experience on stage.

The play itself is set in what André takes to be his Parisian apartment, although it is also at times his daughter’s apartment. Zeller’s stage instructions convey the confused nature of this space.

“Simultaneously the same room and a different room. Some furniture has disappeared: as the scenes proceed, the set sheds certain element, until it becomes an empty, neutral space.”

Scenes repeat with slight variations, additions and subtractions to the dialogue. This makes it incredibly difficult to follow any linear time pattern through the play. The audience is catapulted into André’s world where time means very little anymore. The past is the present is the past and memories repeatedly come back to haunt him, whilst other details, like the death of his younger daughter, seem to be permanently misplaced. Most worryingly of all Zeller employs different actors to play André’s daughter and her partner so when he does not recognise Anne or Pierre, the audience understands his confusion because we do not recognise them either. These people might be speaking Anne and Pierre’s lines, but they no longer look anything like them.

The Father is a simple and yet hugely ambitious attempt at embodying the Dementia experience in a piece of art and allowing it to be accessible to the audience members as they watch the play. It incites a feeling of confusion, disorientation and frustration not unlike Dementia itself. However, it is also shot through with moments of heartfelt emotion and beautiful, poignant language such as the section towards the end of the play, when André, greatly diminished by his illness and the confusing experiences he’s been through, likens himself to an Autumnal tree.

“I feel as if… I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves, one after another.”

I’m so looking forward to seeing Florian Zeller’s own film adaptation of The Father later in the year and am confident that the all star cast including Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman and Rufus Sewell will do justice to this powerful play.

The Father was published by Faber and Faber in 2015.

Book Reviews

“The Latecomer” by Dimitri Verlhurst

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Meet Désiré Cordier, a very unusual kind of hero. Fed up with the drudgery of retired life, hen-pecked by a bossy wife and irritated by his extended family, retired librarian Désiré hatches a cunning plan. He will gradually feign the symptoms of Dementia until he lands himself a place in a retirement home and a much-needed dose of peace and quiet. All goes according to plan. Désiré is able to fake his way through the memory test his doctor sets him and soon finds himself a resident in Winterlight Home for the Elderly.

“On paper it seemed easy enough: I would more or less crumble away like one of those lonely bluffs you see in Westerns. Slowly, but inexorably, with something resembling grandeur, I would blur and gradually disappear in the mist I myself was discharging.”

However, his plan doesn’t live up to expectations. Constantly feigning Dementia isn’t an enjoyable way of living. He’s beset by daily indignities and frustrated at his own limitations. He’s also shocked to discover he’s not the first resident to have come up with a similar exit plan. Plus, the retirement home isn’t as safe as he’d hoped -he’s sharing his living quarters with a war criminal- and Rosa Rozendaal, his childhood crush is too advanced in her own Dementia to return his amorous advances. It isn’t long before Désiré begins to question the wisdom of what he’s done.

Ably translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, Verhulst’s short novel is a darkly comic exploration of life within a retirement home. It’s funny, honest, sometimes brutally so, and full of well-placed observations about the staff, the residents and the visitors. By crafting a protagonist who’s feigning Dementia Verhulst offers the readers a unique insight into how a person with Dementia is treated and perceived by the people around him. In the following section he describes his daughter’s final visit to Winterlight.

“She could no longer bear to visit someone who didn’t recognise her. The only man she was willing to recognise as her father had dissolved in the mists of his own memory. This was going to be her last trip to this den of misery, her final symbolic visit, to round it all off.”

In normal circumstances a person living with advanced Dementia might be incapable of articulating the experience with the insight and eloquence we get from Désiré. The first person narrative is incredibly affecting. By the time we get to the end of the novel and, like Désiré, realise his family and the people who care for him can no longer see him for the person he is, we understand his frustration and empathise with his lack of autonomy. The Latecomer is a clever novel which uses a bold plot device to place the reader firmly in the shoes of a person living with Dementia. As such, I think it’s a really useful read.

The Latecomer was published by Portobello Books in 2015