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Unspoken Truths

Until cancer attacked his vocal cords, the author didn’t fully appreciate what was meant by “a writer’s voice,” or the essential link between speech and prose. As a man who loved to talk, he turns to the masters of such conversation, both in history and in his own circle.


TALKING HEADS Heraclitus, Leonard Cohen, Callimachus, W. H. Auden, and Nelly Sachs.

Like so many of life’s varieties of experience, the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.

On a much-too-regular basis, the disease serves me up with a teasing special of the day, or a flavor of the month. It might be random sores and ulcers, on the tongue or in the mouth. Or why not a touch of peripheral neuropathy, involving numb and chilly feet? Daily existence becomes a babyish thing, measured out not in Prufrock’s coffee spoons but in tiny doses of nourishment, accompanied by heartening noises from onlookers, or solemn discussions of the operations of the digestive system, conducted with motherly strangers. On the less good days, I feel like that wooden-legged piglet belonging to a sadistically sentimental family that could bear to eat him only a chunk at a time. Except that cancer isn’t so ... considerate.

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether. I had just returned from giving a couple of speeches in California, where with the help of morphine and adrenaline I could still successfully “project” my utterances, when I made an attempt to hail a taxi outside my home—and nothing happened. I stood, frozen, like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow. I used to be able to stop a New York cab at 30 paces. I could also, without the help of a microphone, reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall. And it may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was “on,” too.
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