How Illness Shaped a Writer’s Life

Illness came in my 11th year like a thief in the night, intent upon stealing my life. The only hint of a serious affliction was a daily weariness that had me needing to rest after school. My parents became concerned and Naka, who was our nanny, took me to our family doctor.

The doctor’s X-rays revealed tubercular lesions on my lungs. In the mid-1930s, the only treatment for tuberculosis was rest in a mountain sanatorium. Our family’s limited finances made that impossible, so my treatment was bed rest in the small sun-parlor room of our Chicago South Side apartment.

My initial reaction was glee at having deceived the doctor into thinking I was sick. I would be rid of school and onerous homework while my chores would be passed onto my younger sister, Irene, who was distraught at how grievously my disability would affect her.

That autumn, I luxuriated in bed and continued to feel the doctor had been mistaken. In the afternoon I sat by my window and waited for my friends to finish school. We hollered back and forth and I gloated as they expressed their envy at my good fortune.

Autumn slipped into winter and my friends vanished from the streets. Since my disease was considered contagious, no one was allowed to visit. I also began feeling ill with severe headaches and my breathing grew burdened. I had never thought of dying and now I conceived death to be a Saturday matinee movie monster ready to devour me. In the snail-crawling hours of the night I lay sleepless, waiting anxiously for first light at my windows.

Before my illness, except for schoolbooks, my only reading had been comic books and pulp magazines. As I tired of them, I foraged in the library of my older siblings and retrieved a few hardcover books. I read Captain Blood, a novel by Rafael Sabatini. In the reign of the English King James II, Blood had been convicted of aiding a wounded rebel and sentenced to 10 years in a Barbados prison. He escaped from prison to pursue life as a pirate and adventurer. Captain Blood’s story was more suspenseful and dramatic than any pulp story.

I hounded my siblings for more books. They brought me armloads bought from sidewalk stalls for 25 cents apiece. As soon as I finished one book, I began another.

In the following months, I began to read as soon as I awoke, and I read through the day, pausing only for meals that Naka brought me. Without plan or design, my range of books broadened. White Fang and “The Call of the Wild, adventure novels by Jack London led to a book that deeply influenced my life. Martin Eden was Jack London’s story of an unlettered seaman who falls in love with an educated and lovely girl of the upper classes. Inspired by that love and by prodigious reading, he educates himself. Captivated by the marvels of language and the joy of stories, Martin Eden resolves and achieves becoming a writer.

I finished Martin Eden burning with such excitement that I quickly read it a second time. I vowed that I would also educate myself, and someday write stories of my own.

I read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Alan Poe, entering the realms of their haunted fiction. I moved on to the great Russian writers, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev and Maxim Gorki. Their passionate, suspenseful stories made me suffer along with their characters. Although I can no longer remember just why, Maxim Gorki’s novel Mothers brought me to tears.

Another book I remember vividly was Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. His commissars, peasants, and particularly his Cossacks, magnificent horsemen and brutal overlords seemed to leap off the page.

The writing of Sholem Aleichem transported me into still another province of life with Jewish peasants living in settlements called shtetls. Aleichem’s impoverished and persecuted peasants were able to find the patience and even draw on humor to endure their suffering.

There were the Irish writers with their druids, bards and vales. Sean O’ Faolain and Sean O’Casey were marvelous storytellers. Their characters drew on humor as well, but they were also rebellious against both England that ruled Ireland and the Catholic Church that had loomed over their childhoods.

One of my most thrilling reading experiences came with my discovery of Homer’s Iliad. The spectacle of a great fleet taking to sea to avenge the abduction of a lovely woman filled me with admiration and awe. Though I identified with the Greeks, I grieved for the death of noble Hector. The Iliad first provided me an understanding of the deeper meaning of words like friendship, honor and glory.

Another novel with an enormous influence on me was All Quiet on the Western Front, the heart-chilling story by Erich Maria Remarque about German youths only a few years older than I was. Swept up in patriotic fervor at the beginning of the First World War, the young men enlisted in the Kaiser’s army. Remarque describes their suffering, despair and disillusionment as they fight and die for the same small desolate patch of No-Man’s-Land. His novel convinced me that however noble the cause might appear, war could never be justified because it resulted in the brutalization of the human spirit.

At night my sleep teemed with the characters I had encountered during the day. Escaping the novels where they belonged, Cossacks merged with Irish pub-keepers, Jewish peasants with Trojan warriors and Yiddish rabbis with English pirates.

But I also came to love the books themselves, as I held and touched them. I relished the scent of a new book that I would open carefully so as not to crack the spine too quickly. The musty ink, paper and glue smells of older books somehow make me think of Ancient Greece. (Twenty-five years later, holding my first novel, I inhaled a special fragrance.)

During my illness, a frequent visitor was my sister Tasula’s husband, John Thoman, whom she had married a year earlier in 1933. John was a talented artist and loving human being who not only brought me books, but also spent time with me discussing them. Through my adolescence, John continued to help educate me, introducing me to the work of Theodore Dreiser, James Farrell and the gargantuan novels of Thomas Wolfe.

My convalescence lasted for two years before I was deemed well enough to return to school. Those years of reading had advanced me in the areas of literature and language, but left me sorely lacking in the realms of science and mathematics. Despite emotional problems that also made it difficult for me to adjust to other boys and girls, I completed elementary school.

In high school my problems continued. I was impatient with subjects that did not interest me, and I resented the regulated classroom hours. In my sophomore year, angry and rebellious, I dropped out of school. My parents lamented for my future and my siblings scolded me and predicted my life would be a disaster.

Looking back on that turbulent period now, perhaps completing high school and gaining a college degree would have enhanced my life. Yet, to this day, eight decades after my confinement, when I see a boy or girl secluded in a library alcove, engrossed in a book, I am reminded of my own greening youth. The hundreds of books I held on my knees set the compass for my life. Without illness and those intensive days and nights of reading, I might never have experienced the joy and fulfillment I have known in writing stories and books of my own.


Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com


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