Recently I spent a few months in the Forest of Dean, where Dr John Sassall, the protagonist of John Berger’s famous extended essay, A Fortunate Man, published in 1967, worked as a general practitioner.
The Forest, to my surprise, retained a little of the geographical and social isolation that it had when Berger wrote his book. Some of the Foresters, as they called themselves (and for some reason Berger chose not to capitalise the word, as if the Foresters were foresters, which most of them were not), had scarcely ever travelled further in their lives than Gloucester. By comparison with the rest of the county, the Forest is still impoverished; but its relative isolation gives it a character and spirit of its own.
A Fortunate Man turned out to be an unfortunate title, because Dr Sassall killed himself some years after its publication. Of course, this is not to say that he was not fortunate at the time it was written; fortunes, after all, change. A man may start lucky in life and end up unlucky, and vice versa; but re-reading this book, which seems to me to have been over-praised, I am struck not by the good fortune of its protagonist but by his tormented nature.
Dr Sassall was a hard-working single-handed rural general practitioner who did everything from operations on the kitchen table to psychotherapy. He was not able to achieve what, in our horrible manner of reducing everything to inelegant jargon, we now call ‘a work-life balance.’ His life, we are told, was otherwise empty; and he worried over the point of human existence, if any:
He is incapable of waiting and doing nothing. He is incapable of resting. He sleeps easily but, at heart, he welcomes being called out at night.
This is surely the mark of a man in flight from something. We are told that he was a slave to his quest for certainty, a certainty that he knew in advance that he could not reach. He was tormented by his inadequacy to relieve all suffering and prevent all death. This may well be a sign of great honesty, and such honest men may be necessary; but fortunate is not the word for them. Moreover, while to be constantly at the service of others is good and admirable, it is not the only good or the only just cause for admiration. There needs to be moderation in self-sacrifice as in other things:
Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
Some of the writing in A Fortunate Man strikes me as portentous, as cliché dressed up as philosophy. The book begins (under a photograph of the rural calm of Gloucestershire):
Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.
I look out of my study window at the houses opposite. What do I know of what went on in them last night, what is going on in them now? Nothing. But a life without curtains, real or metaphorical, were it not in fact impossible, would be horrible. The use of the word ‘sometimes’ in the above passage disguises the obviousness of the underlying thought.