When Philippe Labro, novelist, journalist, cineast, television producer and man about Paris, woke up one morning in 1999 at his usual hour of three o’clock it was with a profound and intimate conviction: ‘Quelque chose a changé.’ This was not occasioned by a physical malaise, although his bedclothes, even his pillows, were drenched with sweat, a phenomenon that was to recur in the days and weeks that followed, but something more seismic, what Scott Fitzgerald had called ‘the crack-up’, a nervous breakdown, unheralded and prolonged, from which he emerged two years later.
Unavailing attempts at the sort of cure conscientiously recommended by doctors, who prefer to describe the process as depression, were just as conscientiously undertaken. It is noticeable that nowhere in this brave book, written with exceptional clarity, did Labro claim to feel ‘depressed’. What he felt was fearful, broken, humiliated, bewildered, and it was not long before others in his milieu took his dramatic decline at his own valuation. Some, more motivated than others, pronounced him to be finished, and calculated that his prestigious job might soon be on offer. And indeed he himself, though incapable of rational thought, knew that he could not continue as he was, that the ‘change’ was not to be written off or dismissed. It was too worryingly obscure for that.
Within a short period of time he was reduced to a spectral and monosyllabic caricature of his former self. At one point he was unable to negotiate the distance between his sofa and the window of his room. When he struck his foot on a kerbstone in the rue de Varenne and fell he was disinclined to get up again. When, urged by kind friends to join them on a cruise in the Bahamas, he entered the pellucid waters for a swim, he almost allowed himself to be carried away by the current. He was always on the point of succumbing to his distress. He could no longer read a newspaper or handle a pen. When he managed to go to the office he merely occasioned alarm. He did no work.
The treatment that followed was in all cases inoperative. At one time he was taking five sedatives or antidepressants, all of which had undesirable side effects. The process entailed coming off one substance and trying another, decreasing the dose or increasing it whenever seemed appropriate. All this took time. Doctors were well meaning and supportive but reduced to the role of onlookers. One of them, Dr P., would visit him every evening, remove his motorcycle helmet, and sit down to witness his patient’s dereliction while visibly longing for a cigarette. Labro was taken to a psychiatric unit and it was precisely there, after a peculiarly disgusting incident, that the vestige of a cure presented itself in the simple decision to remove himself from the hospital and go home. He went home, although nothing in his situation had changed. But this glimpse of autonomy was definitive, and it was followed by others: the day he managed to eat breakfast, to look through the notebooks he had kept throughout his life. He was still shambling, terrified, but he knew, at some level, that recovery was within his means. When he was commissioned to write an article for Le Monde he managed, against the odds, to do so. This was his cure, brought about not only by a devoted family, and good friends, but by exceptionally enlightened patrons. He too did his work, obediently trawling through infant traumas and adult frustrations, but to no avail. The cure, it seems, was as unheralded as the affliction, and only slightly less inexplicable.
When Scott Fitzgerald inaugurated this frightening and haunting genre in 1936 with The Crack-Up, he came to the correct conclusion that he had drawn too heavily on his own limited resources, but in recounting this his tone is numb. When William Styron, in Darkness Visible, was precipitated into an altered state at the sight of an hotel which occasioned disagreeable impressions he was unable to evaluate, he gives a faithful account of the process but his tone is equally numb. By contrast Labro, in D. H. Lawrence’s words, has ‘come through’, bravely, almost joyously, celebrating an unhoped-for return to normality. It must be emphasised that the writing throughout is vigorous, almost unusually so. We leave him on the judges’ platform at the Cannes Film Festival, staring into the audience as he makes his presentation, searching for a glimpse of his wife, and shortly afterwards consigning his last tube of Lexomil to the wastepaper basket of his room in the Hotel Majestic. The book ends with a beautiful flourish, which is in itself remarkable. The last sentence, in particular is written with a sense of exaltation. ‘Look! We have come through!’
It has to be said that at no point is the illness, or the ‘episode’, or the ‘depression’, understood. It is attributed to a difficult decision which the author had to make about his future way of working, whether or not to take on a new level of management about which he was not enthusiastic, though it would certainly bring him advantages. Though this sort of decision may occur in many high-profile lives it does not lead inevitably to physical and moral collapse. It was the commission of the article for Le Monde — purely adventitious — that convinced him that he must renounce all activities save for that of simply writing. And although this was experienced as curative at the time it might not have worked, might not even have taken place. Maybe the message is a heartening one: everything is retrievable. It would be too superstitious to baulk at the sunny confidence of Labro’s final sentence. Better to recognise this as a rite of passage, to celebrate a remarkable book, and to wish its author continued energy and success.