Law and Conversation

May 16, 2011

Medical malpractice in Madame Bovary

Earlier I posted about miserable marriages in literature and noted The Guardian’s recent reference to Gustave Flaubert‘s nineteenth century French classic, “Madame Bovary.”

Most think of “Madame Bovary” as a novel about marriage and adultery. It is, but did you know that there’s also a horrible case of medical malpractice within its covers?

The Guardian’s article dismisses Charles Bovary as “boring,” which I won’t argue about.  But he’s also a good man who loves his wife and daughter and does his best to make a living for them. A physician, he unwisely allows a frenemy to talk him into performing an operation on a village youth, who was born with a clubfoot. He hopes the operation will help the youth to walk normally and gain him recognition and renown as a brilliant surgeon.

It’s easy for the reader to see where Flaubert is going with this subplot: Bovary, who’s not very bright, is incompetent to perform the operation and botches it. As a result, the youth who formerly walked with a limp develops gangrene, has to have his entire leg amputated, and can no longer work. In an age before public welfare and before legal remedies for medical malpractice, we can only imagine the young man’s fate.

As a lawyer who knows many excellent and caring physicians and has enormous respect for the medical profession, I become very discouraged when I encounter distrust or antipathy on the part of some of the dedicated members of that profession–not to mention some in other occupations–toward those in my own. What can we do, I wonder, about this unfortunate state of affairs?

I’ve posted before on writers who are lawyers or who were trained in the law, as Flaubert was.  But there are also many doctors who are marvelous writers as well as some great doctor characters in literature. (Interestingly, Flaubert’s father was a doctor.)  Please check back later this week when I’ll have some reading suggestions regarding doctors in literature.

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February 18, 2011

Looking for a few good (practicing) lawyer writers

Harrisburg, PA lawyer, booklover, and freelance writer Harvey Freedenberg recently asked me via Twitter whether I could name any practicing lawyers who write about law in the same way that doctors like Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, Atul Gawande, and Jerome Groopman write about medicine.

I haven’t read Selzer or Thomas, but I have read Gawande and Groopman, both of whom are not only very fine writers but also full-time practicing physicians.  But why couldn’t I think of any comparable practicing lawyer writers?  Freedenberg suggested Jeffrey Toobin, who’s a very fine writer indeed, but noted that he’s not a currently practicing lawyer.

I can think of practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of fiction–often legal fiction–and practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of legal materials or who blog about issues related to the practice of law, and nonpracticing lawyers who write very good articles about the legal profession.  But I can’t think of any practicing lawyers who have written nonfiction books and articles for the general public about the practice of law comparable to what those practicing doctors have written about the practice of medicine.

Groopman and Gawande seem enormously admirable to me, not only for their unflinching criticism of some common current medical practices, but also for owning up to and honestly writing about mistakes they have personally made in the course of their medical practices.  I know that there are plenty of very thoughtful lawyers who are every bit as concerned with improving the legal profession and the practice of law as those doctors are about improving the medical profession and the practice of medicine, but it strikes me that most practicing lawyers direct their energies into bar association activities toward that end, not to writing books or articles about the practice of law for consumption by the general public.

Readers, why should that be?  Certainly, there are ethical issues such as privilege, which Freedenberg noted as an issue in our exchanges, that lawyers must take care with when they write about the practice of law.  But do those issues–which are also present for doctors–preclude lawyers from writing comparably to Groopman, Gawande, and their fellow doctor-writers?  Are there other factors at play?  Is there a niche that’s waiting to be filled?  Or are Freedenberg and I just overlooking some obvious good answers to his question?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

A while ago I wrote about The Paris Review’s making its interviews with authors available online.  Now, I’m intrigued by the literary magazine’s new advice column, also available online.  The delightful Ramona Koval, host of “The Book Show” on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Radio National, interviewed editor Lorin Stein, who writes the column, a few days ago.  Stein had some great advice for one reader who wondered which translation of Proust he should read, a question I’ve also been pondering since Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation gave me quite a bit of trouble a couple of years ago.  (Stein’s recommendation:  first read Lydia Davis’s new translation, then go to the most recently revised Moncrieff version.)  Perhaps Mr. Stein would give me some advice on another matter I’ve been struggling with:  which translation to read of Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji?” Waley, Seidensticker, or the gorgeously illustrated and annotated version by Royall Tyler?  Readers, if you have an opinion, I’d love your advice on that question, too.

June 18, 2010

Lawyers who write fiction

Filed under: Books and writing,fiction,Law,lawyer writers,reading — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:46 am
Tags: , , ,

So many great fiction writers turn out to have been lawyers, or to have trained as lawyers, including the great 19th century writers Dickens, Eca de Queiroz, and Balzac and modern writers Scott Turow and Alexander McCall Smith, to name only a few. 

I’m now reading a slim but intense volume of short stories depicting contemporary Zimbabwe by yet another lawyer who’s also a fine fiction writer:  “An Elegy For Easterly,” by Petina Gappah.   Gappah, now an international trade lawyer in Geneva, Switzerland, won The Guardian’s First Book Award for her collection.  Her website and blog are worth checking out for her essays about writing, literature, Africa, and the world, as is this review of 2 Zimbabwean memoirs that she recently published in the London Sunday Times.

In one of her recent posts, Gappah provides a link to The North Korean Random Insult Generator–great fun!

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