Autobiographische Krankheitserzählungen in der Gegenwartsliteratur: Siri Hustvedt, Paul Kalanithi, Verena Stefan


  • Nina Schmidt


Illness requires narration: it fulfills a crucial role in the cooperation between patient and doctor, is demanded by one’s social environment, and emerges in the identity work triggered by a medical diagnosis (which in itself constitutes a first narrative model for the ill person to accept, rework or reject). This article examines how contemporary illness narratives recount such communication and how they reflect on the possibilities and limits of narration. It triangulates three life writing texts: Verena Stefan’s Fremdschläfer (2007) about the Swiss-German author’s own experience of breast cancer, Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman or a History of my Nerves (2010), describing the novelist’s quest for knowledge about the ambiguous shaking she displays, and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (2016), which focuses on the author’s role reversal (from doctor to patient) and the approach of his death from lung cancer. Narrative patterns and role models are being traced here; questions about voice and agency appear central in each text. What knowledge does such contemporary life writing hold, and what does it have to say about the dominant conceptualisations of states of health and illness?