A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor – John Berger & Jean Muir

A Fortunate Man is an unusual book, unusual but extremely absorbing. Taking the form of a photo-essay, the book explores the life of one man – a country doctor, Dr. John Sassall. At first he is called only ‘the doctor’, referred to in the abstract through his interactions, his ministrations to others. We see him in the form of the doctor, the healer, the man who enters people’s pain and attempts to work it out. As the essay progresses we learn of Sassall’s practice, the shape and form of it and the ways in which it reflects his life and beliefs. Then we learn of Sassall the man, his choices and education, his status in the country village where he works, his frustrations, his depression, his outsiderliness and privileges. It is an intensely personal portrait, an almost forensic examination of the man. Consequently it feels almost uncomfortably personal and deep, intense in a way that is spared the fictional characters in a novel. Exposing. It made me wonder how Sassall felt about the book, whether he read it and saw himself in it, whether he felt betrayed or over-exposed.

It is hard to describe the impact of this book. The pictures are stripped, black and white and they lend a rawness to the exploration of Sassall’s life. There’s a sense that Sassall is lonely, isolated and possibly misunderstood in his separateness to the people around him. Yet he is a self-contained man. The book considers what it is that makes Sassall a great doctor, for it is Berger’s judgement that he is great, what it is that makes him a fortunate man. Yet he is a man prone to depression, sadness, which is both a curse and a bless as Berger describes here:

a_fortunate_man“It is impossible to say now whether this period of crisis was induced by his decision to examine within himself the basis of what up to now he had projected outwards as ‘the unimaginable’, or whether he entered a period of crisis and therefore decided to look more closely at himself. Either way it bears some resemblance to the period of isolation and crisis which precedes in Siberian and African medicine the professional emergence of the shaman or inyanga. The Zulus have a name for this process. The inyanga, they say, suffers because the spirits will give him no peace and he becomes ‘a house of dreams’.”

Is it, then, Sassall’s intelligence, his drive and curiosity that make him fortunate? Or is it his calling or his privilege? Berger draws few conclusions, his examination of Sassall’s life being more of a philosophical exploration. Sassall is not an everyman, he is a particular type of man. Educated, driven. Berger shows how this separates him from the ordinary folk he cares for, how this separation makes him special and yet apart. He presents Sassall as a kind of adventurer, a quiet one, making comparisons with Joseph Conrad’s sea captains. A leader. Someone authoritative. He is separate, yet his life still tells us much about the human condition both in its uniqueness and its contrast from the ‘norm’. As described here:

“It is generally thought that common-sense is practical. It is practical only in a short-term view. Common sense declares that it is foolish to bite the hand that feeds you. But it is foolish only up to the moment when you realise that you might be fed much better. In the long-term view common-sense is passive because it is based on the acceptance of an outdated view of the possible. The body of common-sense has to accrue too slowly. All its propositions have to be proved so many times before they can become unquestionable, i.e. traditional. When they become traditional they gain oracular authority. Hence the strong element of superstition always evident in ‘practical’ common-sense.

Common-sense is part of the home-made ideology of those who have been deprived of fundamental learning, of those who have been kept ignorant. The ideology is compounded from different sources: items that have survived from religion, items of empirical knowledge, items of protective scepticism, items culled for comfort from the superficial learning that is supplied. But the point is that common-sense can never teach itself, can never advance beyond its own limits, for as soon as the lack of fundamental learning has been made good, all items become questionable and the whole function of common-sense is destroyed. Common-sense can only exist as a category insofar as it can be distinguished from the spirit of enquiry, from philosophy.

Common-sense is essentially static. It belongs to the ideology of those who are socially passive, never understanding what or who has made their situation as it is. But it represents only a part – and often a small part – of their character. These same people say or do many things which are an affront to their own common-sense. And when they justify something by saying ‘It’s only common-sense,’ this is frequently an apology for denying or betraying some of their deepest feelings or instincts.

Sassall accepts his innermost feelings and intuitions as clues. His own self is often his most promising starting point. His aim is to find out what is hidden in others[…]”

It is a clever book, highly philosophical. It is nebulous and beautiful, raw and strangely disturbing. Was Sassall a fortunate man? I think, after reading this book, there is an argument that we are all fortunate, that if we examine our own lives closely enough we will find the fortune within it. Yet the process would be intensely uncomfortable. I kept coming back to that thought: how did Sassall feel? Berger talks a lot of the components that make up Sassall, the concepts that Sassall’s life introduces us to. Yet how Sassall the man felt, how the writing of the book affected him, I’m not sure we will ever know. I admired the man, but felt for him too. Isn’t that what all good stories make us do?


A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor is published by Canongate Books (UK).


About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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5 Responses to A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor – John Berger & Jean Muir

  1. JacquiWine says:

    It certainly does sound like an immersive reading experience, and the philosophical angle really comes through in that quote on common sense. Apologies if I’ve missed it, but does it cover a particular period of time? Did the author follow Sassall as he went about his work or did he use another method to build up a picture of this man?

    • bookbii says:

      The book isn’t entirely clear about timeline, Jacqui. I think Sassall was Berger’s doctor for a time and later a friend, and the intro (if I recall correctly) suggests they knew each other for years. There’s an element of specificity – a few stories about consultations or specific circumstances which suggest Berger was present (as do the photographs) and other elements which suggest a longer view based on a deeper understanding/observation of the man. It’s a strange book, but compelling.

  2. According to Professor Roger Jones, The British Journal of General Practice, the book was first published in 1967. He describes it as one of the ‘must-read general practice books, essential for every trainer, trainee and practice library’. I’m delighted that your review led me to a little digging – it turns out that ‘Dr Sassall’ was actually Dr Eskell – my family doctor when I was a child. Obviously, I have to buy the book, now! Jones’ review is at http://bjgpblog.com/tag/john-sassall/ if you’re interested.

    • bookbii says:

      That is completely awesome Susan. You must definitely read the book. Thanks for the link, that’s an interesting review. It’s nice to know some of the details of the man’s life, albeit there is some discomfort in the level of spotlight that Berger places on him. Would love to hear what you think of this one when you read it.

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