Paul West was a prolific novelist, writing book after book by playing with words. His New York Times obit described him as having a “Shakespearean vocabulary,” but even that doesn’t touch upon the quirky situations and subject matter that popped up in his creative novels. That vocabulary was reduced to a single sound — mem — after a stroke in 2003, though he continued years later to write what his wife called “the first aphasic memoir.”
After the Stroke
West experienced a language-ending stroke in 2003. His wife, the writer Diane Ackerman, explains in a preface to an essay he wrote for Scientific American:
Paul had had a massive stroke, one tailored to his own private hell. The author of more than 50 stylishly written books, a master of English prose with the largest working vocabulary I’d ever encountered, a man whose life revolved around words, he had suffered brain damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form. Global aphasia, it’s called — the curse of a perpetual tip-of-the-tongue memory hunt. He understood little of what people said, and all he could utter was the syllable “mem.” Nothing more.
She went on to describe those days with global aphasia in her own book, One Hundreds Names for Love:
Taking words from Paul was like emptying his toy chest, rendering him a deadbeat, switching his identity, severing his umbilical to loved ones and stealing his manna.
That love is what led him to find his way back to writing.
West did intensive speech therapy following the stroke to get back some language. His wife knew how important writing was to his happiness, and she helped him write novels again by having him dictate his thoughts. She led him to fill in the missing words until he was strong enough to write on his own. Five years after his stroke, he published that book as well as three other self-published books before his death in 2015.
Before and after his stroke, Mr. West was intoxicated with words, a sworn enemy of minimalism in fiction and a passionate advocate of extravagant language.
Words meant everything to him, and his wife helped him find them again.
Image: Paul West via a Creative Commons license