'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating' by Elizabeth Tova Bailey
Who would have thought that a book about a snail could be so fascinating. It's not an allegory; it really is the story of a woman and a snail. It is much more a natural history than a story about Elizabeth herself, concentrating far more on 'snailness' than an indulgent pondering on her desperate situation. The author contracted some kind of unbelievably debilitating viral infection that left her bedridden for years at a time. At the time of her first relapse into illness a friend brought her a snail that she picked up from the woods and so began a relationship that gave her a whole new perspective on life and her experience.
"Each evening the snail awoke, and with astonishing poise it moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying, once again, the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody. As I prepared for the night, the snail moved in its leisurely way down the side of the pot to the dish beneath. It found the flower blossom I had placed there and began its breakfast." (p.15-16)
What is astounding is that her life had become so quiet that she does experience being able to hear the snail eating. We do get some description of her sense of isolation and loneliness brought about by her extreme incapacity but that quickly disappears from the tale as she becomes more and more involved in the life of her companion. It is almost as if observing the snail becomes the point of life, and the thing that makes it worthwhile. She is so lacking in energy that she cannot even sit up and read, and so lying in her bed and simply observing the snail is her sole source of interest. It says something about her that she did not sink into self pity but found this thing that took her outside her own experience and allowed it to be her consolation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the snail saved her from a situation that would have defeated lesser mortals.
"Illness isolates; the isolated become invisible, the invisible become forgotten. But the snail ... the snail kept my spirit from evaporating. Between the two of us, we were a society of our own, and that kept isolation at bay. The snail was missing, and as the day waned, I was bereft." (p.132)
It is testament to her skill as a writer that she makes her observations so interesting. Having lived briefly in a flower pot the snail is then moved to a terrarium that they create to mimic as closely as possible his natural environment. The chapters of the book follow his general explorations and then, through research done over a very long period, describe the most intimate details of his biology and his existence.
"Slime is the sticky essence of a gastropod's soul, the medium for everything in its life: locomotion, defence, healing, courting, mating and egg protection. Nearly one third of my snail's daily energy went into slime production. And rather than making a single batch of 'all-purpose' slime, my snail had a species-specific recipe for each of these needs and for different parts of its body. It could adjust the ingredients, just as a good cook would, to meet a particular occasion. And in a catastrophic accident in which a snail is squashed, it can release a flood of life-saving, medicinal mucus packed with antioxidants and regenerative properties." (p.71)
This is the kind of book that is impossible to categorise; it is a real story of a real person and what she experienced, but it is also an allegory for life, and the exhortation to slow down and 'smell the flowers' (or watch the snail). It is a salutary lesson in the meaning of existence and you will never look at a snail in quite the same way again.