What to read in a pandemic

Stuart Kelly

14 April 2020
A bookshop. Bookshelves full of books, sunlight streaming in through the window on the right. Potted plants sit on the windowsill.

The critic and author Stuart Kelly takes a sweep through world literature as he considers what books to turn to during the current crisis. 

Publishers recently announced a dramatic increase in sales of La Peste [The Plague] by Albert Camus. When I first heard the news, despite admiring the novel a great deal, it struck me as a rather unimaginative choice, not least because the disease in the book is Fascism rather than something flu-like. But it did make me think about literature and outbreaks.

Literature and pestilence have a long history, even back to the origins of literature itself. Homer’s Iliad has as the backdrop the plague that the god Apollo puts on the Greek forces. Oedipus, now king of Thebes, in the play by Sophocles, pledges to find the cause of the illness in his city, only to discover he is Patient Zero, and his unwitting incest is to blame. This should not surprise us. Literature is in some ways viral. It spreads from person to person, it transforms as it makes contact, you never know how it will mutate as different people tell the same story, only differently.

There is also a strong tradition of pestilential writing in the Bible. Were one to ask an average person about a plague in the Bible, I would reckon that the top two choices would be firstly the Ten Plagues which afflict Egypt as Moses tries to secure the release of the Israelites (Nile turned to blood, frogs, gnats – which the Egyptian magicians cannot replicate – flies, a disease in livestock, an infliction of boils, an intemperate hailstorm, locusts, darkness and finally the murder of all the firstborn sons by the Angel of Death, in case you had forgotten). The other would be from the other end of the Bible, when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are unleashed, representing plague, war, famine and death. I always wondered about death in that line-up, since the other three are not noted for their health-giving properties. But there are far more, and far stranger examples. The Horsemen appear from the opening of the first seven seals, followed by ghosts, earthquake and then silence. But it’s just been the overture – now we get hail and fire mixed with blood from trumpets, a mountain thrown in the sea, a star called Wormwood poisoning all water, a third of all stars extinguished, a star that opens “the shaft of the Abyss” and lets out the “armoured locusts”, four angels set free in order to kill two hundred million, and then, at the blast of the final trumpet, a grand old sing-along and lighting, thunder, hail and earthquakes happen. When God does plagues, he does not do them by half. And we haven’t even got to the dragons.

But there are others, and they are most curious. Who came out worst from plagues, Israelites or Egyptians? Actually, the Israelites. As they wander in the desert and wander from the ways of the Lord, God sends them a double dose (the first kills 14,700 and the second 24,000). Zechariah goes to great lengths to describe the plague that will come, involving rotten feet, eyes falling out, necrotic tongues and outbreaks of mass violence. The strangest though involves King David, beloved of God. Because he took a census, he is told by Gad the Seer that God has said he is in deep trouble but he can choose the punishment: three years of famine, three months being pursued by his enemies or three days of plague. King David opts for the plague as the least bad option. So much ink has been spilled over these arcane prophecies and mytho-histories, ranging from the speciously scientific to the outright bonkers. It is worrying that when I was researching this, most Google hits were about “Is the coronavirus mentioned in the Bible?” Answer: no. They’re literary tropes, not prognoses.  

So what to read in the lockdown? The idea of the “first novel” has been mooted time and time again – my personal choice is Part Two of Don Quixote. But a strong contender is Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron from around 1353. It is the ideal book for the podcast generations, as it has one hundred stories narrated over ten days, by seven women and three men. All of them have shut themselves away to avoid the Black Death, and decide to tell stories to pass the time. Their stories range from tragedy to bawdy, erotic to ghoulish, pranks to sermons and the fickleness of fortune to the smart-aleck reply. One theory has it that the women represent the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and the theological virtues of faith hope and charity, and the men represent Plato’s splitting of the soul into Reason, Spirit and Desire.The miscellany of stories had some rather grand admirers. Chaucer used it as part of The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare snaffled a bit for All’s Well That Ends Well, Keats and Tennyson both adapted parts and even the reformer Martin Luther told a version of one of the stories as a kind of parable for his beliefs. It is a strangely joyous book, and it is eminently “dip-into-able”. It is in some ways also enigmatic: why does one character, Dioneo, almost always tell the last story, and why are his so different in tone? Why it is subtitled Prencipe Galeotto, a character from the Arthurian Cycle who organised the secret romance of Guinevere and Launcelot? As much as an anthology, it is a riddle of a book. How do the stories told by any individual relate to any other? Even once you’re read it, you can go back and build the web of interconnections. One thing is clear. In an era where women were sequestered, here is a place where they can be outspoken.

We are all indoors, but the laureate of the indoors must be Xavier de Maistre. After having been confined to quarters after a duel, he wrote A Voyage Around My Room (1794). Like himself, his protagonist has to find a way of being indoors interesting. He suddenly finds that “he rarely follows a straight line”, and everything from a painting to an armchair, to, in “the North” a bed will distract his attention. De Maistre wrote a sequel, which is equally weird for a period that thought of itself as “The Age of Reason”, called A Voyage Around My Room At Night. There may be bumps. But think: what do you not notice about your everyday surroundings?

One thing you might not notice, or want to see, comes in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 story, The Masque Of The Red Death. Prince Prospero has sequestered his friends to avoid a plague, but has constructed seven rooms, in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet and black with a scarlet light. As they frolic and jape, and everyone does not dare to enter the final room, a stranger appears in the locked-down mansion. I shan’t give away the ending, but the stranger and Prince Prospero will meet in the terminal room. Some people think the Red Death, that causes “sharp pains” and “sudden dizziness” is Death itself, to whom no door is barred. Personally, I have always wondered if it is not Poverty. The rich are isolated, and yet the poor you will have with you always. It partially inspired an under-rated novel by Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (1912). America has always done the post-apocalyptic rather well, and this is no exception. James Smith was once a professor of English before the “Red Death” broke out. The novel’s great conceit is that he is telling his few surviving grandchildren about the days before people started to turn red and numb and die. The twist is that they simply do not believe in the world before; nor do they believe in germs because they cannot be seen. Smith tries to make the new tribal, feral humans believe in science. It does not work.

Two novels have taken the idea of the Black Death as a starting point, each with differing results. What if it had been worse? In both The Gate Of Worlds (1967) by Robert Silverman and The Year Of Rice And Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson, Europe and America are minor, diminished powers in the aftermath of a virulent disease, and China, the Ottomans, Japan and the Aztecs now control the globe. Both books pose hard questions, and offer no easy answers. If there is one thing to take from them, it is just how lucky and silly we have been.

While researching this, I had a browse through Shakespeare again (always a good thing to do, pandemic or no). The play that uses the word “plague” most is Timon Of Athens, his most misanthropic play. Both Hamlet and King Lear have been discussed as responses to the plague, and no-one to date has conveyed the subtle links between Hamlet and Shakespeare’s son Hamnet who died young than Maggie O’Farrell in her plague-drenched Hamnet. Although it doesn’t refer too much to actual plagues, you can’t read Hamlet saying that there “is something rotten in the state of Denmark”, or calling it “an unweeded guardian that grows to seed” without seeing some almost visceral links to decay.   But I also went back to Defoe’s Journal Of The Plague Year and then his Robinson Crusoe (Fun quiz: what was Crusoe’s given name and how did he escape from the island? Extra points if you remember the wolves in the Pyrenees). Or try Samuel Pepys’s Diary or John Evelyn’s Diary, both which recount their time during plague. But – please – don’t bury a cheese during the lockdown as Pepys did.

Charles Dickens is also a good, meaty choice, and I’d recommend Bleak House above all. It is a strangely mephitic novel from the opening page – and the Victorians believed that infectious diseases were often primarily airborne or to do with dirt. Here’s the sample, one of the greatest openings in literature:

“LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes  gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Look how horribly pathologised this all is! A “general infection” indeed. But it is as much a narrative structure in Bleak House as a mood. Although all of the novels of Dickens weave a series of connections, more than most Bleak House does this through the vector of either actual disease or something diseased. Two characters who barely meet – one of our narrators, the innocent Esther Summerson, and the crossing sweeps Little Jo – meet only once and because of this, Esther contracts smallpox from him. But Little Jo knows Nemo, the mysterious clerk, and Nemo is connected to Lady Dedlock; Summerson’s benefactor is involved in an interminable legal battle and a vile hoarder called Krook, who spontaneously combusts, might have the papers that reveal the truth of the matter, and who lives in a hovel shared by Nemo. If you were draw all the interconnections and parallels you might end up with a map of the Internet.

On an equal with Poe in terms of the Gothic interpretation of sickness is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. The unnamed female narrator is forcibly locked in a room with the eponymous wallpaper, after suffering some kind of breakdown – sorry, “a temporary nervous depression, a slight hysterical tendency” as her husband puts it - after the death of a child. She is ill, and she is involuntarily self-isolating. The room is “sickly”, the pattern of the paper is “an interminable string of toadstools” and it smears to the touch. Gradually, under lock and key, she is convinced she can see someone creeping behind the paper. The critic Alan Ryan captures it best: “it is one of the finest, and strongest, tales of horror ever written. It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not”. Its finest modern homage might be Stephen King’s Misery or The Shining with their enforced seclusions and insidious madness. But as Gilman herself wrote, the point of her story was “not intended to drive people crazy but to save people from being driven crazy”. Another astonishing good take on this is Mark Z Danielewski’s House Of Leaves. I’m sure some of us might have wished to find extra, hidden parts inside out houses. I know I have been surreptitiously checking the attic and the cupboard under the stairs. House Of Leaves takes this to extremes of horror, but alongside some of the most inventive graphic design I have seen in twenty years. What if your house almost sneezes and a shelf that was flush now has an extra inch off the wall? What is a door appears from nowhere? What if beyond it is a space that is impossible under the laws of physics as we know them? It is claustrophobic, relentless and finally a study in empathy and the loss of empathy.

It would seem amiss not to end on a positive note and I struggled to find a book about disease that was even moderately uplifting. Then I remembered H G Wells’ War Of The Worlds. You will know the story even if you haven’t read it. Basically, nasty aliens from Mars invade and blow up Woking. The army is useless, the government is paralysed, but the answer was up our sleeve the whole time. Or rather the handkerchief that was the answer was up our sleeve the whole time. You have to admire the chutzpah of having the hero not being a human, but the common cold, to which the Martians have no immunity.

I do hope that I will be able to see you all again in a non-virtual way. In the meantime, stay safe and remember that reading is the cheapest way to take yourself elsewhere.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in The Scotsman.

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