In the midst of the coronavirus crisis many of us have resorted to fiction for consolation, distraction and information.
Myself, I have generally avoided harrowing dystopian tales, inventive novels about conspiracies, and books about personal tragedies — there’s enough of all this in real life which I can access through print, social and broadcast media.
Instead I have gone for more optimistic fiction, whatever ends in what Tolkien dubbed eucatastrophe, the upbeat ending, instead of the catastrophic conclusions where hearts hang heavy and melancholy pertains.
⬆️ Medieval PPE, ancient and modern
Largely that has meant children’s fiction and fantasy. I am steadily working my way through Maria Sachiko Cecire‘s fascinating Re-Enchanted (University of Minnesota Press 2019), subtitled The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, finding insights on every page about the positive nature of modern fantasy along with some of the less salubrious aspects that rear their head — anglocentrism, imperialism, racism, and sexism, for example. While I have recently questioned the charge of escapism sometimes levelled at these genres (indeed at literature in general) I was grateful to have the chance to consider the other -isms in more detail.
But for now, let me consider the current Covid-19 buzzwords that are going the rounds — social distancing (‘physical distancing’ is perhaps better), self-isolating, contagion and pandemic — and relate them to a few novels I’ve read over the years (links are to review-discussions).
First, social distancing and self-isolation aren’t new. Robert Carse‘s The Castaways:
A Narrative History of Some Survivors from the Dangers of the Sea details several who were (usually) forcibly separated from fellow humans, many literally ‘cast away’ on the open ocean or marooned on an island. But it can also happen that one can become isolated (the word is from Italian isola, an island) somewhere landlocked. This is the case with the protagonist in Robert C O’Brien‘s famous Z for Zachariah: in this meditation on solitude the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust, holed up in a mid-Western valley in the States, finds her refuge hasn’t insulated her from an intruder who, remarkably, seems to have avoided death from radiation sickness.
The main character in Agatha Christie‘s Absent in the Spring is also, after a fashion, forced to self-isolate and in so doing does what many of us may be contemplating, how long will this last, and when it does what does the future hold? Yet her isolation comes not from a nuclear winter but from the lack of a train connection, being sick at heart a result of soul-searching, not infection.
Contrast her with the titular character in Philippa Pearce‘s Tom’s Midnight Garden: he goes into quarantine with older relatives to escape being infected by his brother, who has contracted the very infectious measles virus. The story is set in 1958, ten years before a measles vaccine was available in the UK; still, he’s curiously reluctant to return home once the danger is past.
We’re social-distancing now to avoid a particular contagion, obviously. I read Albert Camus‘ La Peste many years ago, before I began reviewing, but that’s apparently one of the go-to novels flying off the virtual bookshelves at the moment, along with Boccaccio’s Decameron and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. But there are other significant fictions about plague of one kind or another.
I called P D James‘s The Children of Men a disturbing dystopia, a “critique of totalitarianism masquerading as a benevolent despotism, of privilege assuming it has a right to power, of religion distorted into the worst forms of superstition.” Sound vaguely familiar? Though the main events occur in 2021, crucial to the plot is the sudden drop to zero of male sperm counts around the world in the year 1995, through no known agency (though most likely due to a virus, I suspect). The author’s centenary is celebrated this August, so if you’re unfamiliar with her work this might be a good place to start. A future pandemic which also creates infertility is a trigger for Eifion Jenkins‘s future dystopia If You Fall I Will Catch You, set in the years following 2084 (aptly, 100 years after the date chosen for Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four).
You’ll have realised that my title is a not so covert reference to Gabriel García Márquez‘s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, though I haven’t yet read it; it includes a play on words (cholera in Spanish is cólera, which can also translate as passion). I have however read his novella Of Love and Other Demons, which includes a girl bitten by a rabid dog. Though she survives she infects many others with a whole range of passions, mainly because of the fact that, as well as recovering from rabies with no ill effects, she is somehow perceived as strange, as different, as abnormal and therefore some kind of threat to society, to religion, to propriety.
A different kind of pestilence rages in Rome at the conclusion to Henry James‘s novella Daisy Miller, namely malaria, caused by a mosquito parasite and sometimes called ‘the Roman fever’ (which is also the title of one of Edith Wharton’s short stories). However, the contagion in Michael Crichton‘s The Andromeda Strain is due not to an earth-borne virus but to an extraterrestrial micro-organism from a meteor crashing into a returning spacecraft. On our planet’s surface it attacks humans by clotting their blood, causing instant death. It also mutates…
Before you get too freaked you might like to smile at my recreation of PPE for medieval quacks, or reread the titles in Phil Shaw‘s Shelf Isolation 2 (photo above) in sequence. I tried something similar to Shaw’s artwork on Twitter, and if you’re at a loose end you might like to try your hand as well — though probably with more success.
“Emotionally weird, I shall wear midnight behind the scenes at the museum.” Hunted down, Titus awakes, changing planes in strangest Europe. “The Secret of this book? Understanding English place-names of giants. How to stop time? Feel the fear and do it anyway.”