Stuart Kelly: The Best Books to Read During Lockdown
vLiterature 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.
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 generation, as it has 100 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 tragic to bawdy, erotic to ghoulish, pranks to sermons and the fickleness of fortune to the smart-aleck reply.
This 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”.
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.
That tale 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. 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 of which recount their time during plague. But – please – don’t bury a cheese during the lockdown as Pepys did.