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10/06/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 70: Heidi James

Even Nature is Corrupt
By Heidi James.

 

There is no future. Only time’s sinuous doubling between past and present. Under her fingertips the hard chairback, the tabletop, underfoot the chilly linoleum. This place. Now. She stands there, her two feet pressed into the floor, her lips open over her teeth, sucking her breath in and pushing it out, the light on her face filtered through the net curtain.

The flat is untidy. Sunday untidy, with newspapers scattered about the sofa, cups with slops of tea, and plates still crumbed with bacon sandwiches. Once lazy Sundays were a novelty, the idea of lying on the sofa, reading and dozing, talking and laughing together seemed pure and precious. Now, there is only boredom. The long sigh she can’t release, holds in, like a submerged whale, holding an eternity of stale air in her guts. There was a time when discussing the news with Philip was a pleasure, not strident, not argued. Pyjama days, when they would make love before getting up, and he would thump down the stairs to the front door and gather the papers, and she would put bacon in the pan. He poached eggs in that funny way of his, of boiling water in a frying pan and bending low over the rolling boil to gently ease the egg into its soak. There was dancing in the kitchen, barefoot, badly, laughter.

Regardless, it’s impossible to stay at home. She finds herself at her mother’s flat. Standing in the shadowed and cool hallway. There are no windows, and the doors that lead to the bedrooms and living room are closed. A soft mass of coats hang on a rail to the right, including her mother’s raincoat, street smudged and with a small tear at the shoulder. Underneath there’s a rack for shoes. Her mother’s sandals and slippers neatly side by side. Had she been taken out of there with bare feet? She pictures her mother lying in the hospital bed and the objects in the carrier bag handed to the ward Sister. There were no shoes in that bag. Just her clothes — a skirt and blouse, her bra and pants, and her wristwatch — a Christmas present.

She had been barefoot.

The smell, a particular blend of furniture polish, bleach, cigarette smoke, her perfume and something else, something vague and placid, a scent that wasn’t quite anything and yet was somehow the smell of her mother and home. The smell hooking a trail of memories that snap and tongue at the air like bunting. Eight steps past the door to the bathroom to the end of the hall, at which point turn left into the living room or right towards the bedrooms. The hall a secondary space, an intersection. The place between home and elsewhere.

Philip brings her back insisting she take a walk with him. He holds her hand, solidly, as if he’s a parent not husband. He tells her to read, to work, to be productive but she can’t do that, she is following the string through the labyrinth of the past and that takes time. He tells her to stop wallowing, to buck up. They walk through the park, circling the lake and she can’t remember the names of the trees. The bark, the shape of the leaves, the developing seed pods should all point to a name, but she has no idea. She is divided from the world surrounding her, like an amnesiac with only the distant past to recall.

She can’t sleep at night, but she’s not alone in this blank wakefulness. Elsewhere, other wide eyes gawp at the dazzling fizz of the stars. Not sleeping isn’t so bad. Inhabiting another part of the day to everyone else, like being in another room, hearing them murmur and move about, but they aren’t really there. Like the jellyfish that rise to the surface of the sea at night, she is unthinking. Philip lays splayed out under a dream his thick limbs pressed into the bed. She gets up at the invitation of the window, to look out, divided from everything. Passive hands pressed against the glass. Passive nose nuzzling against the night. Trees filter the wind as it pushes towards the house. She always wanted to be free of her family. To be able to totally reinvent herself. Now she is.

The chair is still her mother’s chair, even if unused, without purpose; just an object. Empty, a truth standing silent in the corner. It sags under an absent weight, still faithful to her body, her breath, her old habits. A coffee stain remarks on her nan’s clumsiness; her mother never managed to remove it despite using every miracle product on the market. Standing there, the curtains open it seems that light was avoiding the room, as if in sympathy, not wanting to draw attention to the loss. The chair, captive in a span unhurried by human measure, remains.

Her mother’s cigarettes and lighter on the coffee table, next to the ashtray she made for her in senior school art class. Still decorated in seventies brown swirls on both the wallpaper and the carpet with a brown and orange velveteen three piece suite. Just dimmed by years of cigarette smoke and the bleach of sunlight. Above the TV, the sea — a weft of green and blue wools woven into waves in a cheap frame, a figure stitched in black looked out from the beach.

Everywhere the scuffs and stains of living; the ring of a hot cup branded into the coffee table, a crayon drawing on the wallpaper behind the armchair, a fag burn in the carpet half hidden by the TV cabinet, the white wall revealed beneath the dark paper by grubby little fingers. Afternoons that spread like oil. Family photos on the mantelpiece above the gas fire. Replaced exactly after dusting, her nan and granddad on their wedding day; her mum on holiday in Spain, her legs browning in the sun, smiling at the lens. A school photo, the two kids in matching green V-neck sweaters, big toothed and freckled, her hair in bunches, his too short. Her graduation posed in cap and gown, the prop scroll clutched against her chest; looking strained and uncomfortable, her face oily, not wearing enough make-up. Her mother had sent her to freshen up in the ladies with her make-up bag; but none of her colours worked so she just looked wrong.

Philip says she must exorcise the past, with its daily intrusions into the present. So intrusive she sometimes forgets where she is, who she is, which self. What an odd route to take through life, forwards, back, never entirely just still, in the present. She must work through the past in order to move forwards. Yes, she thinks, I must sift through the past.

 

 

The kitchen’s so clean you could eat your dinner off the floor, always a Jay cloth and bleach in her mother’s hand, rubber gloves protecting her hairdresser’s eczema. The blue check tablecloth pulled taut, like a sail snapped tight in the wind. The condiment set exactly in the middle as if it were the perspective vanishing point in the table’s composition. No dust on the clock, no dust on the rack of herbs she rarely used. Her Cliff Richard calendar turned to the correct page. The cleaning fluids, the bleaches, the powders, the gels to polish, reduce, upbraid, under the sink along with medicines — painkillers, a box of plasters, Grandad’s anti-coagulants, out of date antibiotics and Nan’s crumbling heart pills, as if they all belonged together.

This is the first rain in weeks. Puddles deepen in the clefts between uneven paving stones and discarded crisp and cigarette packets float in them like garish pondweed. Thin rivulets of rainwater running into the drains like sweat. The uneasy skyline presses its domes and columns into the thickening piles of clouds that barricade against the sun. A cool compress, the rain easing the rising heat in the city cooling people in the subdued shelter of their homes.

She walks through the streets of the estate, the roads opening up, widening. Philip is working from home, having a Zoom meeting. She is secure in the cool isolation of the rain. A lone camera man takes footage of the abandoned swings in the fenced-off square of cracked tarmac that operates as a park. There’s no grass, or any other play equipment; just the swings and a bench. The estate flattens itself against the earth, as though trying to be inconspicuous.

At the threshold of her mother’s bedroom, a hand resting on the Perspex door handle, cut to resemble a monstrous gem. A luxury in that flat, in which all the other doors and windows had standard issue council knobs and buttons, levers and switches. The rest of her room has the same embellishment. As children they had helped stick leading to the windows in a haphazard crisscross, unrolling the soft metal and pulling off the paper backing before smoothing it down with their fingers. When finished they laid on her flowery counterpane and pretended they were lying in a cottage in the woods. Her mother hadn’t removed it, despite complaining that it was a bugger to clean. She imagines her mother lying in bed watching the disguised London sky, daydreaming she had woken in a different place.

Philp insists that fresh air and good food will help. Will fix her to the here and now. He reminds her how many people are dead, dying alone, he praises strangers for their stoicism and bravery, which she understands to be a pointed criticism. Over dinner he reminds her she didn’t even like her mother, that they haven’t spoken in years, that all this emotion is misplaced. She doesn’t finish the chicken he has roasted, the white knots in the fibrous flesh suddenly grotesque. He sighs as she closes the knife and fork on her plate. ‘What a waste,’ he says, rubbing his bare chin before clearing the table and emptying the uneaten food into the bin. ‘I hate to see good food wasted.’ She recognised a tree on their walk, an Alder, its shiny round leaves reflecting the light. The world had let her in, sent a message, even if tiny. She said, smiling, ‘Look there’s an Alder, I’ve remembered its name’. Philip replied, ‘Ah yes, an Alder, you know it makes top grade charcoal, they used to use it to make gunpowder, amazing stuff’.

Even nature is corrupt, colluding in the killing.

Her mother’s silver backed hairbrush and matching hand mirror always sit neat on top of the drawers, a few strands of her hair snagged in the bristles. She wonders how long it takes for a person to be totally eradicated, for the fragments containing their DNA to disintegrate, for their presence to fade and no longer loiter in the corners of rooms, the soap dish in a bathroom, a hairbrush. In the top drawer her underwear carefully folded and laid out by colour, white knickers next to white bras followed by just a couple of black pairs and a lone pale blue silk camisole. A small muslin sachet containing dried lavender tucked in amongst the fabrics, its scent long gone, a birthday gift from her children.

In the bottom drawer photo albums, birthday cards, crayon pictures drawn for her, all carefully folded and placed. There’s no surprise at her private sentimentality. Feelings were always best expressed in objects. In a silver case there’s two locks of baby hair, a brown curl tied with a pink ribbon, and the boy’s blonde shaft, a straight little pluck of fine hairs, no kinks or curls, tied with a blue one. Small bundles of blue envelopes tied with cast-off Christmas ribbon are tucked in the corner. On top of each pile a note indicating which tour of duty the letters are from. Germany, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Iraq; she wants to unpick the knot, to read her brother’s letters to her mother. She wants to read what they said to each other, to know the secrets they will always keep.

They work in their tiny garden. Pulling brambles laid like tripwires under the grass. She complains about the thorns ripping her skin. ‘Everything demands its price,’ Philip says, ‘they have to protect the berries or there’d be none left. Simple economics.’ The leaves on the trees are still, reflecting the light like metal shapes. She has turned to stone, a point she could never have reached by herself.

Heidi James is a writer and academic. Her new novel, The Sound Mirror, will be published in August.

03/06/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 69: Miranda Gold

Left Pending
By Miranda Gold.

Yellow ringed, disinterested, but the illusion of eye contact was convincing enough. We were a week into London’s variation on the theme of lockdown by the time I’d realised the blackbirds had gone. Every morning since New Year I’d watched them blandly through glazed eyes till the coffee kicked in, laying down a retrospective appreciation for their supposed loyalty to the tree outside my window, perched long enough to let me think I’d met their quiet, steady gaze. In their place came vanishing flashes of blue and yellow, with a beauty so sudden and starting it felt incongruent — as though the connecting scenes had been cut.

Days later people were saying the birds had the sky back. Birdsong and sirens, sirens and birdsong. And yet the swing between giddy optimism and despair is nothing new: it’s either the end of the world or a new earth.

The quasi-biblical note falls flat round the edges of Burgess Park. Away from the stretches of trimmed grass nettles flower over dried leaves, ivy thrives indifferent — I can escape the joggers here but not the metaphors. Metaphors sprawl but joggers keep to the path — and it turns out the whole of London is jogging. Corona has inspired an urban wide health kick. My walks are too slow and too long to qualify as essential. My walks are, in fact, characterised by the non-essential: I inspect lichen, thistle, an empty packet of paracetamol. But in the few days after dad was admitted to UCH with Covid the non-essential was essential. I stretched out the distance between blossom tree and blossom tree, talking to him in my head. It’s not cherry blossom, I could hear him saying. There’s little he doesn’t hierarchise but I said I’d let him get away with it so long as he breathed. As though I could bargain like that. Alright dad, I’d say to the apple blossom, cherry can’t compete with apple where blossom’s concerned but the deal is… I directed impossible promises skyward, made him unlikely ones too, briefly committing myself, along with my brother, Matt, to learning Hebrew, so long as he —

I’m holding you to that, he told me.

And I could see him standing there, saying what he always says about blossom, a line that became a character’s in my second novel: so sad, they say, so sad it should blow away so soon.

I tell him about the Dionysian frenzy going on up in the Horse Chestnut — it’s spring, he tells me, they’re all at it. Alright dad, I say, just breathe. As though breath is a choice. Miranda, he says, this is not one of those yoga classes.

He’d called that evening and I told him about the chat we had. Is that right? He manages and there’s something almost like a laugh when he hears what I had him say about the yoga. But there’s a scratchy overlay bridging faintly grasped words, each sounding suffocated behind the oxygen mask that’s making his speech possible at all. A coughing fit cuts him off. That’s enough now, he says —

Only I wanted to tell him that cherry is better, tell him that Matt and I will learn Hebrew, say that the field was studded with crows —

The crows, did I tell you, I’d have said, they’ve already taken over the football pitch.

On the trees by the lake they take a branch each, standing sentry, waiting. And we’re waiting too. Seconds stretch with just this line on repeat in my head: not yet, please not yet — I’m not ready for you to die.

It was only a couple of weeks before that the park looked as though it had been set up for a photo shoot: toddlers pointing out a goose’s white behind, swans putting on a show for the party of six leaning over the bridge, a group of teens gathered round a stereo. Picnickers squeezing round tables. Any other Sunday. Except it was a Tuesday and I got back to the drilling and the banging which has been the soundtrack to my weekdays since I moved to Silverthorne. Stopped for two months and the moment it cracked on it seemed impossible it could every have gone quiet. The tables remain cordoned off though, like a crime scene. A sign hangs on the fencing round the barbeque area says Temporarily Suspended. Doubling up on the non-committal. London left pending.

There’s no cure, we were told. It just depends on how his system responds. Soon as I put the phone down I recall a coolly authoritative voice: in Spain they’re turning the ventilators off if you’re over sixty-five.

I wanted to speak to him again but hearing the short tight breaths meant I had to swallow back the fear caught in my chest and keep my tears quiet. His oxygen levels weren’t improving. His lungs were more infected than they’d thought. Two litres of oxygen became four litres of oxygen became six litres of oxygen. One mask replaced with another until they resorted to the cepak which forces oxygen into the lungs. I could hear my brother’s calm, gentle voice saying to dad we were right there with him. Curling up, I had to hold the phone at arm’s length, waiting until I could steady my voice enough to say, yes right there with you, shamed that I couldn’t bear his suffering.

When he called 999 he wasn’t sure it was necessary. Thirteen days in meant he must have been one of the lucky ones. He’d throw it off. A cough, a fever. A mild case. When he got through to 999 the first time he reported that they weren’t too impressed and told him to call 111. The automated message on 111 says to call 999 if you think it’s life threatening. He tried to make a joke out of the fact he’d already tried that and they said — but he couldn’t. For once it had got beyond even our capacity for gallows humour — the one thing that’s always pulled us through. Or maybe it’s why we didn’t always get through. Laughter in the dark rather than switching the damn light on and looking at the mess we were in.

Four days after he’s admitted No Caller ID flashes on my phone and I skid back to the moment when the nurse called me to get to the hospital for mum — and now I’m blurring because I can’t remember if she told me mum had died or to get there as soon as possible — but I think she told me she tried to call me but there was no answer. The only sensation or thought that cut through the numbness the week after her funeral was just don’t let dad die, don’t let Matt die.

***

I’m Dr Charles Raine, I’m looking after your dad

Looking after — present tense, okay —

Yes?

He’s apologetic that no one has called and runs through the numbers that I shouldn’t understand but am all too fluent in. Break and mend a thousand times a day. The fact that none of us is getting out of this alive doesn’t help. People are always there — until they’re not. What does it mean to be eighty-one if there was an interruption that lasted close to thirty years but the clock kept ticking. Matt and I feed each other clichés about hope and strength and couldn’t care less that they’re clichés. He smuggles in bananas and dates via a nurse who agrees to meet him outside at 8.30 and take it up to the ward, slips in a rainbow painted by his daughter. Feels like we’ve got round forbidden contact and made our way up to his bedside. Bananas, dates and a seven-year-old’s rainbow. And then we get a message from dad saying he’d asked a nurse to use the tape from the bananas to stick the rainbow up and for a few hours this has me celebrating the insistence of spring because somehow this will all be okay. Because it has to be. Because I can’t conceive of a world without him in it. Not yet. If I hadn’t lost so many years, if each of the eighty-one years he’s been alive had been his — but I did and they weren’t and this is where we are now, willing him not to give up and willing ourselves to keep hoping.

***

Later I speak to a friend whose neighbour’s treatment has been terminated. He’s got stage four cancer and was meant to stay with relatives only they decided it was safer to wish him well over the phone and leave a couple of loo rolls on his doorstep. He hasn’t got a daughter and a son caring whether he lives or dies, she says, locating him higher up on the tragic scale. But I can’t plot dad on a graph.

When the symptoms started we thought he was one of the lucky ones — just a mild case. Then it seemed he was one of the lucky ones because he had a bed. Lucky that the choice was between which mask rather than which life. He was put on a ward which had only just been converted, staffed by nurses who had only just been trained and drafted in.

The evening he was admitted my first thought was how Matt and I were just two loved ones and dad just one case — but then my tiny world shrunk further and I couldn’t see past the next breath. Breath by breath, Matt kept saying, like a mantra. We’re meant to take it in turns to crumble, Matt and I, but I felt like he was holding up for both of us. The moments he couldn’t I found myself compensating, reverting to a role immediately familiar the minute I assume it again. But it didn’t hold. At that point nothing did. Delay and contain — it sounds like a form of toddler behavioural management. Pure will without consciousness.

***

Another doctor called on day six. The numbers were reassuring. The curve encouraging. His optimism was cautious though, telling me this virus is unpredictable. That he just didn’t know. But the growing energy in dad’s voice told me more than the numbers and hope started to feel less like something we were forcing ourselves to say than something we felt. You’re missing out on some serious material here, he said, providing extensive detail on the characters in the ward. All three of us laughing then until another coughing fit breaks him off. I hear one of mum’s one-woman shows in my head — hooked up to monitors and a blood transfusion, she’d still manage a series of acid sketches of the surgeon; then me, with a heart rate of twenty-eight, hypothermic finding comedy in A and E — and the laughter should have been a warning. This family habit of driving all the will we have into entertaining when we should be preserving it. But maybe it’s our best effort at preservation. Either way there’s little that’s reassuring about the laughter.

The day before he was discharged he watched the clip of Beethoven’s ninth I’d sent on to him. That was eight weeks ago and even now he wants me to understand how remarkable it is that the orchestra managed to coordinate the symphony remotely. How is it even possible? he asks. He describes it to me as though he’s concerned I didn’t watch it carefully enough. Then he switches mode and checks the way my niece used to want to check I understood a story. Yes, dad, I say, remarkable.

@mirandagold999

31/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 68: Russell Persson

The Giant Sloth of North America
By Russell Persson.

Looking back as upon the stretches of tiles who in surface become our maps the ones skipped our lost or never laid ashlar. Filling in these pauses with the measurements of others — books nearby and raw footage of space and seas and some of it untrue. The place our unquiet eye leads us. Or bored or somewise unsated we take a few slow steps and decide to learn about geologic time and how the moon came to be.

On geologic time there were the periods of heavy bombardment. Millions of asteroids and debris impacting earth which at the time had not yet cooled and was itself a ball of molten minerals. There is also the giant impact hypothesis. Something planetish the size of Mars hits earth head on. Some believe there was an ocean of magma. What would become the moon spun off from this collision and became debris that orbited earth and over centuries coalesced. There is today no consensus on the details.

On extinction events apart from what this season visits us we sift a full catalog. Permian-Triassic or the Great Dying brought about it’s possible in solo or in a clutch of pulses some drawn in oceanic methane yet some hold to account the Siberian Traps. Eighty three percent of all genera extinct and this was the end of the Paleozoic Era. Two hundred million years later an asteroid eight miles wide impacted earth near what is now the Yucatan and this is the theory of Alvarez. Almost eighty percent of all plant and animal life erased. The Mesozoic Era came to an end and teleost fish with it, so many of them sequential hermaphrodites.

The giant sloth and the camels of America. Giant armadillos weighing two tons each and American horses, mammoths, oversized cave lions and rodents the size of bears. The giant sloth reaching a height of twenty feet and weighing eight tons. These all exterminated over the course of about a thousand years after evolving and thriving on the continents of the present-day Americas for thirty million years.

Crossing from Siberia to Alaska and south past melting glaciers into North and then South America. The Holocene. An interglacial period of the Cenozoic. This is the original migration of humans from Africa to Asia to North America. Making many of ourselves. Moving on to settle in continual moving. Gathering and killing what was nearby until that too was gone. Continuing East to the wetlands of Alabama and south to the deserts of Central and South America, the jungles of Central and South America. Here in our blink.

Over the course of fifty million years of mutation and selection brought about the horse. The horse was then killed off in one millennia. On the arrival of humans, homo sapiens. On this the fossil record is not ambiguous.

Columbus and his boats who on false math augured into an unknown continent. He called them Indians even so and so began the first of four exterminations of the inhabitants of North and South America. Violence and disease against which there was no natural immunity.

India, once an island continent, moving inches a year toward Asia and causing on its arrival the upheaval of the Himalayas.

****

Two hours of an afternoon on the front porch. There is a breeze. Three tall sycamore trees near the house and growing through the railing of the porch is a honeysuckle vine and climbing up the front porch column is a Cecile Brunner rose bush that has started to bud. On each new rose bud are twelve or twenty aphids about the same shade of light green as the buds. The blind dog this afternoon moves from one spot of sun to a spot of shade and back again every ten minutes or so. There is often an afternoon breeze here. The wind chimes at the far end of the porch are almost too loud this afternoon. Three birds are on the lawn eating dandelion seeds. Four birds, sparrows maybe.

****

Australia, unconnected to any other continent, left to its own millions of years of disparate evolution. Mega fauna, unlike any other on the planet, killed off to not return coinciding with the arrival of Asiatic homo sapien. And so the homo sapien — a sentient plague, a cloud, the summary of five hundred million years of vertebrate radiation.

The measurements of others. Two hundred and forty thousand miles from earth to the moon. At an average speed of ten thousand miles an hour a ship can arrive in near twenty four hours. Three men. Weightless. Hours earlier on land in Florida.

After any period of even general research into the history of mankind it becomes clear that our earth is under no pact to let us in on why we exist at all.

****

There was a time when time began more recently. Before the Enlightenment, when sacred time led us to believe the beginning of our history was in the Garden of Eden. This was later revised to Armenia, where it was believed Noah and his boat came to rest after the flood. And floods were understood to be the cataclysmic events that marked the primary epochs of human history. If there was a flood and this flood killed off all mankind, including any written record of their existence, then this new postdiluvian world must be the true origin of civilization. There was a time when it was believed the earth was about six thousand years old. Calculations were made by biblical scholars who looked deeply into the passages of the old testament to determine how many years had passed since the creation of the earth. It was not until the Enlightenment when it was proposed that the earth was much older than previously imagined. Based on calculations of the cooling of molten metals, Kelvin proposed that earth was roughly a hundred million years old. This number also lent credence to the theories of Darwin and Lamarck, giving the once unfathomable spans of time required by these theories the millions of years to play out.

****

In fifth grade, when I was ten years old, for extra credit I baked a mixture of flour and water in the oven after putting it into a baking tray and pressing grooves in it with my finger. When it was cooked I painted in those grooves with blue paint to look like irrigation canals and next to those irrigation canals I painted green lines to indicate the food crops being nourished by the water diverted there. This was the cradle of civilization. Sumer. Mesopotamia. The Fertile Crescent. Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Where civilization began, or so. There was no mention of African humans or how at all humanity appeared in Sumer. Looking back it seems even then, when I was ten, there was a kind of sacred or mystical quality to the cradle of civilization. Echos of bible study must have filled in the cracks for what was missing in the narrative I received. But none of us ever mentioned that out loud and our teachers never said as much. Men with robes, camels, walking across vast landscapes of sand and dunes. This must be where the bible left off and where our school books picked up the story. In Sumer, with men pressing small shapes into clay tablets and diverting water from rivers off to where the crops were grown. It is believed, from the results of the most sophisticated scientific methods of dating potsherds and human remains, that Sumer was first settled about seven thousand years ago. This cradle of civilization.

****

The parietal art inside the Grotte Chauvet is estimated to be about thirty thousand years old. Shark teeth and ancient mollusks and trilobites have been discovered on mountaintops. Potsherds. Lithics. Debitage. What these are are gussied-up words for garbage. Coprolite is the word for prehistoric turd. There is a reason why midden heaps are so important. The archeologist carefully brushes away the dirt to uncover one more piece of broken pottery, one more obsidian chip left behind from the building of an arrowhead, tiny bones of what was eaten, thousands of shells carefully separated and examined for clues on how they might have been used for something at all other than nothing and charcoal tells the story of what fuels cooked the flesh of what was run off cliffs to death. The bones of infants decorated by intricate costume jewelry and the crushed skulls of scoliotic elders. The story of a people and their deeds sung through the vibrant record of garbage. What’s cast off defines us. What rots becomes our message. What remains after we’ve consumed all there is to consume within our practical reach, an unimaginable shelf of trash that sings the odd story of a typical human. So we continue, and we bury our brightest stories for them only to be misread by the next.

25/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 67: Nicholas Royle

Lockdown Alphabet
By Nicholas Royle.

Anosmia
My symptoms included anosmia — loss of sense of smell — along with headache, dry cough and temporary mild fever. The man on the other end of the 111 phone line, in the first week of March, wasn’t impressed, being more interested in whether I’d been to northern Italy in the past fortnight. It wasn’t his fault. When you’re working from a script, the script needs to be right. He didn’t think I had the virus, so neither did I. There was nothing anywhere about anosmia being linked to Covid-19. Not a word. And then there was. My wife found a single page online about anosmia being widespread in Iran. It still took weeks for it to be acknowledged as a symptom anywhere else, and then only anecdotally. The UK government didn’t add it to the list of officially recognised symptoms until the third week of May.

Bread
While everyone one else on my Instagram feed was baking their own sourdough bread, we were freezing sliced loaves, in case we needed to self-isolate, since we still thought we probably hadn’t had the virus. This meant I could resume collecting bread ties from supermarket loaves, a practice suspended when I had started regularly dropping three or four quid on sourdough loaves from artisan bakers.

Corona
Boxes of the Belgian-owned Mexican lager have been piled high in Aldi, right by the multipacks of Peach Coke, more knockdown than lockdown. On my daily walk, I came across a box in a skip. The skip was full of books, maps, photographs and a medium-sized cardboard box bearing the legend ‘Corona’. A label indicated it had and might still contain negatives, but equally I wondered if it might not also somehow contain the virus. The wet markets of Wuhan were a smokescreen; the virus orginated in a semi in Heaton Mersey, cooked up, perhaps, by the late owner, a retired teacher. I took some books, maps and photographs, but I left the box marked ‘Corona’.

Dominic Cummings
On 27 March, Boris Johnson’s chief strategist Dominic Cummings was filmed running from Downing Street following the Prime Minister’s diagnosis with Coronavirus. I thought, I can do that, and handed my phone to my wife.

Edward St Aubyn
My friend and colleague Rachel Genn recommended the Patrick Melrose novels to me. I’d been aware of them, and the TV adaptation, but I hadn’t dipped in. Now, I know that Edward St Aubyn should really appear in this alphabet under S, just as Dominic Cummings is more C-word than D-list, but Never Mind, which just happens to be the title of the first Melrose novel, and there it was in the RSPCA shop for a quid a few days before lockdown, so I thought I’d give it a go. He writes brilliantly at the level of simile and metaphor, but, oh my God, the point of view. It’s all over the place. No more Patrick Melrose for me.

Fondant Fancy Roulette
Maximum number of players: eight. Take one box of fondant fancies. While everybody closes their eyes, open the box and take one fondant fancy per player. All players may now open their eyes and see who has won (drawn either pink or yellow) and lost (drawn brown). I’ve heard yellow described as lemon, but pink is no more raspberry than brown is chocolate. They are, in our house, and will always be, yellow, pink and brown.

Giles Gordon
The novelist, short story writer, poet, anthologist and agent would have been 80 on 23 May. As a long-time fan of his work, I decided to spend the month of May reading — in some cases rereading — all of his novels and short story collections. So far, by the date of Gordon’s eightieth birthday, I have reread his first two collections and his first three novels. I have just started reading the fourth novel, a sequel to the second novel. This means, once I have finished the fourth novel, I will be left with two novels, neither of which I have read before, and the third collection, which I am looking forward to rereading. Then I have a piece to write about Gordon for the Brixton Review of Books with a deadline of the first week of June. I should really be writing that rather than this.

Hair
Apparently some people have had an issue with lockdown and being unable to visit the hairdresser.

Isolation
Second track on Joy Division’s second album, Closer, released 40 years ago this year. I didn’t use quotation when I assembled a short story, ‘Disorder’, out of the lyrics to Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures, and I’m not going to start now. But the opening line to ‘Isolation’ perfectly describes the emotional state of many people since mid-March. See ‘Joy Division’ below.

Joy Division
Appropriate lockdown listening. See ‘Isolation’ above. The fortieth anniversary of the death of singer and lyricist Ian Curtis fell on 18 May.

K
It was late in the evening when K realised he hadn’t changed out of his pyjamas all day.

London
Normally I spend part of my time with my wife at her place in London. Not since 23 March…

Manchester
… during which period we’ve been locked down at my place in Manchester.

Nightjar
A lot of publishers have been negatively affected by lockdown. Some may not survive. My small press, Nightjar, has been OK. We publish short stories as signed, numbered, limited-edition chapbooks and sell them direct from the website. There’s no issue with profits being down, because there are no profits. To reduce losses, during lockdown and before (and after, if there is an ‘after’), I hand-deliver orders within what I consider to be walking distance, which has increased during lockdown.

One-way system
My local Tesco has become home to a piece of site-specific immersive theatre. After spraying your basket with disinfectant you follow the one-way system, trying not to enter any 2m box while being mindful of any queue building up behind you. When you reach the end of the store you find that aisles 14 (Nappies & Wipes) and 15 (Health & Beauty) are both north to south, so that, if you go down 14, it is impossible to enter 15 without breaking the rules and incurring wrathful glares from actors playing self-righteous shoppers. However, even if you decide to go without the paracetamol or moisturising cream that is all you really came in for, you still have to enter 15 to join the queue for the tills. What to do?

Phil Neville
I walked to Altrincham, to deliver a Nightjar order, a (long way) round trip of some 18 miles. Approaching, on the other side of the road, when I got to Hale Barns, home of footballers, was a runner. Black top, orange shorts, tanned legs, white socks, black trainers. Looks a bit like Phil Neville, I thought. It was Phil Neville.

Queue
I remember seeing a photo online, back in early March, of people queuing for a bus or to enter a supermarket in Finland. They were standing two metres apart. How ridiculous, I thought, how utterly bizarre. Now, if I walk straight into a supermarket without waiting in a queue two metres behind the person in front, that’s bizarre.

Revolution
Golfers stopped playing golf and golf courses returned to the people. I’ve enjoyed walking where I’m not normally permitted to walk. I found a hidden pond surrounded by trees in a corner of a local golf course where, in just ten minutes, I saw goldfinch, robin, blackbird, blackcap, goldcrest, chaffinch, blue tit and wren.

Sopranos
We’ve watched The Sopranos from season one to season six. It’s a strangely unsettling experience to believe in and grow close to certain characters and follow their various stories and, every so often, be reminded that their way of life is founded on brutal violence and murder.

Tits
Tits and other small birds have finally started visiting the bird feeder we hung from a tree about three weeks into lockdown. The first device we got, a cheap thing from a local hardware shop, should have been sold as a squirrel feeder. Everything about it seemed designed to encourage and provide sustenance to squirrels. They emptied it in about half an hour, ultimately by turning it upside down. We replaced that with something resembling an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that we bought off the dark web. The squirrels soon worked out they couldn’t get anywhere near it and it hung disconsolately for a couple of weeks until a robin paid a brief visit, followed by a blue tit. Since then there have been a couple of sparrows. We’re playing a long game.

University
At Manchester Metropolitan University we’ve been teaching distance-learners online for years, so had a bit of a head start.

Vanishing Point
I read Antonio Tabucchi’s short novel Vanishing Point while walking from Didsbury to Denton and back on the Fallowfield Loop delivering another Nightjar order. An existentialist mystery story, beautifully translated by Tim Parks, it’s full of lines like ‘Faldini has the face of someone who has spent his entire life addressing letters to distant countries while looking out across a landscape of derricks and containers.’

Wild garlic
I picked so much it’s a wonder there was any left for anybody else. I made soup, pesto, salad and risotto, and they were all, if I say so myself, delicious.

You
The only story idea I’ve had during lockdown is one that will work best told in the second person. Always disconcerting, second-person narratives are well suited to these ‘strange times’. Is the author writing about you, or about some imagined third person whom he or she is addressing and into whose world you are granted a privileged perspective? Or about an everyman or everywoman figure that could be you but could be anyone? The use of the second person is just one of the puzzling elements in Giles Gordon’s experimental crime novel Girl with Red Hair (1974) and Ron Butlin uses the device to make the reader empathise with his protagonist at the same time as creating distance between you and him in The Sound of My Voice (1987), while Alison Moore uses it almost as dazzle or distraction in her short story ‘Sometimes You Think You Are Alone’, in which she’s equally interested in the identity of the owner of the voice that addresses the ‘you’ of the story.

Zoom
I’d taken part in a number of Zoom calls, meetings and events before someone — one of the guests on David Collard’s excellent A Leap in the Dark — explained that as well as choosing between gallery view and speaker view, you can also choose to ‘pin’ the video of anyone attending, which means you can watch them, in close-up, even when they are not speaking. It’s a voyeur’s paradise. When you should really worry is when you realise you’ve pinned your own video and are watching yourself. See ‘You’ above.

@nicholasroyle

23/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 66: Des Barry

Wagtails and Minuets
By Des Barry.

 

At this time of year in Australia, the position of sunrise from our balcony window drifts north-east as winter approaches. Before the sun appears through the sparser branches of the trees above the rooftop horizon, it lights up the sky in pale pinks, in orange and blue. I tend to wake up around 5.30am so I usually see the dawn. This early, the path along Port Philip Bay and the low grassy area beside it, aren’t so crowded with runners and dog walkers. If I can get in a walk, and the weather’s calm, I can breathe in the watery space and stillness; or if it’s stormy, I can breathe in sea spray and wind. Doing the same walk every day, makes me appreciate the changes in light, in temperature, the air on my skin. The presence of Covid-19 in the world makes the enjoyment even more acute especially when, at the age of sixty-five, I’m just about in the demographic that seems to have less chance of surviving the virus should I get an acute case of it. I’ve been in lockdown since March 3rd.

I’d flown back to Australia from the UK on February 28th. In London, there had been talk about Coronavirus in Wuhan but nobody seemed that worried about it. I’d been in London for about six weeks. I’d also been in Madrid for a week or so: to the Prado for the Goya exhibition; to the Thyssen-Bornomisza Museum to revisit the Expressionists; a day in Toledo on a pilgrimage to all the El Greco sites. Nobody was worried about Coronavirus. My friend Diego said, ‘One day a virus will wipe out humanity. But not this one’. We laughed about it. I felt fit, and even surprised, that I hadn’t been sick for even one day. On the previous year’s winter visit to Europe, I’d had flu for about three weeks. In Britain, I heard that for most people, the illness was like a mild version of the flu.

As a resident returning to Australia, I was waved through immigration and customs. Apparently, travellers from China and South Korea were being tested for Covid-19 but nobody from anywhere else. Back in Melbourne, getting over jetlag, I got a haircut, went to the dentist, caught up with friends. Then my throat became sore. I thought nothing of it at first. I went to an event with about four hundred and fifty people. By the next day I could hardly talk. I developed a persistent dry cough. I still felt fine but by now the general social anxiety level was rising. I thought I should call the government Department of Health hotline… mainly for reassurance. The nurse asked me where I’d travelled and a lot about my symptoms. Some of the symptoms she asked me about sounded terrifying. I didn’t have them. At the end of this long interview, she said that it I didn’t need a test. I should just stay at home, take paracetamol and drink plenty of water. I thought, yeah, I’m right. It’s just laryngitis.

A week later the government of Victoria mandated tests for any traveller who’d returned to Australia from anywhere in the previous fourteen days. I called the local hospital hotline at 4pm. I was at the hospital by 5pm. I was met at the testing center by triage nurses who took my temperature, checked my heart rate, and sent me for the swab test. There weren’t many people in front of me. The doctor asked me questions about my symptoms. She gave me the swab test — deep in the nose and the back of the throat. She told me I’d get the results in 48 hours. On the way out, the nurse who took my final form said it might take 72 hours to get the result. I was out of the hospital by 6pm.

Back home, I checked the government website. Because the labs were busy, it might take five days. I was now concerned that if I had the disease that I might have spread it without knowing. I wasn’t worried for myself because I still felt relatively well. It was a relief when I got a text message five days later to say that the test was negative and I didn’t need to self-isolate any more. Mostly I felt relief that I couldn’t have infected anybody in those early blasé days. Now I became aware that, when I tested negative, it meant I could still get the virus. And that I’m still in a relatively high-risk age group.

Now, when I do those daily walks on the sea shore, I’m acutely aware of each small change in the everyday routine: a wagtail that dips and bobs around my feet for about twenty meters along the shrub-line; the social distancing minuets; the mindlessness of the huffing macho joggers; a woman runner in a tense state of high anxiety, her eyes fixed on the screen in her outstretched hand; the man who lives in a camper in the car park who calls a good morning to me. Back in the apartment, I have to look at the Internet. I worry about my friends in Britain.

It took me two hours to get tested in Australia and I’m a civilian. I’m horrified at the complacency and sheer fucking cruelty of the British government that still refuses to test frontline medical staff. That there isn’t enough PPE for them. I’m horrified at the media’s sycophancy and lack of responsibility. I’m horrified that the British public feels the government is doing a good job. I’m horrified that so many of the people clapping for nurses and doctors voted for the party that cut the NHS for ten years, a government that continues with its clusterfuck of incompetence. Or worse, in its thrall to a right-wing accelerationist and its own disaster capitalists who are already making billions of pounds as they prey on failed businesses. From this distance, a vast number of imbeciles in Britain seem to be revelling in a dance of death that’s like a version of Dad’s Army painted by Hieronymous Bosch… comically hideous… and dangerous to my sane friends and family, to thousands of innocent people of all ages.

To keep my own sanity, I buy groceries once a week, I cook good food, I eat with my partner. Because I can. I’ve lost five kilos by healthy eating. For the past four weeks we’ve been watching one episode a night from the suitably gothic seven series of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: the Jeremy Brett version. I’m still having trouble deciding what to read. Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller was the last novel I read and I’m reading Homo Faber slowly so slowly. But a breakthrough came this week in being able to write again: a full first draft of a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction in ages.

While Australia is getting this epidemic under control, Camus’ The Plague comes to mind, inevitably, to keep things in perspective. When the plague is just about over, Dr Rieux’s friend, Jean Tarrou, gets sick and dies. I’m aware something like this can happen to anyone. Can happen to me. We live in extraordinary times, present to the cruelty and compassion of this incredible world we live in. Faced with the real possibility of my own imminent death, I reflect on a life that I’m happy to have led: people, places, fuck-ups, books written and read. I’d quite like it to go on. Lockdown is fine.

@farsouthproject

22/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 65: Charles Leitner

So Fondly Do They Sing
By Charles Leitner.

 

What do you think of the ship Pequod, the ship of the soul of an American?
Many races, many people, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes.
Seeing stars sometimes.
– D.H. Lawrence

The city is quiet and the nights seem to have been returned to the rats and rabbits. The train cars are all but empty. Except for a handful of passengers, they roll along mostly on their own. Steady. And like the factories still churning, they are a good reminder that modern civilization in some form still continues.

Near the hospital, there is a man returning to his shift. He looks tiresome and worried. He holds a cup of coffee in his hand and trudges solemnly through the entrance revolving door. There are drives waiting along the streets. Patiently sitting idle, scrolling through the endless confines of the internet.

A man on the subway wears what appears to be a mosquito repellent mask. He grows nervous each time someone boards. After only a few stops, he departs.

There are postings on churches, bars, and restaurants, saying they’ve closed for now, but the construction still continues. The great machine is still ticking. The noise from this division of labor has become a fitting alarm for those who now work from home.

The nights have gone and turned to wonder, the mornings just the same. The daylights creeping fingers are welcomed by the birds. They don’t seem to mind the change. At the waking hours of the day they can be heard singing back to one another. They call out:

I am here.

You are there.

We are near.

So fondly do they sing. To know that we are still among the living is such a beautiful and bitter thing.

The sun has come and it seems now spring comes with it. February’s winds have gone away and now grows our desire to crawl out from the bleak confines of winter’s hollow. As the weather warms a deep anxiety awakens. We want to go out. We want to spend the first days of spring in the parks and bars listening to music in our sundresses and warm weather attire.

I am able to chat briefly with my neighbor. We talk with one another from our balconies. He is below. I am above. After a moment we decide it is ok and he joins me on my own. The city is beyond us and the lights still glimmer in the dark. We drink beer and talk quietly, trying in our own right to make sense of something which makes little sense at all. Something beyond any layman’s control. It appears we have both acquired a touch of angst, but we are trying to withhold it. What a terrible grim uncertainty brings.

He makes a joke about him and his girlfriend considering their options. He wonders half-heartedly if they’re going to need to buy guns and I make a lame reference to Warren Zevon. We both try to divert from the topic.

He is from Turkey and lives with his girlfriend. He moved here nearly five years ago with his mother and father and has been working a job in IT at Harvard. He is lucky. At least for now, he is still able to work.

A few nights ago, I am able to sleep with the windows open. The air was even and damp from a few days of rain and I felt a bit more at ease listening to the soft churning of the world. A night lark called from a distance and I could hear it as it fluttered across the moonlit sky. Though I could not see her, it is an accompanying sound in a world gone somber and quiet.

The nights are still. There are a few clouds which streak across the sky and cover what little light the moon provides. The hotels have gone dark. Only a few rooms are lit. An oasis in the blackness of their façade.

In the morning, children play in a sprinkler. Their laughter has livened the corner of the world I have found myself in. Where construction cranes swoon against the sky and the cars, barely a whisper along the highway, pass in ever dwindling numbers.

Spring showers have arrived. Lightning and the rolling thunder. It is starting to feel more and more like the days of old. When there was nothing but hemlock groves. When everything at night is silent except for the chatter of the natural world. The thunder booms and across the sky mist has turned to fog and the long building spires are now masked in an abundance of molecules.

I think to myself, this is not so bad, but then I walk past the hospital again. An ambulance driver takes a break for a smoke. A gurney rests vacant outside his van. There is no rush to put it back in again. That means more patients. That means more pressure. That means more bodies.

There are several television crews waiting down street. The producers stay warm in their cars as cameramen set up a shot with the hospital entrance framed in the background. An anchorwoman applies makeup in her rearview mirror. She’s in her mid-thirties and pretty. This could be her big break. This might make her career.

Outside a nearby clinic, the congregation of bums has not dwindled. The destitute are in bright spirits. They are happy just to have made it through another day. They seem to mock the other walking dead. They seem to think, hell, what took ya’ll so long. Welcome to the damned party.

My mother and father are in lockdown like the rest. “Can I tell you a good story?” she asks him.

“Sure,” my father says.

“Ok,” she begins. “So just the other day, there’s this man…”

“Is this a true story?”

“Yes. It was a woman’s birthday on his street. She’s ninety. Everyone is on lockdown and because of her age she mustn’t go outside. She can’t do anything.”

My mother is in the middle of making surgical masks out of my father’s old T-shirts. The iron is steaming and as she tells her story, she waves the thing around and small puffs of water vapor spout into the ceiling like smoke signals. They reach the ceiling, scuttle about, stretch, and dissipate.

“So this man decides it might be nice to give this woman a proper celebration. Proper in today’s sense, that is. So with white chalk he draws a handful of circles on the street outside of this woman’s window. The circles are each six feet apart. After he is finished, he calls on a number of neighbors to occupy the spaces he has drawn and they sing to her happy birthday.”

She goes back to work ironing the cloth on the table. Her hands move slow and the iron snorts as it runs over ripples in the white linen.

“Isn’t that just lovely?” she asks.

“Yes it is.”

My mother watches as I wrestle with their dog. She is still busy making her masks. “When I am that old, will you care for me like you do that dog?”

“Not a chance,” I say joking.

My mother and father have just entered the twilight of their lives and are soon approaching the point where we dip beyond the horizon, like falling suns, towards whatever lies behind the great beyond. They would rather enjoy their time with friends and family. Of course, they are thankfully with each other, but there is little to discuss. Like most everyone, they would rather speak about far different topics. Like sport, film, literature, art, or poetry. They are not reclusive creatures like the writer they had borne. They yearn to be among one another laughing all about, surrounded by those they’ve gone and made close.

We are starting to hear more frequent sirens. Even in a city, the blaring sound seems to come more and more. Sometimes two or three begin to call at once and you can tell by the way the sound reverberates across the cities concrete, that they are moving in opposite directions. They are signaling the growing panic. Panic which seems now to cling to us like lice to a stricken mutt. We can’t seem to shake it and it grows stronger by the hour.

There is not much anyone can do. Although there are still some of us out working in the fray, most are feeling helpless and afraid. There is little we can do except wait for the passing of the storm.

There are words flowing forth from other places in the world. Endless reports of news and rumors of what it is like elsewhere. News of bodies being burned in the streets of Ecuador. Buzzards flying overhead. Graves amass once more at Potter’s Field. Coins of Judas still being paid. Rumors from China of apartment doors having been welded shut with their tenants still inside. They are left there, imprisoned in the tiny worlds of their own creations, left to wait for this all to pass.

Here in America it is much different. This Great American Machine cannot be burdened to a halt because of such terrible death. It seems to have been this way for some time. Today’s American mind wishes not to be hindered by the dead and dying. Death comes still, barely, like a whisper. Murmurings of a friend who has succumbed to this disease. A son, a daughter, a mother or father. A husband, a wife, a neighbor or colleague. The dead seem to disappear and fade like a silent breeze through springtime leaves. Their names go along as well and soon become lost in the bowels of the ether, and in the growing sections of the paper’s obituaries.

It is late now and time for me to go home. Along the bridge which extends over the River Charles, a string of subway cars rolls by. There is not a single soul inside. It appears the train has ferried its final worker bee, that diligent nine to fiver, over to the other side. As I bike back to my apartment I think to myself, after all this I wonder if those chalk circles will make it through all the rain.

@leitner_charles

21/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 64: Monique Roffey

Lockdown
By Monique Roffey.

As I write this, the UK is coming up to the end of its fifth week in lockdown. I will be fifty-five tomorrow, 24th April. At high risk, with asthma and a rare autoimmune illness, Churg Strauss Syndrome, I’m glad I made it to this age. However, in these times the subject of age has a much edgier significance. Thank God, I’m not nearer 60, is a quiet thought. Better odds. At least I’m blood type O, etc, etc. All these selfish and self-shoring up thoughts have come and gone, and come and gone, and I’m not necessarily proud of them. In short, what are my chances of survival? From the outset, I knew what catching Covid-19 could mean. I’ve seen what my NHS medical files look like, huge stuffed tomes wider than a hand’s grasp. I know how weak my chest is, how, daily, I rely on my inhalers to get by. When, mid-March, news of lockdown was imminent, I acted fast and bought myself a nebuliser. When it arrived from Amazon weeks later, I felt a little more secure. Now, they are impossible to get hold of. Asthmatics, worldwide, know that Covid-19 is a perilous threat.

However, early March, I came down with a cold. It seemed to slip inside me in a dream one Sunday night. I dreamt my cold. It didn’t arrive like normal colds, in my throat, lots of sneezing and then a clotted head for days; sodden tissues and bleary eyes. I was conscious of its arrival, during slumber, a strange and magical experience. No sneezing. Days later, I experienced a cloying sore throat. Worried, I cancelled a reading at Essex Lit-fest. They understood. I dialed 111 but I was told unless I’d been in direct contact with someone from Italy or China, I had no chance of getting this virus. That was March 5th. Ho ho. It’s usual for me to not shake off a cold. This one lasted a month. I had bouts of fatigue, too. I catch almost anything going around. So I’ve been trapped in a double bind: wondering if I’ve already had the virus, mildly, and living in mortal dread of catching it. Actually, the mortal dread has worn off. You can’t live at such a high pitch of fear for weeks. Something like acceptance has replaced this, a letting go. Also, hope. The longer I don’t get this, the more likely I will receive good NHS care; early on there was talk of ‘triage’. A friend had blithely said, “Mon, if you get this and end up in hospital, they’ll take one look at your notes, and bump you off”.

Nice.

I’ve worked mostly from home the past twenty years, writing novels, editing and teaching online, so I had, at first, thought lockdown would be okay, psychologically and emotionally. I assumed I’d cope better than most. But the enormity of what this new virus means, its existential scope, has meant that lockdown hasn’t been at all easy. I’ve been constantly distracted, unable to focus much. I’ve slept erratically. There have been mood swings. Most of my friends have reported the same. I live without a television, but the news has been so compelling, especially in the early weeks, I found myself listening to BBC Radio 4 on the hour. I’ve been constantly searching the Internet for more than what we are being fed, trying to see if a long shot view is possible, trying to read what science is available for the lay reader, and trying to work out who to trust.

Since those early days of lockdown, I’ve also made a will. I’ve decided who gets what, should this virus take me. I’m single and childfree. I reckon if not now, when? This is the time to do this. I also wrote down what kind of ‘after party’ I’d like after my cremation. I’m a Buddhist, so no church please. Only now do I realise how important this is. Imagine being buried in a coffin and having a service in a church! I needed to tell people; no, certain procedures would really not be appropriate. Not for me. Please. Burn me and celebrate my life. No one wear black. I even chose who would officiate the party and where. Sadly, none of this will count, should I end up sick enough to die from this virus. I’ve watched nurses on Channel 4 clips talk of the end of death conversations they’ve had with those in ICU. Covid-19 deaths are heartbreakingly lonely. So are Covid-19 funerals. As a high-risk person, facing possible death has been ‘the thing’ of lockdown, or maybe mostly the early weeks. @HighRiskCovid19 is a hashtag I’ve used a lot, and I was part of a short film for Huff Post. Like all the other high riskers, I’m already ill. I live a more or less normal life, given essential and ongoing medication. When I finally received ‘the letter’ from my GP, I had to sit down. Go away. I went for a very long walk in the spring sunshine. Can you refuse to die? I think that’s how I’ll beat it. Utter denial. I watched Covid-19 survivor Pink, also an asthmatic, on Ellen, say that she’d done many mad bad things in her life, and “to go like this?” I get that too.

Actually, I have found some solace. Pandemic, a Netflix docu-series is outstanding. It puts the average person, the non-virologist, in the picture with what we are dealing with. Filmed in 2019, it follows several teams of scientists around the world, as they search for a way to stop what has now happened. I now follow some of these scientists on Twitter. They’ve been the few credible voices I now want in my life: Dr Jacob Glanville (@CurlyJungleJake) and Sarah Ives (@sives54), as well as pathogen preparedness expert Dr Syra Madad (@syramadad) currently overseeing New York’s response to the disease. These three scientists have been my go-to people in these weeks. They upload data and papers I feel I should read.

Like many, I’ve been watching the Tories have the rug pulled from under them; “profit is less important than life” says Zoe Williams in today’s Guardian. The Conservatives, as a group ideology, are having such an obvious failure in terms of human principle. It’s taken this, a frigging global pandemic, to hurt them. Capitalists need workers, but how can they capitalise if all the workers are either ill, dying, or locked indoors? Covid-19 is a leveller. The Tory press have even turned rogue. Murdoch has slayed Boris in the Sunday Times and his shoddy approach to the virus early on. Piers Morgan has also turned leftie, savaging Hancock and co, on live breakfast time TV. A friend of Trump, he’s laid into Trump too. The NHS, limping and barely standing, is now a cherished pillar of our society. The first Thursday we all clapped I was brought to tears. Middle class, living in the East End, my neighborhood is edgy at the best of times. These days, I feel more bonded with my neighbours. To date, £28 million was raised by an ex army Captain Tom Moore, walking laps of his garden, great except that the NHS isn’t a charity.

However, these shifts in POV high up are what has kept me hopeful in all of this. Surely Boris has been somewhat humbled, what with being saved from the jaws of death by the NHS, being tended to so tenderly by two immigrants? In his speech to the nation after he left hospital, he mentioned the word ‘love’ twice. But no one believes he might have softened. As a co-founder of XRWritersRebel, I hope, post Covid-19, we will see a new green deal and a substantial change towards how mankind cares for the planet. But for now, lockdown is best managed one day at a time. We face many more weeks of it, and, for those of us who are high risk, maybe many months. Tomorrow will be a good day. I will turn fifty-five.

@moniqueroffey

19/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 63: Russell Williams

The Novels of Self-Isolation
By Russell Williams.

Xavier de Maistre, Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794)

 

What books should we be turning to in our present moment of crisis? As we deepen our breathing, steel ourselves for trips to the supermarket and prepare for lengthy periods of collective self-isolation, what novels might help us unlock, or at least try to think through our historical moment? Some titles have been getting a great deal of attention in recent days. Foremost amongst them is Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century Decameron — a series of stories acting as what scholar Martin Marafioti memorably describes as “narrative prophylaxis”, telling tales to help fend off the Black Death, which might provide some kind of inspiration. Closer to living memory, and apparently flying out of bookstores in France, at least before they were forced to close, is Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947), a novel that speaks of plague, but that I was always told was, actually, an allegory about the rise of the Nazis. Either way, it carries an inspirational message of human solidarity in tough times.

Both of those novels are in their own way, profound considerations of how humans experience and respond to disasters. Our current moment is also, though, acutely mundane: withdrawal, retreat and staying in — as we’ve all been discovering — can be deeply boring. Alongside the Boccaccio and the Camus, there is a body of work which dramatizes characters who shut themselves away, encouraging us to reflect on the odd emotional texture of social distancing, particularly in contrast to a normalness which champions sociability, visibility and putting yourself out there. In France, Huysmans’s Against Nature is a cult classic of decadence, its plot summarized by Andy Miller in The Happy Reader: “jaded aesthete secludes himself in provinces, unsuccessfully”. Thoreau’s iconic Walden, is well-meaning but lightly nauseating autobiography: man drops out of the rat race to sit in a hut by a pond. Not all of us, however, have the resources to lavish themselves in opulence in the company of a gilded and bejeweled tortoise, or eco-responsibly commune with nature. There is a less well-known body of work that deals with, articulates and shares a more quotidian experience of self-isolation, one that just might tell us something about what it means to hide ourselves away in 2020.

The most contemporary of these is Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), which stages experiments with human hibernation, centered around a protagonist who bases her retreat on the recuperative potential of sleep. This novel actually plays with two forms of withdrawal. The first is a prescription drug-inspired drift into the security of unemployment benefit, a blank confinement set in a pre-Netflix age where the only colour is provided by the faded tapes of the tired VHS movies she spools again and again, watching Harrison and Whoopi in a fuggy med-inspired haze. When her machine wheezes to a standstill, the disaster is experienced in a higher magnitude than the 9/11 which closes the novel.
Moshfegh’s character’s second hibernation is when things get serious, a hardcore three months of druggy sleep under lock and key once our narrator realises the Infermiterol she’s been taking has actually been causing her to sleepwalk, venture outside and party. She teams up with conceptual artist Ping Xi to turn herself into a piece of performance video art. A tablet every three days, the door locked from the outside.

What’s the outcome? Well, she succeeds in sustaining a complete, committed even impressive, form of social distancing. She sort of makes it, attaining if not an epiphany, but a moment of, apparently sincere clarity. After the end of her confinement, she sits in a park and watches, “a bee circle the heads of a flock of passing teenagers. There was majesty and grace in the swaying branches of the willows. There was kindness. Pain is not the touchstone for growth, I said to myself. My sleep had worked. I was soft and calm and felt things. This was good” (p. 288). Moshfegh’s novel excels more in its characterization and in its portrayal of her friendship with Reva, about working through her relationship with her parents (hey, her mum liked to sleep too), than about staying in. Despite herself, and in her own perverse way, Moshfegh has actually written a feel-good novel whose resolution feels a little too neat, too harmonious.

In many ways, Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator presents a textbook, Romantic notion of the kind of self-development that those hope temporary withdrawal can bring about. This is neatly summarized in psychiatrist Anthony Storr’s Solitude (1989), “removing oneself voluntarily from one’s habitual environment promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life” (34-35). This may or may not be the case, but it too feels a little bit over-optimistic, a little simplistic, not least in an age of social media, where such removal is always a little tricky as we seek to undermine our tranquility by scrolling through Twitter feeds exposing ourselves to the mental stress that online panic brings with it. Some kind of contact is inevitable.

Perhaps a more realistic assessment of the positive possibilities of isolation comes from the seventeenth-century mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal who witheringly noted in his Pensées (1670), “when I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber”, and highlighting “the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely”.

In terms of the literature of self-isolation, some of the most interesting creative work gets to grips with Pascal’s conclusion. Much of it also comes from the French speaking world. Most eccentrically, the Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom starts with a protagonist who initially refuses to leave his bathroom, but Pascal’s restless itch sees him seeking out a range of different opportunities to stay in: he relocates to Venice where he rescues a copy of the Pensées, discarded by a tourist and spends too much time hanging around his hotel, before checking himself into hospital; he’s lucky enough not to have to share his double room.

What does he learn from his experiences in retreat from Storr’s “hurly-burly”? Not a great deal, if truth be known. Above all, he discovers that he really does like staying inside, and all of Toussaint’s characters, throughout all his novels, are probably best off when they do. If there is any pay-off in terms of solace or comfort in The Bathroom, it seems to be primarily aesthetic. Toussaint’s novel is presented in 170 exquisitely crafted and numbered minimalist paragraphs, each of them a perfect, independent exercice de style. Apparently — too — there is a Pythagorean logic at work in the triangular structure of the novel, split into three parts with the middle section described as its ‘hypotenuse’. Toussaint has, it seems, turned staying in into a productive literary constraint.

A more extreme example than the Toussaint, perhaps more explicitly Pascalian, is George Perec’s A Man Asleep (1967) (filmed by Perec and Bernard Queysanne in 1974). A young Parisian student, suffering from what sounds distinctly like a severe dose of depression, opts to ignore his friends, flunk his university exams and instead spend his days staring at the ceiling in his chambre de bonne, detailing minutely his shelving units, his ceiling, his breakfast crockery. He eventually makes the decision to wander the streets, maintaining a state of carefully-studied indifference to those he encounters in the dark Paris streets, arrogantly casting himself the “maître anonyme du monde” — the anonymous master of the world.

At the close of the novel, narrated in the accusatory second person, however, he realises it’s all been a bit of a waste of time. He hasn’t been able to sit quietly in his own chamber, but neither has his nocturnal flânerie done anything other than darken his mood:

You learned nothing, except that solitude teaches you nothing, that indifference teaches you nothing: it was a distraction, a fascinating yet flawed illusion. …[Y]our refusal is useless, your neutrality means nothing. Your inertia is as vain as your rage.

So, what’s the point?

Like Perec, the notorious contemporary provocateur Michel Houellebecq is probably not to be recommended if we are looking for an inspirational, uplifting message at the present time since he recognises, even celebrates, such futility. The majority of his protagonists all perversely insist on shutting themselves away, opting to wallow in precisely this form of self-despair. One character in Atomised (1998) spends weeks in his bedroom staring at the radiator. Another character in Submission (2015) checks himself into a monastery. The protagonist of Serotonin (2019), his most recent novel, chooses to disappear, checking out of his unhappy relationship by checking into a succession of mid-range hotels and stewing there in his misery, after finding a way to deactivate the smoke detector, since the only thing worse than self-isolation is a self-isolation where you aren’t allowed to smoke.

So far, then, so bleak. Perhaps the rare glimmer of hope in the field of the literature of self-isolation is a novel that Houellebecq once described to me, through a haze of early-afternoon rosé, as his “favourite book”; Eugène Ionesco’s little-read The Hermit (1972). I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that The Hermit acts as a model for Houellebecq, too, one that has influenced his themes, ambiguous pessimism, and even his literary style. It recounts the tale of a young, unremarkable office worker who, out of the blue, receives an inheritance windfall from a forgotten American uncle. Rather than any grand gestures, a trip around the world or (urgh) playing the stock markets, our narrator opts to quietly retire from life. He acquires a modest apartment in a sleepy arrondissement, and settles gently into a life of gentle routine, perusing the newspaper, losing himself in philosophical abstractions and contemplating the sacks of food and cases of wine his housekeeper has had the foresight to order in. Ionesco’s novel, the playwright’s only experiment with long form fiction, was written against the backdrop of the May 1968 protests, and violent insurrection becomes increasingly prominent as the novel proceeds. Our narrator, however, really isn’t interested in revolutionary politics, instead preferring to peer bemusedly out of his window, or dining — at the same time every day — in his local bistrot, boozing heavily as the structures, and the buildings, of contemporary society collapse around his hideout. He eventually opts to definitively barricade himself inside with his Burgundy and his Bordeaux.

Ionesco’s narrator, perhaps in a similar way to Moshfegh’s, casts doubts on the firmness of Pascal’s conclusions, as staying in his chamber doesn’t really pose too much of a problem, although admittedly the fine wine and the companionship of the bistrot waitress helps. Eventually, after weeks, months, perhaps even years — he’s not quite sure, the hermit toys with the idea of emerging from his hibernation and the novel closes on a note of oddly ambiguous optimism. One morning, our hero is “awakened by the chirping of birds”, glancing out of the window, he notes “an all-white tree in full flower” which has emerged through the piles of garbage in his courtyard. He reaches out and plucks “three immaculate flowers” (167). The tree soon vanishes, yet the flowers remain. It returns later that day, with the vision of a meadow and a hovering silver ladder, prompting novels final words, “I took that for a sign”. Of what, we never discover.

@rwilliamsparis

15/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 62: Adam Scovell

The Pleasure of Crime
By Adam Scovell.

In a time when every opportunity to escape the horror of our current situation is grabbed with relish, I found it surprising on recent reflection that my chief remedy for coping with the barrage of frustrations and worries over the Coronavirus and its handling were stories of murder. Not actual murder of course but the pleasures of crime fiction. A genre dismissed and treated with condescension by the unimaginative with such regularity that you could almost set your watch by it, crime fiction for me has acted as a sparkling tonic to the endless cycle of news, celebrity breakdowns and plethora of advice on what to read during lockdown, if the possibility of reading hasn’t been totally swamped by nervous distraction that is.

I find crime fiction to be consistent in reflecting a world view that other forms generally shy away from. Since the lockdown, I’ve found much solace in their darker vision of cities and societies as opposed to other, more optimistic fictional perspectives. Crime writers historically have always known the world to be slippery and aren’t interested in listing the flowers in the garden of their bought-and-paid-for semi-detached or any of the other strange writerly tropes currently cropping up during lockdown, especially in short form articles online. They instead trade in deception and death which is perhaps why I’m finding their work even more potent than usual at the moment.

With the general election last year, I had already fallen into the habit. I was preserving my own despair like a specimen in Victorian formaldehyde through reading Raymond Chandler’s still brutal Marlowe series of novels, The Long Goodbye especially. Filled with deceit, betrayal and violence, they mirrored the news cycle then with ease, at least in tone. Chandler’s world in some ways commented upon ours, even if the cars and suits were undoubtedly nicer in his.

I kept up the habit, moving onto an array of dingy, brilliant tales of criminality, from Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, along with Derek Raymond’s The Devil’s Home on Leave and Georges Simenon’s The Engagement. All provided something I struggle to name as anything other than optimism; a bizarre contradiction considering their regularly grim content but there we go. Why did I find optimism in a story of a man found in five Waitrose bags in a warehouse in Rotherhithe or the story of a Parisian whose licentiousness was used as an excuse to literally bully him to death?

Since being stuck indoors, others have come to comfort me with their visceral realities and violent worlds. Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place took my breath away with its rancid portrayal of Los Angeles, as did the play on spiv language in Derek Raymond’s The Crust on Their Uppers and the sheer cinematic dynamism of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman. Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead had me fooled with its raw detail right until its later chapters, often leaving me with the feeling of having dirt under my fingernails, while I’ve spent many an evening wandering through the shadowy side of Paris with Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma for company in Mayhem in the Marais and The Tell-Tale Body on the Plaine Monceau.

Contradictions are rife in taking such pleasure in these novels. I find optimism in their pessimism, I find beauty in their ugliness and I find distraction in their concentration of detail. In other words, I find everything I’m told I’ll discover in the chirpy fiction recommendations regularly suggested in articles as an antidote to our predicament; written with what seems to me to be a simplistic assumption that the only remedy for a sick world is to escape into work that writes out that sickness on some basic level. In reality, no one size fits all of our comforts so I don’t dismiss those recommendations nor play down their effectiveness for those who do gain something from lighter reading in such unusual times. Instead I simply question the broad-stroke approach taken by so many outlets to suggestions of possible relief from our day-to-day situation.

I still have much to read and enjoy, and I am lucky, both in having such books and having the privilege to not be in a position working on the front line. With my father working in the hospital laboratory where the first patients were taken back in February, my partner training to be a doctor in France, my flatmate working on the mental health frontline, and my mother surveying buildings to defog for Cornavirius, it’s a privilege that I feel acutely on a daily basis. Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez is still sitting in my to-read pile, as is Georges Simenon’s The Snow Was Dirty, Ruth Rendell’s Vanity Dies Hard, Ted Lewis’ Billy Rags and numerous others. But it is still a privilege to dive into the inky abyss of this wonderful genre, one refreshingly more grounded in a reality that is flawed; one just like our own.

@AdamScovell

14/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 61: Laura Marris

The Plague During Pestilence
Laura Marris interviewed by Ethan Powers.

It was in late January that Laura Marris began to see a reflection of her work on the television.

Marris, a literary translator and creative writing professor at the University at Buffalo, had been working for several months on a new translation of Albert Camus’s The Plague. Glancing intermittently between the words on the pages and those on the screen, it wasn’t until one word in particular began flashing across the bottom of TV screens throughout the world that the abnormality of the situation truly hit her.

“QUARANTINE,” the screens read, a word that appears countless times in Camus’s novel and carries with it a connotation historically attached to the very notion of plague as well as the physical and psychological ramifications it inflicts upon the infected populations.

“The quarantine as it happened in China sort of mirrors what happens in the book, where people are sort of unaware of what exactly is progressing,” Marris said.

Gradually over the following weeks, Marris entered a surreal state of consciousness, where the descriptions of the fictional pestilence she was translating to English from Camus’s native French manifested in the real world as the novel coronavirus pandemic brought the globe to a standstill.

Government responses languish as their reactive approaches are criticized. Case numbers rapidly increase while residents deal with the suddenly indefinite cessation of daily routines. Shortages of goods exacerbate anxieties and the city centre, once crowded with patrons gleefully partaking in the choices of consumerism, becomes a husk of commerce relegated to memory as stores, bars and restaurants empty.

Camus wrote his now eerily prophetic work between the Algerian city of Oran — the setting of the novel — during World War II and also in Nazi-occupied France. By 1947 when The Plague was published, the French citizenry yearned for writing that would allow them to process the trauma of the Occupation, if not to offer answers for its existence, then at least to chronicle the experiences of living beneath the pall of fascism.

In writing The Plague, a work widely read as an allegorical novel narrating the spread of totalitarianism, Camus tapped into an eager audience in France. He didn’t have to wait long to revel in the same kind of enthusiasm abroad. Stuart Gilbert, a renowned scholar and translator of James Joyce, worked quickly to get the book translated into English and completed the task in just a few months. Gilbert’s translation published in 1948 remains one of only two major English translations of the work, in addition to the Penguin Modern Classics edition translated by Robin Buss in 2001.

Sensing interest from the academic community, Knopf Doubleday approached Marris about the possibility of a new interpretation. They invited her to “audition” for the project by translating the first 20 pages of the novel. Having liked what they saw, Marris’s translation of The Plague is now set to be published next year. In it, she hopes to restore what she refers to as the “restraint” in Camus’s narrative as the author intended it to read. “[Gilbert] is very accurate. It’s not that he makes translation mistakes, but he tends to over-paraphrase,” she said. “He sort of brings his own experience of reading the book to his translation. Where Camus will be restrained, Gilbert will write the emotion of the scene, but that’s not in the text.”

The examples, she says, are relatively innocuous to the untrained eye, but the liberty in diction that Gilbert exercised can portray a poetic heroism that Camus went to lengths to avoid. Where Camus will write “And then they got back to work,” Gilbert’s translation will read, “They set their shoulders to the wheel”. For Marris, Camus’s understated and frequently blunt language was his way of portraying heroism as it existed in wartime France — not as some extraordinary incident of valor, but as the muted act of endurance and of resiliently carrying on, without accolade or fanfare, in the face of tribulation.

Yet don’t attribute the poetic lyricism of Camus’s prose to Gilbert. “It’s kind of like [Gilbert] is adding cymbal crashes, where Camus wants you to feel a cymbal crash, and he wants to evoke that by having something significant happen, but happen with restraint,” Marris said.

Marris is no stranger to authoritative French fiction, having previously produced an acclaimed translation of Blood Dark, Louis Guilloux’s influential World War I novel, as well as a comic book version of Marcel Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. But Camus has presented a handful of distinct challenges, particularly in his ability to oscillate between the esoteric moments of his characters and the long-winded existential ruminations of the narrator. “Camus has this ability to zoom in on an individual story, picking out something happening in the city or watching someone through the window with an odd routine, and then zoom out with a portrayal of loneliness and separation. The challenge is to be able to keep up with Camus when he’s writing the granular detail of those intimate moments and then, suddenly, he’s offering his philosophy on loneliness,” said Marris.

Exile and separation are recurrent themes throughout The Plague, not only in their depiction of physical absence, but the way in which that absence begins to permeate the heart and mind, endowing the inflicted with a kind of individualized suffering. For Camus, the themes were personal. He wrote The Plague separated from his wife while he battled tuberculosis, and the appetency he endured as a result is inherent in his novel’s text through Oran’s unattached couples — “the great longing of an unquiet heart is to possess constantly and consciously the loved one, or, failing that, to be able to plunge the loved one, when a time of absence intervenes, into a dreamless sleep timed to last unbroken until the day they meet again,” Camus writes. Camus meticulously describes the anguish of indefinite separation inexplicably imposed by an unseen force, and the winding syntax that gives way to some of the novel’s most rhythmically moving passages is deliberate, says Marris. The author, she notes, intended for readers to be active participants in that heartaching discomfort, not omniscient observers to it. “In those sentences when he’s talking about separated lovers, he actually will stretch them really long, so you kind of feel the pull of the characters waiting,” Marris said. “You almost feel as a reader that you can’t get a breath.”

In catching those breaths, Marris also wants readers to take stock of a character in The Plague whose presence in the novel has previously been inconspicuous and underappreciated: the city of Oran itself. She believes that the context of the novel’s setting is somewhat erased through translations that can homogenize the narrative for Western audiences.

A view of Oran by Laura Marris

In December, Marris traveled to Oran to see the novel’s topography up close, and while many of the street names have changed since Algeria gained independence in 1962, facets of the city referred to by Camus can still be found. “You can see where Camus imagined the guard posts,” Marris said. “People have read this novel for a long time as something that was perhaps more allegorical than realist, and certainly there are things in the novel that are true to the physical spaces of the city.”

The behavior of Oran’s citizenry, as Camus envisioned, upon the declaration that plague had indeed entered the city, has become a timeless portrait of humanity’s response to the arrival and progression of pestilence in all its forms — erratic at first, then defiantly unbelieving, followed by reluctantly somber acceptance. Just as enduring, however, was Camus’s ability to capture the seemingly perpetual knack of bureaucracy to stifle fact-finding. When Oran’s doctors gather at the beginning of the novel and are debating, as Marris puts it, whether “to call the plague what it is,” the scene stings with an eerie relevance for modern readers who have borne witness to a U.S. administration that first dismissed the COVID-19 pandemic as a hoax before disputing the idea that American society could be adversely affected by it. The U.S. has now recorded more than 80,000 deaths as a result of the virus, more than any other single nation.

The future inability of governments to accept the newfound realities created by plague — or plague-like ideas like that of nationalism — is something Camus accounts for in the conclusion of his novel when he provides a list of clandestine locations where a disease might lie dormant for decades before reemerging. In some translations, that list includes the word “paper”. “I think the actual French is a lot closer to ‘paperwork,’” says Marris. “I think that’s a pretty direct call-out to the ways in which bureaucracy can prevent the truth from coming out, or at least slow it down.”

Camus provides readers of The Plague with an admonitory ending, cautioning them against abstraction in the face of authoritarian swellings. He also eschews the notion of writing into the narrative some kind of deus ex machina where a cure-all serum is discovered, eradicating the plague and saving thousands of would-be fatalities. Instead, the triumph, if there is one to be had, comes through a combination of science, humanistic efforts, and the gradual fulfilment of the plague’s natural function. The result of the Sisyphean fight against the pestilence becomes secondary to the obstinacy of the fight itself.

Despite the futile endeavors of protagonist Dr. Bernard Rieux to halt the disease’s lethality, even when he must accept the role of passive onlooker to the plague’s ravaging of a young boy dying in agonizing pain, the contagion persists. Camus knew that such evils could never be fully exterminated through one act or individual.

He also knew that the intransigent uprising of autocracy follows the same trajectory as a deadly pathogen. It was in that prescient understanding that he sought to make The Plague a vaccine against such hatred, with the potential to avoid the day, as Camus wrote, “when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city”.

“In the novel, Camus’s idea of heroism is that people fight something, and they get knocked down, and they fight it again and get knocked down. They do their best, but it’s a constant process,” said Marris. “I think he hoped that people have enough resistance to these ideas within them, so that when these movements for nationalism and fascism raise their heads, we can recognize them and put a stop to them.” 

@lauramarris

@ethan_powers