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3:AM in Lockdown 63: Russell Williams (published 19/05/2020)

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.


3:AM in Lockdown 62: Adam Scovell (published 15/05/2020)

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.


3:AM in Lockdown 61: Laura Marris (published 14/05/2020)

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.”