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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.


First posted: Tuesday, May 19th, 2020.

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