The Plague is the book on everyone’s mind, the topic of columns in several publications over the past couple of weeks, but there are other stories about life in a time of disaster. Some of the more celebrated are Boccaccio’s Decameron, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, all of which have also been mentioned by journalists.
The stories that come to my mind these days are those of Samuel Beckett, the dark angel of uncertainty. Before this new pestilence locked us all down, some said the war was the real subject of The Plague, while others, over the years have argued that Godot was inspired by the time Beckett spent in wartime exile. Different as Camus’s work is from Beckett’s, they got lumped together with everyone from Franz Kafka to Paul Auster in an ungainly new category known as writers of the Absurd.
One of the unexpected literary effects of the novel coronavirus is we now have enough personal experience of Covid-19 that it now looks quite plausible that Camus was really writing about a pestilence. Another, more surprising effect is that Beckett now looks like a realist.
I spent an inordinate amount of time focused on Beckett when I was in my early twenties before eventually moving on to healthier reading. I’ve spent most of the intervening decades in Montreal, writing and reading about ordinary life. So it’s only now, in lockdown, that I find myself drawn back to Beckett. I resist this, knowing the dangers, but it’s hard to work up much interest in stories of ordinary life when there not much that’s ordinary about the way we’re living now. So I haven’t been doing much reading other than The New Yorker, which still comes by mail every week.
That’s where I first read the story I think about most, these days, “The Way We Live Now,” is a story by Susan Sontag that appeared in 1986 during the AIDS crisis.
I was in my mid-thirties by this time, teaching at John Abbott College and living an idyllic Norman Rockwell life with my young family on the lakeshore. Immersed as I was in stories of ordinary life, “The Way We Live Now” took my breath away.
It begins like this:
“At first he was just losing weight, he felt only a little ill, Max said to Ellen, and he didn’t call for an appointment with his doctor, according to Greg, because he was managing to keep on working at more or less the same rhythm.”
Losing weight is a symptom of HIV—which was the health concern Sontag is writing about—not of Covid-19, but the comment Greg makes reminds me of today.
“Of course, it was hard not to worry, everyone was worried, but it wouldn’t do to panic, because, as Max pointed out to Quentin, there wasn’t anything one could do except wait and hope, wait and start being careful, be careful, and hope.”
That could have been written today.
The names were puzzling to me, then as now. Who is Max? Ellen? Greg? In the fiction of ordinary life, I expect characters in fiction to have a face and a personality, maybe even a family name. But when Steve is a friend, perhaps he’s just Steve. And when he’s one of many, and there are so many people in this story, who needs to use family names?
I read on, and the next sentence is too long, unwieldy, with so many people.
“It seemed that everyone was in touch with everyone else several times a week, checking in, I’ve never spent so many hours at a time on the phone, Stephen said to Kate, and when I’m exhausted after the two or three calls made to me, giving me the latest, instead of switching off the phone to give myself a respite I tap out the number of another friend or acquaintance, to pass on the news I’m not sure I can afford to think so much about it, Ellen said, and I suspect my own motives, there’s something morbid I’m getting used to, getting excited by, this must be like what people felt in London during the Blitz. As far as I know, I’m not at risk, but you never know, said Aileen. This thing is totally unprecedented, said Frank.”
I was on the far fringes of the AIDS crisis, out on the lakeshore, but even I knew people who died as a result. One was a colleague who died while I was on maternity leave, and who was no longer there when came back. This was so early in the history of AIDS that it wasn’t immediately clear what had killed him, but Steve was a friend who knew him better than most. “He went back to New York as soon as term ended,” Steve said. “He was living that lifestyle.”
What I like, rereading Sontag’s story today, is not only the uncanny similarities to today, but the chorus of voices. There was a chorus in New York City in the time of AIDS, and a community chorus. There’s a chorus there now, too, just as there’s one in Montreal and most other places across the globe, all sharing the same need to apply words to the way we live now. A month of upheaval is behind us. Elsewhere, it’s been longer, and we’ve had time to watch it make its way here, to our own neighbourhood.
April will be worse, as the peak of the pandemic crashes all around, but it will also be more of what we’ve come to expect.
The worst of what we know about the disease is that patients can find it hard to breathe, and they die if there’s no ventilator. The worst is that the hospitals don’t have enough protective clothing for their staff. The worst is they don’t have enough ventilators, nowhere near enough, so they doctors will have to choose who lives, who dies. We all know this.
Ann calls with the latest update from the hospital. Natalie drops two bags of food at our door, with a single yellow tulip. Loretta calls to chat; she’s elderly and poor and lonely. I’d be glad to pick up some groceries for you guys, Leila says. Adam’s worried he might have been infected when he was out shopping. Mis and his Dad are self-isolating. Sheldon sends a message, mourning Bill Withers. Véronique texts to say she’s cancelled Palm Springs. Liz and Danielle check in. We’re staying home, Linda tells Julian. That’s good.
We’ve all watched Justin, and François, Theresa and Bonnie and Deena. Antony, too, countering the obfuscation. We’ve read André. We’ve learned all about fear, disruption, and uncertainty. That’s what March was all about.
But this next wave will take our breath away.
And ordinary life continues, nonetheless. Adam’s ok, after all, and today is Laura’s birthday. A moment to celebrate.
Linda Leith is a Montreal writer and publisher.
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