Like many people, I’ve sometimes fantasized about being shut up at home with nothing to do but read. Of course, now that the COVID-19 outbreak is threatening to make that a reality for many Americans—as it already has for millions of people from China to Italy—it doesn’t seem quite as romantic a prospect. If days or weeks of quarantine are in our future, I’m sure I’ll be tempted to spend the whole time refreshing Twitter.
Even in good times, it’s easy to get addicted to the ephemeral. In Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Charles Swann, the novel’s Jewish man about town, remarks that it would be a good thing if the books we seldom take down from the shelf were filled with the news of the day, while the newspapers we tear open each morning (or did, in the 1890s) devoted their columns to classic works like Pascal’s Pensées. “The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance,” Swann observes.
For me, In Search of Lost Time is one of those books. People often say that they want to read Proust but don’t have the time; I hope no one is going to be shut in long enough to get through the whole thing, but Swann’s Way by itself would be a good quarantine read. It’s a relatively self-contained story about Swann’s unhappy love affair with Odette, a courtesan who inspires a jealous obsession even though, as he muses late in the book, she’s not really even his type. And the book’s long “overture” section, which introduces us to Proust’s fascinatingly self-obsessed narrator, includes some of the work’s most famous images—such as the madeleine dunked in tea that unlocks the narrator’s buried memories.
On Twitter (see?), a few readers have suggested that the book to read now is the 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, set in a post-apocalyptic world in which 95% of humanity has been wiped out by an airborne virus, the Georgia Flu. In flashbacks to the last days of the pre-plague world, Mandel powerfully captures the eerie way that epidemics creep up on us—how they are negligible news items until they become the only thing that matters.
Then Mandel herself weighed in with a tweet: “Counterpoint: maybe wait a few months?” She’s probably right. Coronavirus isn’t nearly as lethal as the contagion Mandel invents, which spares only a few bands of survivors—including the novel’s troupe of traveling actors, who roam the Great Lakes region putting on Shakespeare plays for traumatized audiences. But unless you’re the kind of horror-movie fan who enjoys being scared, a story about how quickly civilization can disappear might hit a little too close to home these days.
Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague has also been on the minds of a lot of readers lately, for obvious reasons. Set in the Algerian city of Oran, then a French colony, The Plague is a clinically realistic account of the course of a fictional outbreak of bubonic plague, starting with the sudden appearance of thousands of dead rats on the streets. As Camus describes the shifting responses of the city’s leaders and people—from initial denial and disbelief, through hectic distraction and indulgence, to isolation, fear, and despair—today’s reader will find many moments dismayingly familiar, even though bubonic plague spreads and kills quite differently than COVID-19.
What makes The Plague a 20th-century classic, however, is the way Camus uses a real disease as a way of talking about political and metaphysical ills. He wrote the novel in Paris during World War II, and his story of a divided, demoralized community is clearly inspired by his observations of Nazi-occupied France. But in Dr. Rieux, who devotes himself to fighting the plague and tending its victims, Camus offers a portrait of an existentialist hero. Working to the limits of his endurance, Rieux does what’s necessary without deluding himself that he is serving God or some higher cause, and with a recognition that our battle against death will always be lost in the end.
The Plague is a grim book, but its effect is morally bracing. That makes it the opposite of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which is all about sweetness of surrendering to fate. Gustav von Aschenbach, the protagonist of this 1912 novella, strongly resembles Mann himself: He is a middle-aged man of letters, highly accomplished and admired, who prides himself on his rigorous work ethic and sense of duty.
On a trip to Venice, however, Aschenbach becomes uncharacteristically obsessed with a teenage boy, Tadzio, who is staying with his family at the same hotel. Blinded by desire, he pays little attention to the signs that all is not well in Venice—the smell of disinfectant on the streets, the health-department notices on the walls—until a cholera epidemic is in full swing. But by then he is so deeply in love with Tadzio—who he never actually meets, only observes from a distance—that he is unable to summon up the willpower to leave him and the city behind. The story is Mann’s attempt to do in words what Wagner did in the “Liebestod” music from Tristan und Isolde—to show that love and death are profoundly linked, that what people in love really want is oblivion.
Stories like Mann’s and Camus’ are attempts to find or create some kind of human meaning in the face of the random suffering and death an epidemic brings. But neither of them were writing during an actual epidemic. Wordsworth’s formula for poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and when people are afraid for their lives they can seldom achieve the detachment needed to make sense of the experience. The same might be true of readers: There will be plenty of time to think about the meaning of COVID-19, but right now we could use a distraction.
That was Giovanni Boccaccio’s attitude when he wrote The Decameron, after the Black Death came to Florence in 1348. At the beginning of the book, Boccaccio gives a brief account of the physical and social effects of plague that is every bit as harrowing as Camus’, 600 years later. When things are at their worst, a group of well-born young Florentines, three men and seven women, flee the infected city for an idyllic country estate, hoping to wait out the epidemic there. To pass the time, they decide that each of them will tell the others one story a day for 10 days; the conceit of The Decameron is that it collects those 100 tales.
Boccaccio borrowed plots liberally from French, Spanish, Greek, and even Persian sources, which were later borrowed in turn by writers from Chaucer to Molière. These are mostly comic tales, full of sex, trickery, mistaken identities, wives getting revenge on their husbands and vice versa. A judge has his pants pulled down while he’s on the bench; an adulterous woman hides her lover in a barrel; a poor man becomes a pirate and returns home with a chest full of jewels. There are even Jewish stories, one of which is really an anti-Catholic story: A Jew from Paris visits Rome and decides to convert to Catholicism, on the grounds that any church that could thrive despite so much corruption must be truly divine.
In the conclusion to The Decameron, Boccaccio issues a preemptive blast against any “squeamish hypocritical prudes” who might take issue with his sense of humor. He could have gone even further: In a time of fear and waiting, giving people some good coarse jokes is a public service. More than a form of distraction or whistling past the graveyard, laughter restores our sense of superiority to fate, at least temporarily; Camus might even call it applied existentialism. Certainly, it’s encouraging to be reminded that even when humanity has faced much greater challenges than COVID-19, we’ve never stopped telling stories.
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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.