A Novel Situation
Literary creatures in this time of crisis
Like all of us in these disorienting days, I reach out across the distance to family and friends — mostly by email, sometimes by phone — to ask how they are doing, to let them know I am thinking of them. Those who like to read or write tend to ask me what I am reading or how my writing’s going, and I return the questions, much the way people who diligently work out at the gym might ask each other how they are staying in shape during this period of confinement.
My friend Ken Victor, a poet, jots down impressions for a poem he might write when today’s still-unfolding emotions can be recollected in some measure of tranquility. For reasons he can’t explain, he writes villanelles. The intricate combination of two rhymes spread across recurring lines, along with an unthinking need to respond with humour to the strange tenor of the day, leads us to swap a few of our favourite funny poems.
Ken sends me Max Gutmann’s “The Villanelle’s Appeal,” with its wise and widely applicable closing couplet: “The villanelle’s appeal is rather fleeting. / The lines are few that really bear repeating.” I email him Billy Collins’s “Paradelle for Susan,” a send‑up of the formalistic straitjackets that some poets insist on donning. Published in the late 1990s, it ends with the hilarious line that so incensed at least one reader who didn’t get the joke that the paradelle was not, in fact, a demanding eleventh-century langue d’oc form: “Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.”
Ken and I also swap early thoughts on what kinds of novels will come out of this universal experience, but I don’t confess my growing doubts about the novel I started before the world stopped, winding its way toward a first draft, clumsy and messy as mine always are, its subject already hopelessly pre-pandemic.
Aside from reading emails and humorous poems, I am very temporarily tempted to reread books like Camus’s The Plague and García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, but part of me wants something less relevant to the current situation. There are two main schools of thought on this — just as some people like to read books from a particular country when they are visiting it and others do not. The novelist Randy Boyagoda splits the difference in a pretty clever way with a piece in the Globe and Mail about reading during the crisis. He finds The Plague too dismally literal and reflective of the virus raging outside our windows; because it’s so of the moment, it cannot lend itself to the experience that “all good stories should,” which he describes as taking you “away from the here and now to strange and inviting points elsewhere.” Instead, Boyagoda prescribes Boccaccio’s The Decameron, in which ten young Italian nobles decamp during the Black Death to one of their country estates, to distract each other with often rude and hilarious stories. Of course, reading about a mortality that’s more immediate than usual while not reading about it is a wonderful metaphor for one of literature’s superpowers: its indirectness.
I figure why read a book about something if one is living through it — and so I start the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, which opens with Anne Boleyn’s heavier-than-expected head parting ways with her slight torso, thanks to an imported French executioner’s inscribed blade.
Although I have no desire to read plague books, I unexpectedly find myself wanting to re-watch The Seventh Seal. In Ingmar Bergman’s iconic fable, from 1957, a knight freshly returned from the Crusades to a plague-stricken Europe challenges Death to a game of chess, winner take all. For some reason, I have Ken to thank for this: a poem that he sends, along with a little preamble, somehow makes me think of the movie. “I finally have my first coronavirus poem,” Ken solemnly writes, “heartbreaking and profound. You’d best be sitting down.” I must be losing my sense of humour and my ability to detect irony, because the poem that follows is actually funny, making a groaning but lasting pun. To keep each other out of the clutches of coronavirus, we must all observe a “coughin’” or “coffin length apart.” When I write back that the poem is indeed profound, I am serious, because weeks later I can’t get the coughin’ image out of my mind. But Ken thinks I’m having him on.
When I insist that I didn’t think he or the poem was tongue-in-cheek, he writes that he forgot how email often fails to accurately convey tone. He jokes that he will have to use emoji with me next time to signal his intent, and I joke back that we should start writing emoji poems. In my more despairing moments, I fear that a world of emoji poetry is where we are all headed. And with typical writerly self-doubt, I wonder if I have become shallow or distracted amid the low-grade anxiety, suddenly unable to glean anything beyond face value.
I first saw The Seventh Seal about forty years ago, when I was a ten-year-old accompanying my sixtysomething father to a weekly film class open to the public at Concordia University. Every Wednesday evening, my dad would pick up some candy and take me to the campus auditorium, where we would watch Hollywood westerns and avant-garde European films, each lovingly introduced by Marc Gervais, the Jesuit scholar. But instead of finding somewhere to download Bergman’s oft-spoofed classic, I content myself with reading about it online. Despite Martin Mull’s sensible admonition against the absurdities of “dancing about architecture” when writing about music, I have a weird fondness for reading about movies rather than watching them. This is no doubt due to some congenital defect in my visual capacity, which extends to how I engage with abstract art in general. Although I can happily enjoy a representative painting for what seems like hours without the aid of any text, when viewing an abstract work, I often find myself deferring to its densely poetic museum label, which I understand and appreciate more than the art itself.
I also Luddishly prefer reading the news over listening to it or watching it. But the closest I come to reading something inadvertently relevant, other than Ken’s poem, is John Donne’s “Meditation XVII,” the one that contains “No man is an island.” It comes to me via a text from my cousin judi goldberg, the poet, novelist, and owner of an artisanal printing press in Sonoma County, California. She is printing beautiful limited editions of “Meditation XVII” when she is not writing and publishing her own very twenty-first-century daily meditations. Donne’s piece speaks to me simply and profoundly — like Ken’s poem — and it perfectly captures both the universality of this experience and its linked disconnectedness.
I find myself reciting the line while walking in Ottawa’s West End, and it’s then that I realize I am no longer reading the term “social distancing” as the injunction to keep our physical distance from each other; it has become instead a rather oxymoronic metaphor. We are keeping our distance in order to be social in the highest sense: to keep each other alive. Even when we are apart, we are a part. Donne apparently wrote his Meditations while recovering or still suffering from a serious illness. At this point, it has not yet occurred to me how social distancing is also a metaphor for reading and writing.
When I am in the throes of writing, or even revising, I tend to avoid “great literature,” or at least great novels of a certain type. By that, I mean novels written by a certain kind of self-conscious and obvious prose stylist. Instead, I choose good genre fiction: mysteries and thrillers like those about the Israeli spy who restores Old Master paintings in his spare time. I sometimes take up literary writers with a less pronounced way of presenting themselves — like Ian McEwan, with his unadorned, easygoing style, his unabashed love of plot. Or I turn to non-fiction, often biography, perhaps because the biographer’s techniques and preoccupations resemble the novelist’s in so many ways.
In fact, the only book I ever started rereading the literal minute I finished it was Andrew Roberts’s biography Churchill: Walking with Destiny. It contains much about language, of course, along with leadership, character, war, and politics. In between (and while) fighting two world wars, Churchill wrote forty-three books, many of them quite long, and his Nobel Prize was very noticeably for literature, not peace. And then there are those pretty decent speeches. I dream of one day writing an essay arguing that Churchill is the greatest poet of the twentieth century — so much for Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators.
Roberts’s book on Churchill reminds me that among my first great loves in reading, years before I developed any deep interest in writing stories or poems, were the biographies of famous figures written for older children. At ten or eleven, I read one of Byron, and a few years later, when confidence in my book knowledge was matched only by the seriousness with which I took myself, I embarrassed myself in high school by not knowing the true extent of the poet’s relations with his half-sister. The PG‑13 biography had made it sound like they were just very close friends.
Regardless, when I am deep in the writing of a book, I take pains to avoid any of the obvious and exalted masters of rhythmical paragraphs like Cormac McCarthy or Richard Ford or even that old bundle of repressed nerves Hemingway. Reading writers like these when I’m in the middle of writing is a bit like eating a lovely and unforgettably garlic-infused pasta: no matter how tasty and enjoyable it is, no matter how much teeth brushing I do afterwards, it’s hard not to exhale that particular garlic aroma for at least a day.
I think of what to read next not only because of the plague but because I’m in the midst of a first draft. For some reason, I do not worry about the Mantel, but not because her writing is any the lesser. Maybe because her language mysteriously channels something of the sixteenth century, it offers enough distance. Perhaps, because her style is elastic and adaptable and inclusive, I can appreciate it even when I’m working on a novel of my own, finding inspiration rather than finding myself writing to an alien rhythm, as if under a voodoo spell, largely against my will.
But if the question of what to read during these times is relatively easy to answer, the question of what to write, or how to write, or even whether to write, is more problematic, not least because of all the pressure to perform under adverse conditions. The big writerly meme making the rounds — online but also in actual newspapers — is the one of Shakespeare, that usual suspect, tossing off King Lear while under quarantine. Cue the rush to determine whether it is really true or just one of those things one reads on the internet. The Guardian got in on the fun and concluded, with its lovely diction and a threadbare kind of magic realism, that a plague-time composition date for Lear is “not by any means impossible.” Great insights and certainly great stories have been built on less.
My pre-plague novel touched on a man’s attempt to grapple with climate change, an existential threat that seemed very universal and of the moment but that seems to have taken a back seat, at least for now, as we take up arms against another invisible but more immediate one. When I volunteer to my cousin that my daily routine of getting up early to write before work has been interrupted by the virus — which is really to say interrupted by an inability to concentrate on anything as frivolous as writing fiction, by the sense that everything I wrote before is now irrelevant, by the idea that novels seem so immaterial when people the world over are fighting for their lives and fighting to save the lives of others — she’s kind. She doesn’t dismiss my excuses as a typical writer’s self-doubt; she simply assures me that people still need art and books, perhaps even more than before.
I understand intellectually what she is saying, and I even know she is right. But my heart is not in it, so I decide to give myself a break — and take a brief holiday from writing — to focus on living the experience rather than trying to write through it or write about it too early. My approach here is influenced by the same principle that causes me to avoid cameras when I travel. I don’t want to be that person whose European holiday is really experienced only afterwards, through the photographs I spent so much time posing for and taking. Another form of distancing.
Literary creatures that we all are, we turn to metaphor to help explain what is happening around us. The most obvious one right now is war. The analogies are wheeled out early, like heavy cannon by an overconfident general. And even as they’re useful, they’re a bit rough — just like sports analogies. Another meme tells us that previous generations had to go to war; we just have to stay home. That distinction lays bare the difference. Some observe that war economies swing into high gear to produce armaments, whereas ours has ramped down except for diagnostic tools and personal protective equipment. Even though many patriotic athletes and actors enlisted, sports and entertainment largely continued throughout the Second World War, as governments sought to provide a sense of normalcy and boost morale. But plague is different. London closed the Globe during outbreaks in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and over four hundred years later, we have shut down our theatres and sports arenas.
But the usual war analogy begins to fall apart: this time, there are no clear-cut battle lines. We are all mostly on the same side. The bad guy is an invisible virus with bad hair. At best, it’s as if we’re in one of those alien invasion movies, where everyone in the world, young and old, rich and poor, archrivals, heroes and heroines, starts off by finding each other irritating but falls in love or at least in friendship as they link arms for common cause, realizing there is far more that unites them than divides them. At least until the next time.
And so we turn to less apparent but more rewarding metaphors, found not in the ever-shifting reality around us or in the history behind us but in the literature and art that are our constant companions. I realize that I find this moment strange, which is not surprising, but it’s not just the masks, the social distancing, the deserted streets, the working from home (which I was doing anyway). It’s really the mix of the new strangeness and old familiarity of our everyday lives. Take just one innocuous example, my daily walk. Before the coronavirus, one of my simple pleasures was to stop at every Little Free Library and see what was new, pick up a book, drop one off. Now I avoid them like the plague. I’ve always harked back to some sort of pre-modernity, and this all feels like the nineteenth century, except we have electricity and modern medicine. Today, I don’t drive. I don’t take planes. I don’t go out to dinner. I don’t go anywhere except for walks.
I have retained something from my university literary theory class, and I google the early twentieth-century Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky. In a 1917 essay, “Art as Technique,” Shklovsky argued that the purpose of art and literature is to get us to see the world anew by showing us something that we recognize but in an unfamiliar way. He called this defamiliarization. Work goes on, school goes on, albeit online. We take precautions at the grocery store and carefully wash our produce when we get home. We wear masks and carry hand sanitizer wherever we go. We appear to be infinitely adaptable in this newly unfamiliar world.
I also revisit Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” inspired by Brueghel’s Icarus: “The expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
We are all watching with a low-grade horror and concern, worrying about loved ones in nursing homes, taking them out if we can. But we are also going about our lives, if not our shutdown businesses, as we can and as we must. I worked from home before the plague, but now I feel guilty about enjoying so much time with my wife and children. For an introvert, a writer, this time of quiet and distance, even though work itself is busy, is a gift. Yet one cannot abide the human cost. While some of us are experiencing enforced solitude, others are risking their health and lives on the front lines — the hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, and home deliveries.
But there is something else. We all fear or at least think about death more than before, when it was at its usual remove. Mostly, we fear it on behalf of others, particularly the aged and vulnerable. This is not altogether new. And so while I don’t reread it — I don’t need to because its haunting fusion of the ordinary and the extraordinary has never quite left me — I find myself returning to Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite novels.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s story about young clones with a special purpose and abbreviated lifespans is set in the comforting familiarity of a British boarding school, even if most of us know that setting only from literature and film. The 2005 novel is an extended, defamiliarizing metaphor for the short path we all take from childhood innocence to the knowledge of our common fate. And, really, what in the world is both more ordinary and extraordinary than our brief journey on this planet — to be born into it, to briefly live and connect with others, and then to die?
Death is everywhere today, it seems, or at least it’s more ubiquitous than it was just a few months ago. The virus is a defamiliarizing metaphor for our mortality, the way it afflicts mostly the elderly. In mid-April, Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, confirmed that almost half the pandemic-related deaths in this country have been in nursing homes. Several weeks into the plague, and Quebec has had half the cases; 99 percent of those who have died there were over sixty. Yet the coronavirus occasionally takes those not quite old enough, the way death always has.
All of this musing on mortality and metaphor nudges me along the great continuum of literary questions and human empathy: What does it mean for me? What might it mean for all of us? For most of us or at least many of us? But it also causes me to question what I am doing. As readers and writers, we separate ourselves physically from others to better connect emotionally and intellectually across the great divide of distance and time, across ethnicity, gender, culture, and identity. We do this in unfamiliar, mysterious, and hopefully lasting ways. In this sense, social distancing is a metaphor for both reading and writing. However powerful, metaphors are also double-edged. Like reading and writing, like social distancing, they bring us closer to and separate us from the real thing, whether that is life or death or everything in between. They are both more and less true. We are always at one remove, even as we approach the object of our comparison, getting further and further away the closer and closer we seem to get, like frustrated Achilles in one of Zeno’s paradoxes — never quite beating the tortoise, because he is always only halving the distance between them.
What this experience, this defamiliarization, this mix of the ordinary and extraordinary all bodes for us — to quote that Zhou Enlai quip when he was asked in the 1970s about the impact of the French Revolution — it is too soon to tell. As with many things internet, the truth is maybe not so witty. Zhou might have been talking about French social unrest a few years previously rather than two centuries earlier, but such is the nature of stories. Why should their eternal truths be handcuffed by mere fact? More distancing.
If we squint and think really hard, we can perhaps begin to discern the outlines of a new global culture and appreciation for each other. Or at least we can begin to ask questions of ourselves. What will this mean for the wars that rage continually while many of us go about our lives in peace? How will we work together differently to address poverty, disease, war, and climate change? What shared purpose might this distancing and togetherness bring us? These are big questions both beyond and before art.
Or might we revert to our increasingly fragmented world and forget? The columnist Andrew Coyne had a funny take with a recent piece in the Globe, “This Changes Everything, Unless It Doesn’t,” where he catalogued all of the pundits’ pronouncements about how the virus will change everything, the way they predicted that the financial crisis of 2008–09 would change everything (it didn’t). But such is the beauty of the future. These are matters for another day. What we know intuitively, as we do when we are reading a great book as opposed to a merely suspenseful one, as we know when we are living a good life, is that it’s important not to rush things.
If writers have at least two essential roles — to bear witness and to interpret — I’m just barely into the first. And before I can figure out what is happening, I must come to terms with how I feel. Here again Ishiguro has something to say. After acknowledging, in his Nobel Lecture, that “stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point,” he said something else: that “the essential thing is that they communicate feelings.” It may be too soon to tell, too soon to figure out what it all means, but it’s never too early to feel. And Ishiguro is right: “In the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”
About seventy-five pages into Mantel, I find myself faltering, the way I sometimes do after rereading a book a quarter century after I first read it, especially if I encountered it in my teens or early twenties. After half a lifetime of telling my friends how great it is, I might reread it myself, only to struggle to pay attention. I’ll wonder what I found so life-altering in the first place. (Happily for me, Mordecai Richler’s novels are immune from this mysterious affliction.) With Mantel, I am not rereading but picking up the story that she began years ago.
But I find myself not really all that interested in whether Henry VIII could or couldn’t sufficiently satisfy his wives, or the side effects his abilities had on the state of his little insular kingdom and the minds and fortunes of his courtiers. I seem to have grown weary of the gruff upstart Thomas Cromwell and his reflective cunning. I wonder at what I assume is a deficiency in myself. But I persist, as I sometimes do, and after some flagging, Mantel’s pace valiantly picks up like a ruddy king determined to impress.
And after a suitable interval, not too long really, I get back to writing. I compose a few poems here and there, mercifully none on the subject that is afflicting some of us and affecting all of us. But I do write a short story — a form I rarely venture into — that touches on some aspects of the pandemic, albeit, and fortunately quite obliquely, by way of art and memory. Mostly, I am relieved that after only a couple of weeks, I return refreshed to my pre-coronavirus novel. It’s set in late 2019, or maybe very early 2020, so perhaps I will seed its pre-plague world with one or two subtle premonitions — a minor event happening in far‑off Wuhan that one might briefly read about while preoccupied with other more pressing things, a bit like Fortinbras marching away offstage. But I know that is as far as I will go. One day I might write about the crisis in another novel, but not now, not yet. Instead I go on feeling, trying to work through how this all feels to me in Ishiguro’s formulation, my feelings in all their jumbled, inarticulate messiness, like one of my first drafts.