The experience of having Covid is, by now, well documented. You spend seven to ten days in your room or house feeling sick and feeling sorry for yourself. The outside world becomes a distant dream, and one of the few pleasures of spending twenty-four hours a day in bed is the time to read.
This winter, Omicron’s bell rang for me – as it seemed to do for half the world’s population. I was very lucky with the virus: after two days of incredible complaints and texting everyone I knew to tell them that I was either like Beth in Little woman or a feverish Marianne in Sense and sensitivity, I recovered from my gothic heroine swoon and started browsing through novels.
Initially, there were endless articles and tweets about what to read in times of a pandemic. Alongside the many-it’s-the-time-to-read-War and peace tweets, an interest in “plague literature” has blossomed. by Daniel Defoe A Diary of the Plague Year (1722) was a highly touted option, while publishers rushed to reprint by Albert Camus Plague (1947) following a dramatic increase in sales. It does not matter whether Defoe’s plague is significantly more dramatic and virulent than ours, or that of Camus plague is as much an allegory of French resistance during WWII as it is a disease – we all wanted to read something that was relevant to our current situation.
But as we navigate the third year of the virus, we no longer need to search for past pandemics or fictional metaphors. This winter, a small handful of coronavirus books have been published.
At Sarah Hall burnt coat was on the shelves in November alongside Gary Shteyngart Our friends in the country, while Sarah Moss The fell was released in the UK in the fall but will be released in the US in March.
The fell is a story of pandemic angst. This dates back to a time when having coffee on a walk seemed illegal because it implied that the excursion was no longer purely exercise, or when people left their GPS watches at home when they left for the second time in the day lest some government body might follow them. The virus is not an allegory like in Camus Plague. There’s no dystopia and no liberation – only the poignant sense that a Covid-stricken globe needs no additional fiction to make it so unnerving.
He is burnt coat this is the particularity of these pandemic novels. Sarah Hall mixes descriptions of a disease far worse than our current disease with the figure of a Barbara Hepworth-esque sculptor and her dramatic life to create a novel that is about more than a virus or a moment in life. ‘story.
burnt coat Edith Harkness, an elderly artist living in Scotland, is living her final days as she relapses into the illness she caught years earlier in the pandemic. As she reminisces about her life – art school, her mother, her lover Halit – illness, death and creation become intimately linked. Hall does not back down from the realities of a virus, but hesitates to make the pandemic too immediately recognizable or relatable. The novel exists in strangeness: it is neither faithful representation nor pure allegory. It’s haunting, emotional and, at times, downright eviscerating.
But one of the greatest ironies of “pandemic literature” (and articles like this) is that when you’re really sick, reading about illnesses and diseases is unlikely to make you feel better. Reading about a pandemic that has a much higher death rate than ours is also not likely to calm you down.
And so, for the past few weeks, I’ve become almost obsessed with Jean Rhys novels. Most famous for Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) – the famous story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre (1847) – Rhys also wrote a host of novels about depressed, alcoholic and melancholic women living in Paris and London (either the aptly named Worlds’ End or Bloomsbury).
These women are not living in the middle of a pandemic and they are free to leave their rooms as often as they wish. If they’re sober enough to get out of bed, of course. But despite these differences in situation, their situation is remarkably similar.
Take this description of After leaving Mr. Mackenzie“Julia wasn’t entirely unhappy. Locked in her room — especially when she was locked in her room — she felt safe. She was reading most of the time. Julia spends most of the novel feeling ” not quite unhappy” but rather depressed in different rented rooms living off money from men she’s slept with in the past, and a similar plot description could be used for Quartet, A trip in the dark, and Hello, midnight.
Now call me a pessimist, but I think there’s something deeply optimistic about the fact that – whether it’s pandemics, love feuds, or lack of money – authors have always found reasons to confine their characters to limited spaces and make them miserable. within sight of the same four walls and the ceiling.
There are always been brilliant books confined to small spaces and situations. If the latest wave of the pandemic has left you isolated indoors, don’t read the coronavirus literature – I can suggest many other books to get depressed about.