The Prime Minister’s most recent announcement has made it clear that in no uncertain terms must people leave their houses, unless it is an absolute necessity. For the foreseeable future, we are all under house arrest for the safety of ourselves and also the sick and elderly around us. It’s most definitely a crisis, but one to be dealt with by doing as little as possible. While this sounds like a dream scenario in which we can all sit in our pyjamas all day, we recognise that boredom will quickly come to the forefront.
We all need some constructive ways to spend our time and keep ourselves sane, and in between the Animal Crossing and ongoing pursuit of our studies, which have dwindled to a trickle, reading is an effective free-time sponge. Not as demanding as studying, not quite as aggressively undemanding as TV and Video Games. A doing-nothing you can be proud of, perfect for these uncertain, deeply tedious times. You’re already reading this article, which is a good start, and to help, InQuire’s Culture team will be delivering recommendations of their favourite books for making the best of an unambiguously bad situation.
Albert Camus’ The Plague is an undeniably relevant novel and is one that encapsulates the current situation in its entirety. The novel, published in 1947, follows an Algerian doctor in the city of Oran, distanced from his wife, whom he loves and is away in a sanatorium at the time of the outbreak. As the disease begins to take hold, and the scope of the threat dawns, the unreal sense of ‘this couldn’t possibly happen,’ before the simultaneously slow and sudden realisation that it already is happening, followed by the day to day grind of holding a community together and dealing with separation from one’s loved ones.
Whenever books and films postulate fantasised outbreaks, there is often a degree of wish fulfilment in their portrayals. In the collapse of societal order, priorities are recalibrated. In the face of an almighty biological force which even our governments are powerless to truly control, it’s tempting to latch onto such events as a kind of social leveller. Disease sweeping through our society touching young and old and rich and poor alike. Sadly however, nothing could be further from the truth. At such times we see how wide the gaps between us are. Between those who can afford to take time off work or be treated and those who, despite the personal risk, must keep at the daily grind to continue to feed themselves and their families or to provide a service that none of the rest of us could survive without; between those fortunate enough to have bodies predisposed to brush off a heavy chest cold and those for whom infection might easily be fatal. Few works dealing with such crises, even on a localised level, capture the lack of fairness or glamour and the day-to-day experience of a pandemic the way that The Plague does.
The irony is that Camus’s plague wasn’t a real plague. It was, in many respects, something much worse. The Plague is an allegory of Nazi occupation, and has its own enforcers, its collaborators and its resistors, of which Camus and his protagonist Dr Bernard Rieux were two. It’s an enthralling, often starkly brutal read, but the most lasting impact is left by the friendship born out of adversity between Rieux and Jean Tarrou, and its lingering image of their moonlit swim together, an oasis of friendship in an oppressive storm of heat and death. It’s an attractive truth to cling to, that those who are keeping in touch through this difficult time are those whose friendships will mean the most. It’s personal factors like this that make The Plague far and away Camus’ most humane, accessible and beautiful work.
Another novel that also takes disease as an allegory for moral sickness is Thomas Mann’s sublime masterpiece The Magic Mountain. Set in Germany in the years leading up to World War One, the book follows a youthful everyman Hans on a visit to his cousin at an alpine sanatorium for tuberculosis. Initially intending to stay a mere two weeks, his stay is extended longer and longer after he himself is diagnosed with the illness. And so, he becomes part of the beguiling community living in isolation on the mountaintop, participating in their daily routines and gossips until his life there becomes as naturally familiar to you as your own.
It’s a weighty tome, as voluminous and broad as the mountain range itself, but every bit as rewarding to traverse. Encompassing, love, death and philosophy, incomprehensible beauties of the world, it’s an infamously mercurial piece, never quite the same work to any two readers, and I can guarantee that if you devote your time to it, you’ll discover a magic mountain entirely of your own.
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