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While you’re waiting

Michael O’Loughlin writes: A mysterious but deadly illness arrives in a small Irish town. The inhabitants are at a loss but try to bring it under control by self-isolating, barricading themselves in their homes. In close quarters, old relationships are strained, and society begins to collapse around them. No, this is not the blurb for a novel to be published a few years from now. The village is Nobber, Co Meath, the year is 1348 and the disease is the Black Death, and this is a novel by Oisin Fagan published last year to great acclaim. It shows that our current situation is nothing new to the human imagination. While such events seem to come as a huge surprise to politicians and economists, writers have been writing about them since literature began. The end of the world, the end of civilisation as we know it, these are themes which have always exercised the imaginations of writers, from the Bible onwards. Many novels, such as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, take such cataclysms as inevitable and try to imagine what comes after. Interestingly, most of these post-apocalyptic visions have assumed that the Earth would be ravaged by nuclear war or disruptions caused by man-made changes. But this time Mother Nature has gone for the oldest trick in the book. Now that Ireland has become Nobber 1348 writ large, and we may well have more reading time on our hands than usual, let us consider what books might best prepare us for the times ahead. It is time to look at the Waiting For The End boys.

1. Nobber by Oisin Fagan. This is not a didactic work but for writers of Fagan’s generation, disaster capitalism and the shock doctrine are familiar concepts. The arrival of the plague in Nobber exacerbates all kinds of social conflicts between the dispossessed and the property-owners. But it is the arrival of a gang of Norman adventurers, eager to buy up distressed property which has plummeted in value, which leads to great change. It may be too soon for Fagan’s publicist to start putting this out there, but I’m happy to jump in and support a local author.

2. The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman. Strictly speaking, The Seventh Seal is not a book, but this film is one of the great works of art of the twentieth century and just last week was thrust back into public consciousness by the death of its star, Max von Sydow. He plays a knight returning from the Crusades to find Denmark caught up in the Black Death. Famously, he starts a game of chess with Death. Bergman shows how the plague encourages religious fanaticism and disgraceful human behaviour, but there are moments of grace. Ultimately, of course, Death wins the game. It’s not a Hollywood ending.

3. The Plague by Albert Camus. While it is sometimes seen as an allegory of Germany’s invasion of France in WWII, the novel is based on real events when the city of Oran in Algeria was overrun by cholera. The book is more a character study of how different people react when confronted with catastrophic events. Camus described it as a “redeeming plague”, in the sense that a disaster of such magnitude might provoke much-needed social and political change.

4. Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno. Written in American exile during WWII, it is subtitled “Reflections from a damaged life”. As of now, all our lives have been damaged. It is hard to encapsulate this profound and entertaining philosophical work, but in Adorno’s own words, it is “an attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption”. But this is a long and tricky road, and as he says, “The recent past always presents itself as if destroyed by catastrophes.” It is a lesson each generation needs to learn for itself, after the catastrophe that affects each generation.

5. Something from Franz Kafka, because everyone should always be reading, or rereading him. The Prague writer died at the age of forty of the tuberculosis which he had suffered from for years, moving from place to place in search of a cure. Kafka called his tuberculosis a “spiritual disease”, and its shadow hangs over much of his later work, infecting it with the familiar Kafkaesque emotions of unease and inevitable decay. Try, for example, “The Hunger Artist”, “A Country Doctor”, and above all, “In The Penal Colony”.

6. Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. This is a novel written many years after the Great Plague struck London in 1665, but it’s based on historical research and eye witness accounts. London was a highly organised city and the Great Plague killed 100,000 people, a quarter of the population. This was despite the speedy and comprehensive intervention of the city government. Unfortunately, as the situation eased they rushed to relax measures, which led to a resurgence. However, Defoe’s main point is the way such an epidemic affects the rich and the poor differently.

7. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Fleeing tuberculosis, a motley crew of Europeans assemble in a sanatorium on a mountain top in Switzerland. They pass the time in wide-ranging, endless discussions of philosophy, politics and history. The novel’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, unwisely visits his cousin in the sanatorium and becomes infected. Eventually, he is cured, but Mann implies that the infection is more general than just physical. Soon, it will erupt in the mass slaughter of the Great War, which will kill Hans Castorp anyway. At 716 pages of small print in the Penguin edition this will keep you occupied for a while.

8. Theses on The Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin. Nobody puts current disasters into perspective quite like Benjamin. In this short work, his last, written just before his suicide, he points out: “In relation to the history of organic life on earth ... the miserable fifty millennia of homo sapiens represent something like the last two seconds of a twenty-four-hour day. The entire history of civilized humanity would, on this scale, take up only one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.” Where we see progress and a logical sequence of events, the Angel of History sees only “one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet”.

9. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s play is not autobiographical of course, but critics have often referred to the period he and his partner walked into Roussillon as an inspiration behind its dialogue. They were fleeing the virus of Nazism which had hit France and the rest of Europe. Vladimir and Estragon are somewhat self-isolated, waiting for something to happen. Here’s an idea. Instead of Charades or Snap, why not turn it into a parlour game for the family: put on a home production of Waiting for Godot! The parents could play the main roles with the kids, and even the pets, taking the roles of Lucky, Pozzo and Boy. Or mix it up, and do some counter-casting. Either way, it will pass the time when the internet is down.

10. “September 1, 1939”, by WH Auden. This, one of the most famous English poems, was written in America at the end of a “low, dishonest decade” when Europe was about to plunge into total war. Auden had spent time in Germany in the Thirties and he had a good idea of what to expect. It contains the famous line: “We must love one another or die.” Auden tried to change this line in future editions to “We must love one another and die”, arguing that there is no choice involved. No matter what we do, it will end the same way. However, the poem ends with the lines: “May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.”

All things considered, you can’t really ask for more than that.

22/3/2020