The BCLA call for entries stared at me for a few hours before I could think of how to respond to it. I think it is because, initially, I did not feel included in it. As a parent, my ability to write is currently in competition with looking after my children. So instead of basing my reflections on books I cannot read, I decided instead, as has anyway become my habit lately, to base those observations on life and its intersection with books, or our literary imagination, since reading is decidedly the product of an alchemy between the two.
As I now can, I watch the children play a lot. As the children play, I see our own play as adults reflected in it. In our rituals (cooking, washing, getting dressed, brushing our hair) we reinvent reality every day to fit our idea of what normal life should be. In so doing, we differentiate between day and night, today and tomorrow. In the morning, we eat porridge to sustain us until lunchtime, even though porridge is becoming too sustaining a meal for the little exercise we do. Just this afternoon, the children play-acted at going to dance class, or visiting the ice-cream shop. I watched them meticulously replace the current hurdles of reality preventing them from doing something they love with negotiable ones: if you eat your peas now, you will be allowed a trip to the ice-cream shop afterwards. The more time passes, the more this play acting feels as if it has been shelved by the children on the same plane as, say: going to the moon, or driving across the sea on the back of a tortoise.
We play, we imagine, and we worry, and these are our main activities. In the midst of play, our happiness as a family sometimes seems to glow unreasonably in the face of the illness and death that surrounds us. One minute I want to revel in it, the next I want to temper it with a superstitious spell, as if it might attract its opposite (illness, financial woes, etc…). Then, guilt sets in.
Like Sleeping Beauty, we sometimes would like to fall asleep, for a long time, and wake up when the world, a world worth living for, is back on again.
We are interrupted, and, game after game, story after story, we resist this interruption.
I have heard many people claim they are unable to read during lockdown. I have a theory – my theory, is not that people are unable to read because of outside pressure, or because their stress levels prevents them from concentrating. I think that they are unable to read because fiction no longer affirms reality as they know it. Often, literature comforts our sense of reality which, uncomfortably now, seems more and more foreign to us since lockdown and social isolation have become the norm. Reading fiction forces us to admit this: these stories belong to an outside which now feels unknowable, unreasonable, un-seeable. It tells us very little about our outside, of which we now have little knowledge, and very little imaginary. In some ways, it reminds me of the slight unease I felt as a child in rural France when reading literature that reflected distinct class-experiences as if they were universal. Reading about people surrounded by culture and theatre and secondary homes did not always feel like an opening onto the outside world, but instead reflected painfully on the kind of social confinement that I and many others experienced.
Although, for the same practical and psychological reasons as many, I cannot read at leisure, I have nevertheless had what I would call “interesting reading experiments” since the lockdown started.
The first book I turned to during the lockdown has been Dante’s Divine Comedy. I am ashamed to say that I used Dante medicinally, after waking up one night in sweat and tears following what seemed to have been a panic attack. I initially thought a meditation podcast would help, but the contrast between the calm voice of the podcaster and my own anxiety only seemed to trigger further distress. I needed something stronger, something that was the beverage equivalent of a strong vodka.
My choice of the Divine Comedy helped more than I had anticipated. Upon reaching the stage where the first-person narrator meets Virgil, I had this epiphany: Dante too was having a panic attack, and he had decided to turn to Virgil for help. Why else would Dante write:
You see the beast that made me turn aside;
Help me, o famous sage, to stand against her,
For she has made my pulses shudder.
My uncontrollable anxiety turned into irrepressible laughter, and I was well again.
Later, I found that I was envious of Mrs Dalloway’s leisurely trips to buy flowers in ways that made me see her dedication to everyday life in a new light. I also ached to see Eugene Atget’s photographs again – those I had seen in an exhibition at the Rotterdam photography museums a few years ago. I had hoped (and discovered I was right to hope) that seeing his photographs of the empty streets of Paris again would put me in touch with the emptiness of the world I could not see.
I am not ready to write in much detail about these renewed encounters with works I have known for so long. But for now, I have come to the conclusion that if our relationship with reading should be redefined, it should not be through the question: what can literature teach us about this lockdown? But rather, what can this lockdown teach us, given the new psychological and material conditions of our lives, about literature, and about reading? I am more and more convinced that the best critics and writers have always been those who posed the question of literature’s relationship to their own crisis, no matter how personal or communal, in this way.