With social media feeds and news sites reading like a dystopian novel, it’s hardly surprising that many readers have lost their appetite for post-apocalyptic books and developed a taste for compelling escapist fiction as a means of escape. But, at a time when our familiar world has been turned upside-down, I think there’s something to be said for curling up with a story about a deadly pandemic.
The first books on my lockdown reading list were suggested to me by a Latin literature professor, who thought I might find it comforting to read about ancient outbreaks of plague. I was sceptical: given the climate, my instincts weren’t guiding me towards books about illness and death. But, surprisingly enough, there was solace to be found in Covid’s deep ties with history.
From Lucretius, to Virgil, to Ovid, what struck me about their grim picture of plague was that it was juxtaposed with hope. In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius reminds us that the living world is a thing of wonder, providing us with everything we need for happiness — a Roman David Attenborough, if you will. But he ends his poem with a harrowing account of the plague that devastated Athens in the 5th century BC. He paints a gruesome picture of suffering and social disorder, and though the Athenian plague was far more deadly than the coronavirus, there are contemporary analogues to be found.
Why does Lucretius end his poem so grimly? One reading suggests that he presents us with a challenge: finish his poem — look death and suffering in the face — with a mind that remains focused on the happiness and life harboured by the world. Virgil takes up this thread in the Georgics, ending book 3 with a description of the Noric cattle plague. Although Virgil’s ending is equally sombre, he, too, provides a glimmer of hope: out of the carcass of a cow, a beekeeper resurrects his hive. Drawing on Virgil and doing him one better (as is his wont), Ovid uses a mythological plague as a backdrop for a climactic metamorphosis. In his epic poem of transformation, the deaths of the people of Aegina become the occasion for life, when industrious ants metamorphose into hardened warriors.
Of course, I’m not proposing that we take comfort in the possibility of resurrections or shape-shifting insects. Nevertheless, it was oddly comforting to find that ancient texts, usually read from a ‘safe’ critical distance (two metres, at least), suddenly held up a mirror to my own life — and did so with an unexpected dose of optimism.
Another bygone book that rapidly gained relevance was Boccaccio’s Decameron. Written in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, it follows ten young Florentines who flee the plague-ravaged city for the hills. Where the plague had once seemed like a remote historical event, Boccaccio’s descriptions of lockdown, isolation, and fear became a frighteningly prescient reflection of how most of us have been forced to live in 2020.
In the story of the young aristocrats, who keep themselves entertained through song, strolls around the garden, and storytelling, I found uncanny parallels between Boccaccio’s time and our own era of banana bread and daily walks; not least in their yearning for community and solidarity. As one of the characters points out, the reason they devote so much of their time to telling stories is because it promotes group concord. Far from being just another escapist desire, our storytelling instinct acts like a firewall against social collapse. The communal bonds they develop through spinning tales, and the part this plays in their survival, made me appreciate the power embedded in the simple act of telling a story. I realised that what makes pandemic literature so cathartic is the solidarity we find in our shared vulnerability to disaster — and our shared instinct for hope.
Owing to Ali Smith’s breakneck publication schedule, I was able to test my theory with the first Coronavirus novel. The final instalment in Smith’s seasonal quartet, Summer begins with a Greek-style chorus. It’s February and as wildfires rage across Australia, Covid starts to take hold. Understandably, the choric voice is jaded and lethargic; it reports on a season of “so what?”. Until we hear the first signs of protest — “on the radio, on TV, via social media, tweet after tweet, page after page…” And that’s when we meet ex-actor Grace, whose memories of her last hurrah, playing Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, are woven throughout the text. As one character points out, Shakespeare’s play is “all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible.” And this is precisely the hopefulness that we find in Summer.
Throughout her quartet, Ali Smith has shone a bright light on everything that’s happening around us. But she has shown what needs to be seen in a way that nudges us towards hope. Though she’s never afraid to say “things are bad, life is hard”, she’s constantly reminding us what art can do. In Summer, Smith acknowledges loss, loneliness, and fear, but says: here are deep ties of history, here are small moments of connection, here’s Shakespeare, here’s the novel, here’s my novel.
When times are fraught, telling a story that holds a mirror up to the real world, even if that world is plagued by a deadly pandemic, is a powerful way of providing hope and solidarity. Even without Smith’s punctual publication, I would only have to turn to the short story contest I judge — where authors are wholeheartedly embracing the “new normal” — to see what stories can do. So, as authors with more realistic publishing schedules put pen to paper, I hope that in the months to come we will write, publish, and read more novels about society battening down the hatches.
Eve Lynch is a writer with Reedsy, the global publishing marketplace.