October 18. Covid-19, and earlier outbreaks of bubonic plague and influenza, are undoubted facts. They are material events that cause death, suffering and widespread dislocation of ways of living. Yet the two most influential and widely-read accounts of pandemics in the west are works of fiction.
Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year features an invented document written by an imagined individual about an event which took place when the author was four or five years old. Albert Camus’s La Peste, or The Plague, which uses a line from Defoe as its epigraph, is a novel about an outbreak that never occurred at all. Yet if you were to introduce a new reader to all the complexities and truths of living through an epidemic, these remain the key texts.
There are of course good histories of the major outbreaks. Paul Slack’s Plague. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2010) is a particularly useful introduction to the field. But none of these works, nor the scholarship which they build upon, lodge in the memory in same way as the classic fictional accounts.
The conventional form of the novel, which Defoe had a hand in creating, allows the writer to focus on the central question of the relation of individual to social experience. However much evidence the historian accumulates about deaths and behaviours, the moral dilemma of how to subsume personal interest to collective wellbeing remains difficult to bring into focus. A pandemic presents choices which define the possibilities of human action in the face of suffering. Novelists find it easier to move between the registers of conduct and to draw larger conclusions from them.
Freed from the tyranny of footnotes, such writers can deploy their imaginations to illuminate the complexities of emotion and calculation. They both depend upon and transcend even the best histories. We see this process at work in Hilary Mantel’s successful Wolf Hall trilogy. She fully respects the framework of historical fact, earning the respect, amongst others, of the foremost historian of Thomas Cromwell, Diarmaid MacCulloch. But she clothes that scaffolding with explorations of motive, belief and behaviour at a convincing level of detail only attainable by an outstanding writer who has spent decades refining her craft.
Further, novelists readily work with plots. Whilst pandemics have effects which last decades for polities, economies and societies, and for some part of a subsequent lifetime for individual survivors, they are for the most part framed events. Other great threats of our age, such as poverty, racial injustice, climate change, have no clear beginnings and no timetable for their completion. Covid-19, like the bubonic plague and the Spanish flu, arrived at a certain moment, and will depart, at least for the time being (as it already appears to have done in China). What is happening now is that all the players, from Trump upwards, are seeking to narrate plots whose final chapter keeps retreating before them. When, as was reported in the press yesterday, politicians demand “an exit strategy” from the renewed lockdown restrictions, they are just trying to organise the event into a manageable narrative, which like the novels of Defoe and Camus, reaches an end in the closing pages.
And like the best works of imagination, there is always room for a sequel. These are the last lines of The Plague:
“Indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy that rose above the town, Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat. He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.” (Penguin 2013, pp. 237-8)
In that regard, I noted in my previous post that there was an outbreak of bubonic plague around the River Orwell in Suffolk early in the twentieth century. I subsequently discover that public health officials were still testing rats in the area for Yersinia pestis as late as the 1970s. Vigilance cannot be relaxed.