Monday, March 30, 2020

Top Ten Pandemic Classics

It's just very hard to think about anything else at the moment. New Zealand went into full COVID-19 lockdown on Wednesday night (25th March 2020, for the history books), and everyone immediately started broadcasting their impressions of the event, starting new blogs to record their daily thoughts, and (so we're reliably informed) working on their long-deferred novels.

There's nothing very original about this list, then, but it does include the main 'plague' books I've read and been impressed by over the last few years. It's bound to be a burgeoning genre over the next wee while, and it's generally a good idea to go back to your roots before launching your own raid on the inarticulate.

The fact is, epidemics are generally quite boring to read about. Once you've got past detailing the symptoms and totting up the ever-mounting grim statistics of dead and dying, you really have to do something quite original with your narrative to make it at all memorable. Each of the books below have succeeded in doing that, I think.

  1. Giovanni Boccaccio: Il Decameron (1353)
  2. Albert Camus: La Peste (1947)
  3. Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
  4. Horton Foote: 1918 (1985)
  5. Stephen King: The Stand (1978 / 1990)
  6. William Rosen: Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (2006)
  7. Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (1987)
  8. Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War - Book 2: The Plague of Athens (430-426 BCE)
  9. Barbara Tuchman: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
  10. Philip Ziegler: The Black Death (1969)

Of course it's rather difficult to define just what precisely a pandemic classic is. If it were simply a matter of writing about confinement and hardship - as in a siege (often accompanied by disease, after all) - I would go immediately to Lidiya Ginzburg's magisterial account of the 1,000-day siege of Leningrad during the Second World War:

Lidiya Ginzburg: Blockade Diary (1984)
Lidiya Ginzburg. Blockade Diary. 1984. Trans. Alan Myers. Introduction by Aleksandr Kushner. London: The Harvill Press, 1995.

I have, in any case, written about this book before. A long time ago I put together a couple of imaginary online courses intended to serve as background for a novella in my 2010 collection Kingdom of Alt. The second of these was called "Crisis Diaries," and still subsists on the internet somewhere. It includes a range of diaries kept under the stress of various crises, including siege, plague, civil war, addiction and other forms of personal and political turmoil.

I suppose, then, that I define a pandemic text by virtue of its focus on the nature and progress of a disease of some sort. Otherwise, I should certainly have included Cecil Woodham-Smith's terrifying book on the Irish potato famine of the 1840s:

Cecil Woodham-Smith: The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (1962)
Cecil Woodham-Smith. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9. 1962. London: Readers Union Ltd. (Hamish Hamilton), 1962.

The potato blight was a disease, mind you - just not one that affected humans directly. Perhaps another way of saying it, then, would be to link the texts to one of the great pandemics of history:

World Economic Forum: A Visual History of Pandemics

That's what I've tried to do, then - though of course the result remains very subjective and undoubtedly excludes large numbers of excellent texts which I happen not to have come across or read as yet.

Giovanni Boccaccio: The Decameron (1353)
Giovanni Boccaccio. Il Decameron. 1350-53. Ed. Carlo Salinari. 1963. 2 vols. Universale Laterza, 26-27. 1966. Torino: Editori Laterza, 1975.

This seems like an excellent place to start. It's often forgotten that the motivation for the ten days of collective storytelling that constitute Boccaccio's Decameron is the need for various noblemen and women to isolate themselves from the Black Death, at that point rampaging through Florence.

Seen this way, there's a certain cruel frivolity about these stories of love, lust, cuckoldry and other subjects dear to the human heart. Pasolini's 1971 film does a good job of bringing out these ironies, and subverting their apparent 'joyousness' with some sense of the unpleasant realities their tellers are working so hard to conceal.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, dir.: The Decameron (1971)

Albert Camus: La peste (1947)
Albert Camus. La Peste. 1947. Ed. W. J. Strachan. 1959. Methuen’s Twentieth Century Texts. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1965.

This is the great-grandaddy of all 'Plague' narratives. I reread it recently - last year, in fact - before any of the COVID-19 events were even in prospect. It was a little more ponderous than I remembered it, though of course my command of French may have deteriorated since then.

In any case, it remains as telling now as it ever was. I have to confess that I didn't realise, when I first read it as a teenager, how closely it was based on real events. Now I see that as a strength - its allegory of moral degradation and human torpor when faced by genuinely challenging events remains as true as ever. And it's no longer necessary to read it solely as an allegory of the Second World War.

The plague seems as present to us now as the war was for its first readers in 1947.

Albert Camus: La Peste (1947)

Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as well Public as Private, which Happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who Continued all the while in London. Never made Public Before. 1722. Ed. Anthony Burgess & Christopher Bristow. Introduction by Anthony Burgess. 1966. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

But then again, perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe this is the quintessential plague narrative against all others must be measured. It was, apparently, Elizabeth Bishop's favourite book, and there's something about the cool precision of her own writing which does remind one of Defoe's marvellously offhand and deadpan account of the horrors of one of London's many plague years - which seems to have been literally burned out of the city by the Great Fire of London.

Things are rarely that simple, though. It came back, as plagues are wont to do, but never with quite the same virulence as during this first major outbreak.

For a long time it was thought to be a genuine eye-witness account, but - while Defoe definitely collected a large number of such stories from his older contemporaries - he was five at the time, so is unlikely to have had many experiences of his own to contribute.

Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Horton Foote: Three Plays from the Orphans' Home Cycle: Courtship / Valentine's Day / 1918. 1987. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

It's hard to find good accounts of the 1918 influenza epidemic. This rather subdued play chronicling the progress of the epidemic in a small town in the USA started life as a 1985 film, but can now be read in its proper place as part of Horton Foote's immense chronicle of Southern life in the early twentieth century.

Foote, probably best known for his original screenplay Tender Mercies (1983) and the teleplay The Trip to Bountiful (1953), has a tendency to stress the uneventful. It could be argued that this is the best tone to take when writing about this cruellest of epidemics, spreading like wildfire both among returning servicemen and the families that awaited them.

There's a story that Guillaume Apollinaire, lying sick of the 'flu in a Paris hospital in 1918, heard the crowds outside chanting "À bas Guillaume" [Down with William]. They were of course referring to Kaiser Wilhelm, who'd just been forced to abdicate, but the poet took it personally. He died shortly afterwards, so this rather mordant bon mot is one of the last things recorded about him and his extraordinary life.

Horton Foote: 1918 (1985)

Stephen King: The Stand (1990)
Stephen King. The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990.

Did Stephen King predict it all? Well, it's true that his 1978 novel The Stand (reissued in a revised and greatly expanded form in 1990) does imagine most of the population of the earth being wiped out by an aberrant strain of the 'flu to which only a very few turn out to be immune.

After that, however, things become distinctly more apocalyptic - which may be disappointing to genuine epidemophiles (if that's a real word ...) It's certainly among his most memorable works, and might arguably be the finest of all.

We're promised a new filmed version soon to replace the rather disappointing 1994 TV miniseries. Whether it can be adequately filmed remains to be seen, especially given the recent debacle of the intensely disappointing Dark Tower movie.

Stephen King: The Stand (1978)

William Rosen. Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and The Birth of Europe. 2006. London: Pimlico, 2008.

This is a truly fascinating book, which attempts to plot the progress of the Byzantine emperor Justinian's Mediterranean campaigns alongside the parallel conquests of the Bubonic plague bacillus.

That might sound a little gimmicky, but the author's decision to try to compare epidemiology with social and military history results in a intriguing mixture of the familiar and the arcane which is guaranteed to inform virtually any reader, no matter how specialised he or she may be.

The accounts of the plague itself are horrific beyond measure, and give considerable backing to the author's contention that it may have been vitally instrumental both in the spread of Islam and the subsequent growth of the nation states of Europe.

Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On (1987)
Randy Shilts. And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic. 1987. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.

If you've seen the film, you know the story - how the inertia of governments, societal prejudice against homosexual lifestyles, and jealousy among scientists combined to delay any concerted response against the AIDS virus until it was far too late to prevent its spread.

It's very much worth reading the book, though, even if you think you know what happened. It's too early to say as yet, but there are some indications - as in the article here - that some of the same processes may be playing a part this time round, again.

Roger Spottiswoode, dir.: And the Band Played On (1993)

Robert B. Strassler, ed.: The Landmark Thucydides (1996)
Robert B. Strassler, ed. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Richard Crawley. 1874. Introduction by Victor Davis Hanson. 1996. Free Press. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2008.

Thucydides' account, in Book II of his grim history of the follies and hubris of Athens in its twenty-year war with Sparta, of the plague that afflicted his native city in the second year of the conflict, remains an indispensable source on the effects of such outbreaks in the pre-scientific era.

Thucydides employs his customary understatement when chronicling the effects of the illness, which unfortunately means that he failed to provide enough detail for a final identification of the pathogen to be confirmed.

It was generally regarded, until recently, to have been the earliest recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, but more recent suggestions include typhus, smallpox, measles, and toxic shock syndrome.

Thucydides (c.460-400 BCE)

Barbara W. Tuchman: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
Barbara W. Tuchman. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

JFK's favourite historian, Barbara Tuchman, developed a huge reputation as a sage due to the fact that the former is reliably claimed to have used the latter's Pulitzer-prize winning book about 1914, The Guns of August, as a guide to his conduct during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some of her later titles - such as The March of Folly (1984), a study of political and military incompetence throughout history - may have suffered from an excess of ideology and editorialising, but A Distant Mirror (1978) still has its fans, myself among them.

Certainly it's an ambitious project - to parallel the tumultuous events of the twentieth century with those of the distant fourteenth - but the result is certainly intriguing. I wouldn't say that it succeeds in convincing me of the validity of the comparison, but it does give a very interesting picture of those times, dominated - in Western Europe at least - by the twin scourges of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.

With these few provisos, it's a book I would highly recommend. Mind you, the title 'popular' or 'narrative' historian to me seems more of a badge of honour than a pretext for academic sneering - other, more professional readers may be less convinced.

Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)

Philip Ziegler: The Black Death (1969)
Philip Ziegler. The Black Death. 1969. A Pelican Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

I'm sure that many histories of the Black Death have been published since this one by Philip Ziegler. He displays a touching faith in the medical science of his time, and its decoding of the basic facts of the epidemic. The more recent Benedict Gummer book pictured at the top of this post calls that and many other aspects of his narrative into question.

Despite all that, there's a certain directness and lack of pretension about Ziegler's writing which makes it still well worth reading after 50 years.

Mind you, any real study of the epidemic would have to take into account the large amount of revisionist scholarship which has appeared since then, but you have to start somewhere, and Ziegler seems a very good place to begin.

United Agents: Philip Ziegler

So there you go. Those are the main exhibits in my list, anyway. Feel free, if you wish, to add any suggestions of your own. I'd rather think of this post as a pretext for conversation than as any kind of last word on the subject.

World Economic Forum: A Visual History of Pandemics

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Christchurch Mosque Attack - First Anniversary

Christchurch, 15th March 2019

Du mußt dein Leben ändern
– Rainer Maria Rilke

Do we have to feel that pixilated head
burning behind our eyes?the media
keep broadcasting a manacled muscular
torso signalling triumph over the dead

his fingers cocked to a smirkthe score
perhapsJacinda Ardern’s face
caught in a rictus of grief
can’t quite displace
the bluntness of his semaphore

on this darkest of days it feels like our worst fears
were always justifiedour impotence
out in the open for all to seeour pain

trumped by the old familiar reptile brain
but scrolling down those flowers those faces those tears
I can’t see them as nothingaren’t they us?


Louvre: Louvre: Male Torso (4th-5th century BCE)

I thought that now might be the time to post this poem I wrote shortly after the terrible mosque shootings in Christchurch, exactly one year ago today. In form it's a very loose adaptation of Rainer Maria Rilke's great sonnet about Apollo. Something about that picture of the suspect in the dock reminded me of the statue Rilke was referring to - but in a very different way ...

Archaïscher Torso Apollos
Archaic Torso of Apollo

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
We never knew his unheard-of head
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
where the eyeballs ripened. But
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
his torso still glows like a candelabra
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
in which his gaze, only half-illuminated

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
holds and dazzles. Otherwise the bow
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
of the breast wouldn’t join in, and the light twist
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
of the loins couldn’t lend a smile
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.
to that centre, which holds fertility.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
Otherwise this stone would be shut and cut short
unter der Shultern durchsichtigem Sturz
under the shoulders’ transparent fall
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;
and would not flicker like a predator’s skin;

und brächte nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
and would not burst out on all sides
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
like a star: since there’s no part
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
which doesn’t see you. You must change your life.

For more translations of Rilke's poem, you can check out the multiple versions collected here.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

New Managing Editor for Poetry New Zealand

I'm delighted to announce that an agreement has been reached between Dr Tracey Slaughter, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Waikato University; Dr Jack Ross (me), the present managing editor of Poetry New Zealand; and Nicola Legat, head of Massey University Press, our publisher, for the future housing of the journal in the School of Arts at Waikato.

The formal announcement will be made at the launch of the latest issue, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020, MC'ed by our distinguished guest editor Dr Johanna Emeney, in Devonport Public Library this evening.

Alistair Paterson, ed.: Poetry NZ 25 (September 2002)

What can I say about Tracey Slaughter? She was featured in Poetry NZ 25 in 2002, and has been a passionate supporter of the journal ever since. She is still, perhaps, better known as a fiction writer than a poet, but the publication last year of her first stand-alone collection, Conventional Weapons, by Victoria University Press, made it clear how dedicated she remains to poetry as an essential part of her writing life.

Tracey Slaughter: Conventional Weapons (2019)

Tracey is no stranger to the challenges of running a magazine, either. She co-founded the Waikato University literary journal Mayhem in 2014, and has been editing it - with an intrepid team of collaborators including Dave Taylor, Aimee-Jane Anderson-O'Connor, essa may ranapiri, and Melody Wilkinson - ever since.

Bronwyn Lloyd: Tracey & Jack (9/5/19)

I couldn't wish for a better successor as Managing Editor of Poetry New Zealand than my good friend Tracey. I will, however, be staying on for the present as part of the advisory board for the journal, along with A/Prof Mark Houlahan, Prof Michele Leggott, Alistair Paterson ONZM, and Prof Bryan Walpert.

Bronwyn Lloyd: Tracey & Kathy (2020)

For further details of how to submit work to the magazine, you can continue to check the Poetry NZ website. The only difference is that the email address will now redirect to Tracey rather than to me, and the postal address for any snailmail correspondence will now be:
Dr Tracey Slaughter
English Programme
School of Arts
Waikato University
Private Bag 3105
Hamilton 3240

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017 / 2018 / 2019
[Design by Jo Bailey]

Saturday, March 07, 2020

The Worst Novel Ever?

Dan Brown: The Lost Symbol (2009)

Recently I've been entertaining myself by rereading a few of the masterworks of Dan Brown: Angels and Demons (2000), The Da Vinci Code (2003), and (for the very first time) The Lost Symbol, which I found in a Hospice Shop the other day.

I was, however, intrigued to see, on the wikipedia page devoted to the novel, the fact that "Slovene philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek [has] described the book as 'a candidate for the worst novel ever'."

The worst novel ever ... Really? I mean, even by Dan Brown's standards, it's pretty bad - a tired rehash of all the same characters and situations as its two rather livelier predecessors. It's so bad, in fact, that it drove me online to see if it was just me, or if other readers had noticed a certain lack of the old pizzazz in Brown's barking dog of a novel. Boy, did they!

The New York Times critic, while stressing the basic readability of the book, went on to liken the character Inoue Sato to Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels. Ouch! Other reviewers called it "contrived," "a heavy-handed, clumsy thriller,' "filled with cliché, bombast, undigested research and pseudo-intellectual codswallop," and, finally, "a novel that asks nothing of the reader, and gives the reader nothing back."

Yes, true, all true, and (after all) even the author must have known that it was not his best work. It took so much longer than its predecessors, to start with - with the publication date repeatedly put back - and anyone could be forgiven for suffering a bit of performance anxiety after the disproportionate success of the Da Vinci Code, both as a book and as a movie.

In any case, whether it's good or bad, it was also "the fastest selling adult-market novel in history, with over one million copies sold on the first day of release" - so Brown might well feel justified in riposting something to the effect of yar boo sux Slavoj Žižek: give me a buzz when one of your books does the same thing.

David Lodge: Ginger, You're Barmy (1962)

I did feel a certain sense of déjà vu about the whole controversy, though. I remember having precisely the same discussion about what actually was the worst novel ever written with a classmate at graduate school in the 1980s. She told me that she had in fact stumbled upon it quite recently - it was by David Lodge, and it was called Ginger, You're Barmy, a thinly disguised autobiographical account of his time in the army under national service.

The reason that this sticks in my mind with such vividness, some thirty years later, is (first) because I had in fact read this particular David Lodge novel. And that - by some outrageous coincidence - my own candidate for worst novel ever written was another book by the very same author! I ask you, what are the chances of that?

David Lodge: How Far Can You Go? (1980)

How Far Can You Go? is a kind of social novel exploring the pointless non-dilemma of how far a bunch of Catholic characters can go in terms of adultery and general naughtiness without forfeiting their right to feel morally smug and satisfactorily insured against hellfire. I suppose it's meant to be a comic novel, really, but it's hard to imagine anyone laughing or even smiling at any of the lacklustre situations his unmemorable characters manage to get themselves in. Compared to that, as I maintained to Claire at the time, Ginger, You're Barmy qualifies as quite a lively read.

She remained unconvinced. Nothing, she said, could be as bad as Ginger, You're Barmy. The surprising thing was that the very paper it was printed on could bear to maintain those words and sentences in perpetuity - that copies of the book did not spontaneously combust out of sheer self-disgust ... (We may have had a certain collective tendency towards hyperbole in those days).

The funny thing is, I quite enjoyed some of David Lodge's other books - his trilogy of campus comedies, Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984), and Nice Work (1988) was rchly amusing, I thought - and I've found some of his essays on literary theory extremely clear and useful at critical moments in my own 'academic career' (if you want to call it that).

Soul Man (1986)

I know that we've all indulged in those conversations where you sit around listing the worst movies ever made - my own personal pick, after all these years, remains the tasteless blackface comedy Soul Man (1986), whereas Bronwyn steadfastly maintains the counter-demerits of Brown Bunny (2003) - but the quest for the worst novel ever written should have somewhat stricter rules, I feel.

First of all, there's no point in lambasting bad novels by obscure nobodies. Where's the fun in that? It's just cruel and spiteful.

Nor is it fair to choose a novel which you didn't succeed in reading to the end - what if it picks up in the last thirty pages?

Nor is it sporting (I believe) to choose an author whose work you find uniformly distasteful. Why bother to select a particularly poor novel by Dean Koontz or Jeffrey Archer, for instance - are there any good ones?

These, then, must be the rules of the competition:

  1. You can't pick a novel by an author you entirely despise
  2. You can't pick a novel you didn't manage to finish
  3. There's no point in selecting something completely obscure

Let the games begin - and may the odds be ever in your favour!

I have to say, in conclusion, that I doubt severely that Žižek would be able to find merit in any of Dan Brown's books, which objection - if maintained by the stewards - would constitute a fatal obstacle to his otherwise quite compelling choice of The Lost Symbol as the worst novel ever written.

However, since Bronwyn and I both enjoyed reading my old classmate Mark Haddon's book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), I think that that validates her selection of his more recent The Red House as her own candidate for worst novel ever written.

Mark Haddon: The Red House (2012)

Ever since I started writing novels myself, I guess I've been a bit more chary of parlour games such as this. There is, however, no accounting for tastes, and it can come as a shock that something you mildly enjoyed yourself can be right up there on someone else's hitlist. A lukewarm response is the worst fate any book can receive, in any case, so I don't think being on a list of world's worst novels is likely to do lasting harm to any of the books (or authors) mentioned above.

David Lodge: Changing Places (1975)

It does put me a little in mind, though, of that wonderful game "humiliation" described in David Lodge's novel Changing Places:
The essence of the matter is that each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it.
Since all Academics feel secretly guilty about not having ever read works that they are generally expected to be familiar with (Paradise Lost, Middlemarch - you know the kind of thing), this is a great chance to come clean. But you can only win by exposing your own ignorance. There's no point in naming anything extra difficult and pretentious, since no-one else present is likely to have read it either, and you won't get any points.

In the novel, the game is won by a Drama Professor who admits to never having read Hamlet. The sequel, however, is not quite so risible:
Howard Ringbaum unexpectedly flunked his review three days later and it’s generally supposed that this was because the English Department dared not give tenure to a man who publicly admitted to not having read Hamlet.

Harry Medved & Randy Dreyfuss: The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time (1978)