A plague of words

Who will write the Great Novel of the Coronavirus?

Artillery Row Books

As panic mounts along with the rising death tolls while Coronavirus swings its sharp sword across much of the world, it may help us to know how writers in previous societies have reacted and coped with the sudden appearance in their midst of an invisible enemy that sickens and kills with a horrific impartiality, respecting neither age, race or status, and suddenly exposing us in all our naked vulnerability. Three of the greatest work of western literature have grappled with precisely these themes. And all deal with the seemingly timeless consequences of self-isolation or quarantine.

In 1348 the Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio was in his native city when the pestilence we know today as the Black Death struck Europe. Almost certainly the Pandemic was the first outbreak of Bubonic Plague, a deadly bacterial disease spread by fleas living on black rats which returned periodically with only slowly diminishing force for the next three and a half centuries.

The mortality rates in a culture which had never experienced such an onslaught were terrifying. Medical historians estimate that between a quarter and a third of the population of England – perhaps two million out of a total of six million – perished in the three years of the initial infestation..

In Florence, the casualty rates were even worse: three quarters of the citizens of the city that was the brightest jewel of the Italian Renaissance died. Boccaccio was one of the lucky survivors. He may have fled Florence for Ravenna, but inevitably lost friends and family – probably including his own father – to the plague. His reaction was to write his masterpiece, The Decameron, a collection of 100 tales told to each other by ten young people – seven women and three men – during the ten days that they self isolated in a sealed villa near Fiesole in the hills above Florence while the pestilence ravaged the city.

Inspired by his fellow Florentine Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and also by Arthurian legends, Boccaccio’s own human comedy ranges across the whole gamut of human experience. There are erotic stories of love thwarted and fulfilled, tales of violence, cruelty and tragedy; of revenge, religion and reconciliation; and simple stories designed to take the minds of the storytellers from the catastrophe unfolding outside their walls.

Hailed by feminists for the vital roles the stories gave to oppressed women, The Decameron inspired Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and have seeded works of art ever since. Celebrated by Keats in poetry and by Millais in paint, they were filmed by Pier Paolo Pasolini and reappeared in his savage last movie Salo where the Black Death becomes a metaphor for Fascism, in which the immured young people are forced to perform obscene sado- masochistic rituals, rather than tell their tales. Made just before Pasolini’s own mysterious murder, death, rather than life, has become the governing leitmotif.

The mortality rates in a culture which had never experienced such an onslaught were terrifying

Mass death returned to England in 1665 when the crowded, fetid streets of Restoration London played host to the devastating Great Plague. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders and arguably our first novelist and finest journalist, was a child of five at the time and was probably taken with his family to the Essex countryside to escape the stricken city. Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, made notes and told stories about the Plague to the growing boy which were stored in Defoe’s capacious memory for retrieval at a later date.

In 1722, the Plague once again hit Europe’s shores, devastating the port of Marseilles and moving north across France at the rate of one hundred miles a day. Defoe’s response was to write A Journal of the Plague Year, half reportage and half historical fiction, which presents a horrific and unforgettable portrayal of a society in meltdown. Our images of the Plague – of the black buboes swellings in groins and armpits exploding in noxious pus; of drivers of the death carts calling “Bring out your dead” and themselves dying on the job even as they transport cartloads of stinking corpses to the mass grave plague pits; of the fearful Essex peasantry refusing succour to their plague-ridden London neighbours – come from the pages of Defoe rather than the better known Diary of Samuel Pepys.

Defoe, a lifelong dissenting Nonconformist, has a grimmer message than Boccaccio’s stories of survival and of life triumphing over death. He sees the Plague as God’s punishment on the spectacularly corrupt and licentious court of Charles II whose loose morals have infected a whole society. “Nay, the cry of the Nation’s follies grows louder and louder every day, and so far we are from considering that when God’s judgements are abroad on the earth, the inhabitants should learn righteousness; that we are rather learning to be more superstitiously wicked than ever; witness the increase of plays and playhouses, one being now building, though so many already in use; witness the public trading and stockjobbing on your Sabbath Day.”

These two responses: Boccaccio’s flight and escape; and Defoe’s Puritanical plague upon your houses, are synthesised and trumped in the great novel La Peste (‘The Plague’) published by the Algiers-born French writer Albert Camus in 1947. The novel tells the story of a fictional plague striking the Algerian port city of Oran. Camus anatomises the city’s wildly varying reactions to the disaster, ranging from denial through despair to a final dogged determination to do whatever can be done to combat it. The book’s hero, Dr Bernard Rieux, a rational modern medical man, sounds the first alarm and persuades the reluctant city fathers to isolate and seal off the town from the outside world after rats begin dying in its streets in unusual numbers. Rieux then sets about the Herculean task of doing what he can to treat and save the plague’s victims, who eventually include his best friend and his own wife.

Often seen as a metaphor for the German occupation of France, The Plague is shot through with the agony of isolation. (Camus was writing it in occupied France while separated from his family in Algeria). Another theme is resistance. Camus was an active member of the French Resistance to the Nazis, and the book emphasises Rieux’s role in fighting the disease as its author fought the Nazis, even – or especially – when the odds and outcome of the battle appear hopeless. There are elements of Defoe’s Puritanical judgement on a complacent and corrupt society in the novel’s justly famed closing passage: “He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city”.

So what, if anything, can these three works tell us about responding to our new ‘plague’ in a globalised world in which a pandemic strikes not just a single city but the entire planet? Perhaps the most hopeful message lies not in Boccaccio’s escapism or Defoe’s denunciation of a sick society, but in Camus’ humanist acceptance of disease and death which strikes down the just and unjust alike. Camus’s heroes are the men and women who selflessly risk their own lives to resist an impersonal foe in the name of a common human fate. Or, in the author’s own unmatchable words “If there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love… What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover