This week’s offering is on literature of the Plague. We speak in particular about Camus’ La Peste, with consideration also for Katherine Anne Porter, Boccaccio, and others throughout the canon. Of particular interest: how was disease in literature a vehicle to talk about other facets of the human condition? Finally, we go in the opposite direction, and ask how the collective unconscious developed in the last 20 years to produce zombie flicks in their particular form and how they, in turn, primed reactions to Covid-19.
“A haunting tale of human resilience and hope in the face of unrelieved horror, Albert Camus’ iconic novel about an epidemic ravaging the people of a North African coastal town is a classic of twentieth-century literature.
The townspeople of Oran are in the grip of a deadly plague, which condemns its victims to a swift and horrifying death. Fear, isolation and claustrophobia follow as they are forced into quarantine. Each person responds in their own way to the lethal disease: some resign themselves to fate, some seek blame, and a few, like Dr. Rieux, resist the terror.
An immediate triumph when it was published in 1947, The Plague is in part an allegory of France’s suffering under the Nazi occupation, and a timeless story of bravery and determination against the precariousness of human existence.”
“Japanese POW camp Changi, Singapore: hell on earth for the soldiers contained within its barbed wire walls. Officers and enlisted men, all prisoners together, yet the old hierarchies and rivalries survive. An American corporal, known as the King, has used his personality and wiles to facilitate trading with guards and locals to get needed food, supplies, even information into the camp. The imprisoned upper-class officers have never had to do things for themselves, and now they are reduced to wearing rags while the King’s clean shirt, gained through guts and moxie, seems like luxury in comparison. In the camp, everything has its price and everything is for sale. But trading is illegal–and the King has made a formidable enemy. Robin Grey, the provost marshal, hates the King and all he represents. Grey, though he grew up modestly, fervently believes in the British class system: everyone should know their place, and he knows the King’s place is at the bottom.
The King does have a friend in Peter Marlowe, who, though wary of the King and himself a product of the British system, finds himself drawn to the charismatic man who just might be the only one who can save them from both the inhumanity of the prison camp but also from themselves. Powerful and engrossing, King Rat artfully weaves the author’s own World War II prison camp experiences into a compelling narrative of survival amidst the grim realities of war and what men can do when pushed to the edge. A taut masterwork of World War II historical fiction by bestselling author James Clavell.”
Pale Horse, Pale Rider:
“From the gothic Old South to revolutionary Mexico, few writers have evoked such a multitude of worlds, both exterior and interior, as powerfully as Katherine Anne Porter. The collection includes “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” where a young woman lies in a fever during the influenza epidemic, her childhood memories mingling with fears for her boyfriend on his way to war. “Noon Wine,” a haunting story of tragedy and scandal on a small dairy farm in Texas, and “Old Mortality,” a story of discovering family truths and self-discovery, round out Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”
“In the summer of 1348, as the Black Death ravages their city, ten young Florentines take refuge in the countryside. They amuse themselves by each telling a story a day for the ten days they are destined to remain there—a hundred stories of love, adventure and surprising twists of fate. Less preoccupied with abstract concepts of morality or religion than with earthly values, the tales range from the bawdy Peronella hiding her lover in a tub to Ser Cepperello, who, despite his unholy effrontery, becomes a Saint. The result is a towering monument of European literature and a masterpiece of imaginative narrative.”
“In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer created one of the great touchstones of English literature, a masterly collection of chivalric romances, moral allegories and low farce. A story-telling competition between a group of pilgrims from all walks of life is the occasion for a series of tales that range from the Knight’s account of courtly love and the ebullient Wife of Bath’s Arthurian legend, to the ribald anecdotes of the Miller and the Cook. Rich and diverse, The Canterbury Tales offer us an unrivalled glimpse into the life and mind of medieval England.”
“A Journal of the Plague Year was published in 1722 as an account of one man’s experiences during 1665 when the bubonic plague struck the city of London. Known as the Great Plague of London, it was the last such major epidemic in that city. The book is told somewhat chronologically, though without sections or chapter headings. Defoe was only five years old in 1665 when the Great Plague took place, and the book itself was published under the initials H. F. and is probably based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe. The book goes into great detail, providing tables of casualty figures. The book is often compared to the actual, contemporary accounts of the plague in the diary of Samuel Pepys.”
“In her great historical epic Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the life story of one passionate and headstrong woman. Painting a richly detailed backdrop, Undset immerses readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of the period. Now in one volume, Tiina Nunnally’s award-winning definitive translation brings this remarkable work to life with clarity and lyrical beauty.
As a young girl, Kristin is deeply devoted to her father, a kind and courageous man. But when as a student in a convent school she meets the charming and impetuous Erlend Nikulaussøn, she defies her parents in pursuit of her own desires. Her saga continues through her marriage to Erlend, their tumultuous life together raising seven sons as Erlend seeks to strengthen his political influence, and finally their estrangement as the world around them tumbles into uncertainty.
With its captivating heroine and emotional potency, Kristin Lavransdatter is the masterwork of Norway’s most beloved author—one of the twentieth century’s most prodigious and engaged literary minds—and, in Nunnally’s exquisite translation, a story that continues to enthrall.”
“A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation, Blindness has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of our worst appetites and weaknesses—and humanity’s ultimately exhilarating spirit.”
The Children of Men:
“Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.”
Guillaume de Machaut: Nes que on porroit les estoilles nombrer
Guillaume de Machaut himself was witness to the plague.
“When Nature, so beautiful and noble, saw its work so pillaged, and that men were killing each other and poisoning the waters to destroy the human race, by lust and by desire, this displeased [Nature] much, and he got quite angry and rendered humankind very unhappy. Nature thus went to see Jupiter and had lightening bolts, thunder, and storms made.
The air that was so fresh and pure now became viscous, black and dark, ugly and odorous, deranged and full of puss to the point that it became totally corrupt; and from this corrupted air, people concluded that they were themselves contaminated and lost their colors. They grew buboes from which they died; in a word, few dared to go out and talk to each other close up. For their corrupted breath corrupted those who were healthy. And if there was a sick person, and a friend paid a visit, he ran the same risk. Thus died 500,000 souls, such that the son died before the father, the daughter before the mother, the mother, for fear of the sickness, before the son and daughter. All true friends were rejected and received no help if they fell ill. There was neither a surgeon nor a doctor who knew the cause of the sickness, its origin or its nature, and they found no remedy at all, except to know that it was a sickness called epydimie.“
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