This month, as three crucial dates slouch nearer (31 October, 01 November, 03 November¹), my reading has been all about trying to keep calm. True, only one of these dates will have world-wide significance, its consequences possibly repeating and repeating unpleasantly, like bad champagne of which we’ve bought too many cases yet feel compelled to keep drinking. (Again, I want to know: why do we keep doing this to ourselves?) The other two involve multiple participants, but I doubt the aftermath will be so dire.
However, that these three events converge makes this month — for me, at any rate — particularly baleful. Thus, an unusual assortment of comfort reading:
The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner. Ash, by Malinda Lo. Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Four Nancy Drew mysteries. The Plague, by Camus. Eleanore Updale’s Montmorency series. Back issues of the NYRB and LRB (so nice to be reminded of the world’s concerns pre-2016). Peter May’s Blackhouse and Jenny Milchman’s The Second Mother.
Kipling and Nancy Drew need no attention from me. I reviewed Updale’s series here. Jenner’s bit of fan fiction is diverting but not worth a re-read, much less a review. Still working on May’s and Milchman’s thrillers.
That leaves two books to discuss here:
With her 2009 fantasy novel, Malinda Lo reboots the Cinderella tale in a fascinating new take that flips everything on its head, including the meaning of “fairy godmother”. To the story’s traditional medieval setting, Lo adds a close proximity to the land of Faerie, whose denizens easily move between there and here, looking for fun — in other words, for means of making mayhem. Lo’s elves are more like Pratchett’s and Townsend Warner’s rather than Tolkien’s — haughty, selfish, often fatal to humans, but for the most part living in their own world. Yet one comes to the aid of Ash (short for Aisling) when her step-mother begins mistreating her (not just by making her do housework — oh, the horror! — but the dreadful woman accuses Ash’s adored father of being a spendthrift!). Ash essentially sells her soul to her fairy-aide in order to be able to attend the Prince’s celebrations, and how she gets out of that commitment is the (somewhat disappointing) denouement. Yet overall, this unusual story wins my admiration. By switching genders for key characters, Lo makes this a surprising tale of sexual awakening as well as passage into independent adulthood, and not just for Ash. Angela Carter would approve.
As for the remaining novel from this month’s list, it’s been much in the news earlier this year. Everyone’s must-read, the book-candy for every eye, multiple re-issues, yadda yadda yadda. In April, the wait for an e-copy from the NYPL was several weeks. Today, access is immediate. Readers have moved on.
Yet here I am, reading it again after … omg, has it been 40 years?² I can recall seeing it on my shelf a few times, considering it, and then deciding, “Not yet.”
Well, “yet” has come.
First off, I admire Camus’ astute portrayal of the range of responses to the pandemic. When Oran, the Algerian coastal town where Camus sets his novel, goes into lockdown, the citizens pass through every stage we’ve experienced the past several months — denial, anger, boredom, frustration, fear, despair, rebellion. The only difference is that the local Préfet and other government officials follow the scientists’ advice. One can only dream.
Allegory? Absurdist drama? Christian apology? Whatever you like; I don’t believe it matters. Although there are few women and no Arab characters (even though the Arabs must outnumber the French), the novel’s value lies in the arguments between Dr. Rieux and other characters about how one ought to respond to a crisis like this. (Aaaand again, I get to refer to The Good Place and its 4-season examination of how we should treat each other.)
This quote is on a wall near my desk: “… evil exists so we can struggle to overcome it” (David Brooks, “Your Loyalties Are Your Life”, New York Times, 24 January 2019). In The Plague, Camus’ narrator argues that citizens of Oran who volunteered to help during the epidemic (caring for the ill, disposing of bodies, etc.) were actually just doing their duty. He uses the example of a teacher:
… we do not congratulate a schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four, though we may, perhaps, congratulate him on having chosen his laudable vocation. Let us then say it was praiseworthy that [the volunteers] should have elected to prove that two and two make four rather than the contrary; but let us add that this good will of theirs was one that is shared by the schoolmaster and by all who have the same feelings as the schoolmaster …. [A]gain and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four. For those of our townsfolk who risked their lives in this predicament the issue was whether or not plague was in their midst and whether or not they must fight against it.
I have other explanations for the existence of evil (one comes from Tom Waits’ song, “Heartattack and Vine”: “don’t you know there ain’t no devil there’s just god when he’s drunk”), but I can’t argue with Camus’ narrator about our duty in the face of evil. To do nothing is to accept evil.
Tarrou, a traveler accidentally trapped in Oran’s lockdown, organizes volunteers during the epidemic. Dr. Rieux asks him why he helps these people to whom he has no connection, and Tarrou answers, “I don’t know. My code of morals, perhaps.” When Dr. Rieux asks, “What code?” Tarrou replies, “Comprehension.” That is, Tarrou understands what we owe each other in this world, and how to respond to evil.
¹In case you need it, in calendar order: Witch Week (7 days to celebrate Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction), NaNoWriMo (a month of writing abandon), Election Day (the possible end of all hope for the future).
²These days, when I pick up a book I haven’t read for a while, I enjoy recalling those carefree days of the 1970s, 80s, 90s — even the 2000s.