By Joseph L. Garcia
YOU and I have been placed under house arrest by an invisible spectre: a virus.
It has just been over a week since the announcement of an “enhanced community quarantine” has kept most of us locked in our homes, and developments might change even that. Tension turns to tedium, if you’re lucky enough. While we may not be able to reach out to you right now, we’ve compiled a list of books that may be able to help you make sense of the tightening screws of quarantines and curfews. The people in these novels and biographies have been placed in confusion and confinement, a state we wish to leave soon. We can’t promise much, except that the air would never smell as fresh as when you step outside for the first time, when the virus finally releases its hold.
1.) Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl — Everyone who has made it to high school has read the diary of Anne Frank, the middle-class Jewish girl who went into hiding with her family behind an office building in 1942, after the Nazis tightened their grip on the Netherlands in the heat of the Second World War. Kept first as a personal journal, Anne edited the diary to donate it as a wartime record. Sadly, only the dream would remain, as Anne and her family were betrayed, discovered, and arrested in 1944. Her family would die in concentration camps, save for her father, businessman Otto Frank, who recovered the diaries from one of their protectors when they were in hiding. Her father would edit and publish his daughter’s diaries after the war.
The daily minutiae of a life lived in a cramped space is given a voice, that of an energetic teenager forced to put her life on hold. Anne, despite her young age, deftly sketches and analyzes her companions at home, which included her family, the family of her father’s business associate, and a guest. Small events, such as the arrival of food rations, and other such small comforts achieved special significance in an existence bound by four walls concealed to the outside world by a false bookcase. While Anne Frank’s life was ultimately dimmed by the tragedies of war, her words shine brighter than ever, providing a face and a voice to the cruelties of war and conflict, not for its fighters, but its victims. Anne wrote, “It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering, and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness. I hear the approaching thunder that one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, and peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.”
2.) The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg (Helen Rappaport, 2008) — It could be argued that the last Imperial Family of Russia, the Romanovs, had long been imprisoned by tradition, position, and their own inherited faults. Yet from 1917 to their deaths in 1918, in their physical incarceration in remote backwaters of the country they once ruled, their captivity could not be felt more acutely. The family that was once at the head of one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass was now reduced to moving about in a few rooms, while subjected to petty humiliations by their jailers. Kept in captivity as they were however, what most of the book covers were the memories of their past lives and how quiet stress changed them inside the Ipatiev House, while the world they left behind changed rapidly and violently. In the book, we see what a formerly grand family, ultimately good but fatally flawed did to pass the time in seclusion, in greatly reduced comfort, while awaiting their fate. I personally find the book remarkable for the brilliant character sketches, from the imperials themselves to Lenin — each detail of their characters are somehow a prefigure to their roles in history. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for them (the last few chapters are postmortem accounts of their bodies). It does, however, remind us of the small solaces that provide comfort in a life of pressure — yes, even when death is literally at the door.
A note on illness and disease, considering the climate: we’re hearing a lot about the process of contagion these days, and we can see from the Romanovs’ lives how microbes travelling from one body to another have the ability to change lives, great and small. For example, the Empress Alexandra’s character of severe introversion (which made her feel unsuited for her highly public and personal role) was molded by the childhood tragedy of her mother’s death, due to an outbreak of diphtheria in her childhood home. Later in her life, her children would have the ill luck of simultaneously contracting measles at the height of the Russian Revolution, preventing their escape to another country, and thus sealing their fate.
3.) Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Lady Antonia Fraser, 2001) — She’s not the most popular figure for this period, being as she is a symbol of extravagance and inequality. The book details her life as an ignored imperial child in Vienna, a flamboyant French consort, and in a redemption arc, a good mother, a leader who tried and failed, and finally, a wronged prisoner and scapegoat who would reach her personal apotheosis in her final hours. While the acclaimed biography, of course, is a historical record, ultimately, it’s an exquisitely rendered portrait of a flawed person gaining redemption under pressure — and in these trying times, isn’t that what every person should strive for?
Another note on illness and disease, considering the times: if not for a virus, perhaps Marie Antoinette would never have been Queen of France. A smarter, more decisive sister, Maria Carolina of Austria, might have sat on the throne instead, and may have changed the course of history. But 18th century Vienna was stalked by a plague of smallpox. An older sister was killed by it, while another sister, a particularly beautiful one, was left scarred by the disease and was not deemed suitable for marriage. Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette moved two places up their mother’s list of arranged marriages, and Maria Carolina, earmarked as a bride for France, was sent instead to Italy.
4.) A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles, 2016) — — Who will you become and what will you do, when the world you once loved and lorded over no longer exists? A Gentleman in Moscow is about Count Alexander Rostov, a noble in Revolutionary Russia stripped of position and possessions and clapped into house arrest: but inside a luxury hotel, the historical Hotel Metropol in Moscow. We cheer on the charming and affable Rostov as he tries to find purpose while within confinement, (albeit trapped in the best surroundings possible), in a world that no longer wants him. As elegantly written as the classical pieces frequently referenced in the novel, it has ruminations on wine, cocktails, food, the nature of Time, and all sorts of topics you can quote at a future dinner party — the Count had, after all, a lot of time to think while incarcerated.
5.) Suite Française (Irène Némirovsky, published posthumously 2004) — The last and unfinished novel of French-Jewish novelist Irène Némirovsky was less about confinement, but confusion in a large, busy, capital city during conflict. The novel is remarkable in that it manages to make a tightly written fictional narrative of the beginning of the Second World War in France — right as it was happening. We’re introduced to a host of glamorous Parisians in the first part, “Storm in June,” who either bungle their way out of the capital, or else remain in unsure circumstances in the City of Lights. More humanized faces are seen in the middle-class characters, who bear the hardships of initial panic with more nobility than their “noble” counterparts. A second part, “Dolce”, sees a small provincial town shaken up by the arrival of conflict in the form of German troops. Corruption and collaboration bloom, but then, so does camaraderie and compassion.
The story of how the novel was found is a story in itself. Némirovsky’s family had been tracked down by the Nazis while hiding in the country. She was arrested shortly after, and died in a concentration camp. Her young daughters, only narrowly escaping persecution through flight, saved their mother’s papers and kept them in a suitcase. They took the suitcase with their mother’s papers, covered in very tiny handwriting, as they jumped from one hiding place to another. The daughters would grow up to have careers in the literary world. Deciding to donate their mother’s papers, which they prevented themselves from reading after all those years, they found out that their mother planned out a complex novel inspired by the movements in a symphony, to be executed in several parts. Unfortunately, their mother had been forced to stop writing after finishing the second part. As well, she couldn’t possibly conclude the novel while the conflict was just beginning, not knowing that the war would rage on for years. Writing notes about the then-indeterminate shape of the novel, she wrote, “The fourth and fifth (parts) are in limbo, and what limbo! It’s really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens.”
All of these books are available in e-format via Google Books or Amazon Kindle.