The Hudson Valley, New York
Our lives—like the lives of many writers and artists, I imagine—don’t look, on the surface, all that different from before. My husband and I are at home in the Hudson Valley. This is our average day: coffee, breakfast, work work work, dinner, TV, bed.
Beneath the surface, bouts of terror and unease interrupt the blessed spells of relative calm and contentment. Sometimes I think the planet is fighting back, sometimes I think that this is an evil virus engineered to lower Social Security payments and the expensive health costs of the elderly, the “high-risk” group to which (it now turns out) we belong.
I panic-order peanut butter—protein! shelf life!—which I don’t even like. At the rate at which we normally consume peanut butter (a jar can last us two years) we have enough for a decade. The archeologists of the future will wonder: Was this what these people ate?
Given the widespread heartbreak and pain, I can’t complain, but still: I liked the peaceful quiet better when it was voluntary, when I could see my family and friends, when I could travel. When I could leave the house.
I talk on the phone more than I used to. We Facetime with the grandchildren. Pablo, who is about to turn four, calls it “the Rona.” So now we say, “Prince Charles has the Rona!” The thing that’s made me happiest was that our son, who lives across the Hudson and grocery shops for us, brought us a chunk of fresh ginger even though I forgot to put it on the list. Grocery shopping was one of my favorite things in the world, and I miss it.
This morning, looking for a break from the horror dispatches from the Queens and Brooklyn emergency rooms, the New Jersey nursing homes, the statistics, the shuttered businesses, the realities of unemployment and the parallel pandemic of uncertainty and fear, I read a piece in the New York Times about recently published thrillers. They all sounded sort of interesting, but what also interested me was a comment from a reader criticizing the Times for recommending “creepy dark works” that make people more hopeless and depressed instead of things that make them feel more cheery and hopeful. It made me think, as so many things do, What is wrong with me?
Since our house arrest started, I’ve been reading a lot, and until now I’d never noticed how supremely creepy and dark are so many of the books I’ve most loved.
Thomas Bernhard’s memoir Gathering Evidence describes his time in a school worse than anything in Brontë or Dickens, only run by Nazis; a brilliant description of the bombing of Salzburg, which Bernhard witnessed as a boy, and which makes one’s confinement at home seem like a walk in the park; and his account of the lung-disease sanitarium where a doctor was called to the phone in the middle of performing a procedure on Bernhard—and came back and punctured the wrong lung.
Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other, one of the great LA novels, another hellish childhood, no less dark for being so funny.
I just finished the recollections of Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste Albaret, an odd and intensely claustrophobic love story that ends, not unpredictably, with the beloved employer’s death.
In the middle of the night, in the dark, battling insomnia with my Kindle, I’ve been reading They Were Sisters, Dorothy Whipple’s harrowing 1943 novel of domestic abuse among the Downton Abbey crowd.
Do books affect me differently than they affect the guy who complained to the Times? Do I take them less seriously? Less personally? Do I read in another way? In fact these books make me feel better, not because their contents cheer me up, but because they are good. A friend is teaching an undergraduate course in epidemics: Thucydides, Boccaccio, Defoe, Manzoni, Sontag. Does it make us more or less happy to observe that, in every era, human beings behaved in more or less the same selfish and selfless ways?
My friends are streaming comedies and we exchange recommendations. I have always loved the films of Will Ferrell; lately I love them even more. But do I care if something’s “light” or “dark” as long as it keeps my interest? As long as it keeps me awake? What I watch changes from evening to evening, from Next in Fashion to Chinatown, from Wild Wild Country to the films of Maren Ade and Alice Rohrwacher.
Though maybe the crisis has already changed us more than we know. Last night, for the first time in our forty-year marriage, my husband and I agreed that a film was too scary to watch. We don’t normally watch that much violent or scary stuff, but when we do, when something makes me more nervous than I’d like—the Gillian Anderson series The Fall comes to mind—I’m perfectly happy to go into my study and fool around with my phone until the scary part is over.
But last night we were watching a 1974 Robert Altman film, Images, and after about twenty minutes, it just got to be too much. It’s hard to describe how disturbing it was, and it would just wreck the surprises. We understood that the adrenaline would keep us awake, and we turned off the TV. Maybe we’ll watch the rest some time, maybe never. Anyway, it was a first, our wordless agreement. So maybe that’s something like what the reader meant, scolding the New York Times; we’re living with so much fear, who needs more? We’re all trying to tamp the anxiety down to a level we can endure.
I always hope that crises will make me more compassionate and less irritable, but it’s rarely the case. I suppose it would help if I stopped watching the evening news. It can’t be healthy to yell at the TV for the entire White House press conference. And how can the newscasters keep telling us that “We’re all in this together,” when, in so many important ways, we have never been more alone?
I’ve come to hate people posting online about what they feel grateful for: boasts disguised as thanksgiving. Oh, they say, I feel so grateful that we grow our own heirloom lettuce and drink the milk from our own cows. But here’s what I feel grateful for: The weather’s warming up, it’s sunny, the days are getting longer, sparing us that interval of darkness, cold and gloom before the cocktail hour and dinner persuade us, as we so want to be persuaded, that the fear and disruption will end, that some solution will be found, that, if we just keep calm and stay home and hang in there, things might still work out.