A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 186

Chilean President Salvador Allende under seige in 1973.

Tuesday, January 12

I’m gradually rereading the books in the house, but there are hundreds here (thanks largely to my former job as a book review editor) so it’ll take a while to consume them. My memory isn’t terrible, but I don’t recall the plots of a lot of books that I feel certain I have read before. So that’s actually helpful. Part way through an Eric Ambler or Graham Greene, I’ll have a feeling that I should know what’s coming—and as the narrative develops, maybe I will recall a bit of what’s next. But some of these books are so good, who cares? 

I recently finished Ambler’s State of Siege—sometimes called The Night-Comers—a political coup/action thriller set in Southeast Asia. As is common in Ambler, the hero is a Western innocent trapped in potentially fatal events not of his own making. The personalities with their ambitions, ideals, and delusions, the betrayals and hazy loyalties are all very convincing. And whether it’s absolutely accurate or not, the author seems familiar with the Southeast Asian culture and collective personality. 

It’s what might be called middle-period Ambler, published after the huge success of such famous early titles as Epitaph for a Spy and A Coffin for Dimitrios. Often books from this middle phase of a successful author’s career can be very good, as with some of John le Carré’s. The writer has had the time and resources to polish his skills, and has come to think that he should try something a little out-of-the-ordinary.

Now I am reading Journey Into Fear, a 1940 Ambler that seems more drawn from his conventional playbook. An unsuspecting engineer gets caught up in a deadly competition between the adversaries of the looming World War—he’s another “man who knows too much.” Can he get back to Britain before the villains murder him? Which of his fellow ship passengers are foes—and which if any can he regard as allies? As I say, it seems a little like earlier Ambler but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

And even if State of Siege is fiction, it offers an accurate picture of what a coup d’état is really like. Armed forces divide into competing factions. Men with powerful modern military weapons battle it out on the streets, oblivious to the fate of the civilian population. There’s little theater—no figures in Viking hats and face paint, no flags and banners. There are just mortars, tanks, high explosives, and combat gear. Airplanes fly above, dropping bombs on those on the ground. The injured are not merely maimed—they’re blown to bits.

The 1975 documentary film The Battle of Chile showed it all: Chilean president Salvador Allende facing a coup in 1973, sporting an army helmet and looking up as the traitors’ aircraft soared above, strafing the presidential palace. Allende died, an alleged suicide. 

During Joe Biden’s upcoming inauguration, some 15,000 troops are slated to guard D.C.. Will they all be loyal to the constitution?

Dinner: potato soup and salad.

Entertainment: Episodes from season three of Last Tango in Halifax, plus a bit of Netflix’ Pretend it’s a City featuring the witty Fran Lebowitz.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 183

 Mystic, vegetarian, and dream diarist Emanuel Swedenborg.

Wednesday, December 30

On Twitter, I found out that a group of British psychoanalysis researchers have been attempting to track and analyze humans’ apparently rising number of dreams during the lockdown. You can discover some of their activity at @LockdownDreams or at their website.

The researchers solicit play-by-play accounts of dreams, and lots of people from across the globe have apparently responded. But the shrinks don’t give the rest of us much access to these accounts. On a recent Zoom chat, they kept remarking how interesting the whole phenomenon is, and they read a bit from Sigmund Freud’s speculations about dreams. Hey, I don’t want the contributors’ names and addresses, just a little bit of what they are dreaming. (There’s more to be found on Twitter at the hashtag #LockdownDreams but it’s hard to know how seriously to take the comments there.)

Picking up on this theme, The Guardian says all this dreaming may relate to our experience of “financial hardship, social isolation, loss of our normal roles, and, for some, loss of loved ones. These stresses are real and present, others are feared or existential. Uncertainty and unpredictability dominate our experience.”

I gather that people dream a lot about airports or other forms of travel. Maybe they are seeking some means of escape—or maybe, as I suspect, they simply experience some form of motion while sleeping and that, in turn, prompts a memory of travel.

I have been having an increased number of dreams for several years, possibly as a result of a prescription drug. What I am noticing now, though, is a greater level of dread that seems present irrespective of the content of a dream. I think it is tied to the pandemic, fear of death, and the very dark winter nights—darker by far than winter nights in the street-lit city.

There’s a very amusing rumination on dreaming available on the BBC. Essayist Ian Sansom describes his own frequent-dreaming experience and that of author Graham Greene, who published a dream diary, which he’d kept for decades, called A World of My Own.

Sansom admits to keeping some notes about his dreams but not a formal dream diary: He says it’s the creepy types—Kafka, William Burroughs, and Emanuel Swedenborg—who have kept dream diaries. Then Sansom describes how he has been dreaming a lot lately—prompting his mother to ask “are you secretly eating a lot of cheese?” She’s always been suspicious of cheese, he admits. He describes a backyard barbecue dream, with a horse present, and a vivid supermarket dream, in which he makes love to a beautiful sometimes-French, sometimes-Italian woman in the bread aisle. 

In contrast to such quotidian stuff, Graham Greene’s dreams are like “little movie pitches,” featuring the likes of Nikita Khrushchev, Francois Mitterrand, authors Robert Graves and T.S. Eliot, and several popes. 

Sansom concludes that perhaps the reason we’re dreaming so much is that with the state and lockdown authorities being so intrusive, dreams are the only place left for us to hide—”unexplored territories of the self.” 

Dinner: Tonight we’ll again have the Middle Eastern egg dish shakshuka with feta cheese and a salad. On New Year’s, we’ll have pork chops sautéed with apples and the Southern must-haves hoppin’ john (black-eyed peas and rice) plus garlicky Swiss chard as a stand-in for collard greens.

Entertainment: Episodes of the 1982 BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.