A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 235

The last bloom of…autumn?

Sunday, October 17

When does a piece of writing become interestingly historical—and when is it annoyingly quaint? Perhaps that’s the same question as one once posed by John Banville: When does the past truly become the past?

“How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness?” Banville asks in his Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir. “Let us say, the present is where we live, while the past is where we dream.”

Sitting on some shelf around here, unread, there’s a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 book The Corrections, and I’ve considered giving it a go.  But today’s Times review of Franzen’s new book, Crossroads, has persuaded me that the older book has not aged well. Reviewer Thomas Mallon speaks of The Corrections’ “mosaic of a still-twin-towered world, gluing in all of its diskettes and antennaed cellphones.”

Cringe. I didn’t like that period when we lived through it—with its “greed is good” mantra and all that celebrating of the rich and combat-ready. So I have little wish to revisit it now. 

All the same, I do enjoy reading old bits of prose that evoke periods of yore. Recently, for example, I read Joseph Conrad’s astonishing short story “Youth.” That 1898 tale begins with a group of English gentlemen sitting around a mahogany table, sharing glasses of wine as “Marlowe,” now an accomplished lawyer, tells a hair-raising story of his disaster-prone first sea voyage, back when he was 20 years of age. 

Marlowe had signed on aboard the Judea—about 400 tons, laid up in dry dock for a long period and consequently “all rust, dust, grime—soot aloft, dirt on deck.” But the ship is bound for that land of enchantment—Bangkok!

A gale hits before they can get well out to sea, and they spend 16 days just reaching Newcastle. Soon, they smash into a steamer—meaning another three weeks’ delay. Then finally underway, they fall victim to another gale, blowing “with spite, without interval, without mercy, without rest. The world was nothing but an immensity of great foaming waves rushing at us….”

Amid the tumult of the cruel ocean, Judea‘s crew mans the pumps—all day, all night, all the week. “We turned those handles, and had the eyes of idiots.” (After several days of unheroic but taxing physical labor around here, I can certainly relate; your brain begins reeling and it’s all you can do to stare vacantly into space. More on this later.) “It seemed to last for months, for years, for all eternity….”

And yet “there was somewhere in me the thought: By Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure—something you read about….I would not have given up the experience for worlds.”

They were still not out of England. Six months have elapsed, a third crew has been recruited, and small boys laugh at their plight. Back in London, the underwriters and the owner consider scuttling the whole venture. 

Well, many more disasters await the Judea—until its cargo of coal finally catches alight and explodes. 

“Youth” could perhaps have been made into a classic film by one of the silent-screen comedic geniuses—or even by French new wave master Claude Chabrol, whose specialty, a critic once said, was slapstick tragedy. Conrad’s writing is as visual, rousing, frustrating, and frightening as any movie masterpiece.

You take your thrills where you can get them. I, meanwhile, have spent several days washing the filthy, pollen-encrusted windows of this house. So far, I have cleansed 20 mullioned windows and three glass-paned doors. Eight large windows remain…but they may receive no more than a lick and a promise, as my mother often said. My shoulders and hands ache and my mind has all but collapsed. Bring on the entertainment!

Tonight’s dinner: wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts, couscous, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Hulu’s courtroom drama Silk.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 196

Wednesday, February 24

Despite rising temperatures, there is still a bit of accumulated snow on eastern Long Island. Last night was clear with a bright moon, and at 1 a.m. the snow-covered back yard glowed like neon.

Two mental hiccups of the current period. When I have something that needs doing—whether paying bills, moving a March doctor’s appointment to a later date, or constructing a mildly demanding dinner—I tend to procrastinate. Tackling any such tasks seems horribly demanding. Better to climb back into bed.

And if there are no such tasks loitering on my mental to-do list, I suffer from a strong feeling that I am being irresponsible. I know that I am supposed to do something—but what is it?

It was somehow easier to do meal planning and a quick grocery shopping in the city. But I longed to be back on Long Island; nature and natural beauty are just closer here, even if cloudy and damp conditions prevail. Today is sunny, and I can hear the sometimes absent birds chirping. In due course, they may even return to the bird feeder. One of the squirrels just scampered up a shrub, jumped onto the roof, and raced around up there, his little footfalls offering percussive amusement to those of us below.

For months, I have relied on the local library for e-books. But while in the city I recovered my New York Public Library card. Now, I can log in to NYPL and draw from their somewhat larger stock of e-books. I have begun reading John Banville’s latest policier, Snow. Mysteriously, the author has published this one under his own name rather than using the pen name of Benjamin Black that he usually employs for his less-serious works. Yet some of the characters seem familiar from his Quirke series, published under the pseudonym. At first, this book seems like a prototypical English country-house mystery—featuring a murder in the library, no less—but I feel sure that the plot will soon turn unconventional.

There is still no prospect of straightening out the Walgreens second-vaccine confusion. Emily has had a telephone conversation with the pharmacy manager at the Walgreens branch where we are due to report on March 12—and they say they may not know just which brand(s) of vaccine that store will have until the week in question. Emily isn’t worried that we’ll be given one each of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines—but that we’ll be denied a second shot altogether.  She’s quite concerned about this—I just divert my mind to other stuff. Now, what’s missing from the grocery list for the Stop & Shop delivery that’s scheduled for Friday?

Dinner: cornbread tamale pie and a green salad.

Entertainment: Episodes of The Sinner and Call My Agent! on Netflix, capped by a viewing of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 188

A street scene in Dublin. Photo by Paul Joyce.

Wednesday, January 20

On the final full day of Trump’s term, there was much uneasy rejoicing online—like the emotions of a child who is happy that Christmas has arrived yet anxious that there could be nasty surprises waiting under the tree. There was also worry that among the 25,000 troops gathered to protect the city during Biden’s inauguration, there might be some closet seditionists. 

A photo much exhibited on Twitter purported to show how future assassins, including John Wilkes Booth, attended Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, standing very close indeed to the new president.

The Associated Press held that a dozen National Guard members had been removed from the inauguration security mission after discovery that they had right-wing militia ties or had expressed extremist views online.

But on the big day, nothing startling happened. There were the usual dull speeches, calls for unity, and appearances of ex-presidents and Republican grandees, almost as if no one had recently said or done anything really dishonorable. McConnell was busy repackaging himself as a never-Trumper.

Change of subject please. 

A new discovery to me is the writing of John Banville, whose memoir of Dublin, Time Pieces, is endlessly quotable, particularly now when I and so many others seem to be turning to the past for relief from the present. As he views places he visited as a child, he notes “in a sense childhood never ends, but exists in us not merely as a memory or complex of memories, but as an essential part of what we intrinsically are.” It was as children that we first apprehended the world as mystery; “the process of growing up is, sadly, a process of turning the mysterious into the mundane.” 

We long for an end to the Trump era, for it to recede into the past. Banville, though, asks: “When does the past become the past? How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness?” And as Faulkner fans will quickly interject, the past is never dead—it isn’t even past.

Before you know it, though, death—or a slide into mere triviality—will draw a line under the age. MAGA man’s time on earth cannot extend much longer, his obesity and bad habits will soonish take their toll. Perhaps he’ll tumble off of his golf cart into a Loch. 

Dinner: cornbread tamale pie and an avocado, radish, and arugula salad.

Entertainment: episodes of the Netflix’ scandi drama Equinox.