When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd

A year into the pandemic

It’s spring again in France, with all the splendor that implies: tight green fists of buds that explode, almost under your eyes, into flower; air that seems to consist only of cherry and wisteria and lavender; the northern sun that turns everything to gold.

Yet.

I’ve noticed that people outside of Europe don’t quite know how bad the situation is here. Americans, particularly, are far more optimistic, ready to get back to their lives. Brazilians say it’s bad there, and of course it is: but not for the same reasons. They are trapped by an actively malevolent government. Here, we are trapped by a level of bumbling that you have to see to believe. I’ve known all my life that Europe is bureaucratic and plodding and arrogant. But I also thought it was basically safe, run with some level of basic competence, guaranteeing a basic level of security and welfare. This idea was tested by the arrival of the euro, austerity, and then the Greek crisis, in which the European leadership was far more committed to process and posturing than to its citizens. (Remember when the Greek hospitals couldn’t afford toilet paper?)

So: spring is here. It’s been a year. We’re still stuck. I don’t know if it’s too early for a corona memoir, but this is something I’ve written about how the virus came into my life. I wrote it because it seemed to me that the arrival of the virus marked the end of a certain type of person—of people like me. That’s who I mean by “us,” by “we”—the borderless children of globalization. Will we come back? Eventually, I’m sure we will. But in another form.

And I still haven’t had another haircut.

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In January 2020, I was at breakfast in New Delhi.

I note that, for the people I am referring to as “us,” this was an entirely normal sentence to type. It marked us out from our parents, even those who, by the standards of their generation, were well-travelled.

I was reading the Hindustan Times, and was especially interested in the language, Sanskrit terms like lakhs (one hundred thousand) and crores (ten million). I liked the extravagant Bollywood weddings, and empathized with the pressure a cricket star felt to be a positive role model. And I noticed a piece about a virus in China about which there was some concern etc.

I spent the next few weeks traveling around Rajasthan. It was one of the most beautiful trips I ever took. I was overwhelmed by India. I had not known what to expect. But it was the best country I had ever seen. For sheer decorative overload, it was Venice. For color, it was Mexico. For antiquity, it was Greece. But it was so much more fabulous than all of those places, because it was so much bigger, so much more exuberant, so much more complex. It was Stendhal Syndrome, six times a day: a feeling of being completely overawed, physically crushed, by beauty. I could see why people got addicted to it, obsessed by it, and I couldn’t believe I had spent my whole life, forty-three years on this earth, without seeing India. I felt immeasurably enriched.

We returned briefly to the Netherlands. After a few days, we went to New York. I was a finalist for a prize I knew I had no chance of getting, and in fact did not get. Still, I felt you were supposed to show up when thus honored—and being on the other side of the world was no excuse, in my mind or in anyone else’s, not to show up. Meanwhile, the news was increasingly dire. The virus had spread wildly in China, where hundreds of millions of people were under military curfew. There was a severe outbreak in Iran—and then closer by, in Italy. But New York was going about its business, and so were we. The restaurants were open, the theaters were open, everyone was at work. A lot of hand sanitizer was going around, which smelled disgustingly; but I don’t think we quite realized that this was a whiff of sulfur from a nearby Vesuvius. We took precautions. On the way back home, we used frequent flyer miles to upgrade to business class: more distance between passengers, less chance of infection.

On March 4, we reached Amsterdam. As soon as we did, we marveled at our luck. There were rumors that everything was going to be closed. Schools were shutting down, borders were threatening to close; nobody knew what to do, whether to believe the doomsayers or the more optimistic politicians: it didn’t help that the more optimistic ones, the ones who downplayed the crisis, were precisely the most notorious liars, Trump, Johnson, Modi, Bolsonaro. Because the situation was so uncertain, every day started to feel long, and markedly different from the day before. You read one article and felt terrified. You read another, including those that claimed that it only affected the elderly or those with preexisting conditions, and felt relieved not to be elderly and have preexisting conditions. The virus became the only thing anybody was talking about.

Still, on March 8, Arthur and I went to Rotterdam to the premiere of Hello, Dolly! It was the very first musical a friend, Iris van den Ende, had produced. Several other friends were involved, including Simone Kleinsma, the lead; the presence of so many people we knew made us want to be there. The night before, Saturday, Simone came down with a throat problem; but a doctor managed to help, and she sang marvelously. For a couple of hours, we forgot about the crisis; and then headed to the foyer after the show. A party was getting going—guests milling around, waiters passing drinks, a jazz band swinging—and when Arthur went to the bathroom, I glanced at my phone. I saw an article written by a friend, Rachel Donadio, a correspondent for The Atlantic in Paris, describing the dangers of large crowds, and how the refusal to shut them down allowed the virus to ignite, and eventually kill thousands of Italians. When I looked up, I saw precisely the kind of situation that every expert was telling us to avoid.

“We have to get the hell out of here,” I said.

In the car, smearing our hands with that nasty disinfectant, we couldn’t decide if we were more relieved that we had escaped—or shocked that we had done something that felt like attending a bathhouse orgy as the AIDS epidemic raged. By the time we made it home, the buzz of fear that had underlain our lives for the past weeks reached a pitch so loud that we could no longer ignore it. We had, for months, planned to go to our house in the French countryside. We had tickets for March 23rd. But with the situation changing every day, that suddenly felt unspeakably distant, so we started to discuss going earlier. I had a full schedule, appointments I intended to keep, but Arthur wanted to leave sooner; Lex was already in France, by himself. It was better to be in one place, since the situation was changing fast, and the walls were closing in.

“Is it better to be in the country, where we have less chance of getting it—or the city, where we might have more of a chance of getting it but also have better hospitals and treatment?”

The German chancellor was announcing that something like seventy percent of Germans would be infected.

“I’d rather be in France,” Arthur said.

“What if the hospitals are overwhelmed?” I said. “That’s what happened in Italy.”

“I trust the French,” he said. “I feel safer in the countryside.”

I agreed, but didn’t especially want to go anywhere.

“Isn’t it crazy to fly?” I asked. “To sit in a plane with hundreds of people?”

Like going to the theater, this was something that now felt insane. We discussed renting a car. It turned out that this was prohibitively expensive if you were planning on returning it in another country. In any case, there was talk that the Belgians were going to close the border, which meant that we could get trapped in Belgium. There was talk about this possibility and that possibility, and these conversations—between me and Arthur, between me and everyone, between the internet and me and everyone—kept getting more panicky, because the situation was changing by the hour.  

Every day you managed to do something normal, check some item off the to-do list, felt like a triumph. I was flushed with pride when I managed to mail some stuff for my taxes. I felt intrepid when I bought a sandwich at the place where I always bought sandwiches. 

Like the Romans leaving the cities during their plagues, we decided to fly to Bergerac on Friday the 13th. I cancelled some appointments. I kept others. On Wednesday, we took the train to Bloemendaal for our annual dermatological checkup; a doctor’s office seemed like a safe place to be. The next day, Thursday, we both had hair appointments. I kept mine; Arthur cancelled his. Though it was a bright day, light sparkling in the canals, Amsterdam was spookily quiet. I wondered when I would see it again. The guy who washed my hair wore gloves, but otherwise the activity of the salon carried on. “I wash my hands between every client,” Jerry told me. “I take every precaution, but if the government doesn’t do anything, there’s nothing more I can do.” Some people had cancelled—but lots of others had called. “We’ve never had so many bookings,” he said.

What do people do on the last day of the world? They get their hair done.

It felt like as good a response as any.

Everything felt like the last time. The last trip to the theater? The last haircut? And, on my way home: the last train? At home, the feeling that I was about to go into the hospital for an operation from which I might not return; an uncanny desire to get my house in order. I did some ironing and straightened out my closets. My bedroom was neat. There was a feeling of departure. We were waiting for President Macron’s speech at 8 PM, hoping that he would not announce that France was being closed to foreigners. All the talk of borders being shut, of evacuations, made me think of World War II, of normal lives upended, of things everyone took for granted, trains, haircuts, schools, no longer being there—and then far worse things to come. I thought of my ancestors: of my grandfather. He was walking down the street in Berlin in November 1938 when a friend warned him to go straight to the station and board the next train to Amsterdam. That was why he died of a heart attack in Texas, years later, instead of in a Polish oven.

This felt different. It also did not feel different. Time would tell if we were overreacting, if those thoughts were too dramatic; but I can only say that they were inevitable, and did not feel dramatic at the time. None of us, not in my generation or my parents’, had any experience of quarantine, lockdown, closed borders. As I was packing, unsure when or whether I would ever come back to this house, I felt torn between practical requirements—don’t forget your driver’s license, or that little machine for logging onto the bank’s website—and spiritual requirements, by which I mainly meant books. I grabbed a few things I needed for the writing I was working on at that moment. I wondered whether I needed those Chopin nocturnes (yes) or that book about Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (yes) and whether Amazon would deliver our shit (unclear).

I talked to friends. Rachel said: “When you’re a foreign correspondent, you can’t be sure when you’re going to be able to get your hair done. Now everyone’s a foreign correspondent.” Someone on Twitter said: “You know it’s serious when they stop white people from entering the United States.” People tried to keep a sense of humor, but the stock market was crashing again, and Wall Street closed after a few minutes; and then there was an announcement that a Brazilian minister was sick; and then an announcement that all the theaters of the Netherlands were closed, killing Iris and Simone’s musical. The bad news never stopped. Each hour was different from the last.

On Friday, we made it to the airport. The car came early; we were ready. Though it was rush hour, there was almost no traffic. The Rotterdam airport, which mainly hosts holiday flights, was empty. Our flight would be delayed by several hours, which was scary because every hour seemed to bring new menaces and changing circumstances; we sat in the hall in a corner by ourselves, worried that one of the food workers had coughed onto a sandwich. Everyone retreated into their own bodies. I went through security, trying not to touch the bins or the machines or the guards. I kept my hands away from my face. I walked with my arms folded in front of my chest, so as not to touch anyone by mistake; I swayed my hips away from any bodies coming toward me, and sometimes even leapt aside if I thought someone was veering too close. When I got back to our little corner, I went back to my book about India. I finished before we boarded. I was grateful that I had seen India, just a few weeks before. I wondered if I would ever see it again.


Two hours later—two hours of being squeezed into a seat next to a fat man who was reading a novel about a medieval kingdom—of watching his nose for any sign of drip—of listening carefully for any sign of a cough—the plane glided to a halt in the valley beneath the château of Monbazillac. The airport was full of advertisements for the excellent local wines, dinosaur theme parks, canoeing excursions, topiary gardens. Like decorations on a schoolroom wall in Chernobyl, the ads were like a relic of a distant age, one that ended two weeks ago.

Lex was waiting in a puffy brown vest. We were happy to see him, happy to be away from those other people and the invisible infections they bore. We were a week from spring. The trees were still brown, but their boughs were heavy with buds. The sun was shining above the old villages with their toy churches, shining above the river dotted with swans: in our ambrosial valley, everything breathed health. We were happy to be there, thankful to be able to be there. We would stay on our forested hilltop and wait for the earth to burst into flower. Like seasons, bad news passes eventually. 

But though we were trapped in the most beautiful place in the world, we were still trapped. After a few days the airports were closed, and so was the European Union, and so was the United States, and in France you had to carry a document to authorize any movement from your domicile, even if you were just going to the grocery store. More than the virus, a nervousness started to infect the globe. This is the feeling I will always recall from that time. During days of chirping birds and blooming cherry trees, before the bugs and the heat, I managed to keep the nervousness at bay. When it was light out, the nervousness was a low buzz, masked by my strenuous efforts to keep myself active. I called friends; I did yoga on the internet. But the buzz grew piercing at night. It woke me often, and in the morning, though I had slept, I woke exhausted. The buzz was dreams in which people were talking too much and wouldn’t shut up; in which I got to the check-in counter and they refused to put me on the flight. It was in the news of a cleaning lady’s death in Rio; a niece’s cough in Houston; a friend in Amsterdam laying everyone off; a doctor in Milan conducting triage; a politician in London lying; an earthquake in Zagreb; an article about disinfecting your phone; a frazzled feeling after touching your face. 

And then there were all the feelings that were supposed to seem trivial amidst civilizational breakdown. One was the affliction of leaving behind a library. I had been building a collection of Brazilian literature for twenty years. I had written one book out of that collection, and was sure that I—and then after me others—would use it to write more. On shelf after shelf were books few visitors could appreciate, since knowledge of the Brazilian bibliography was as rare as the volumes themselves; but if, to an outside eye, those books seemed to be sitting quietly, they were always loudly hectoring me. They demanded money to be acquired; then, because the Brazilian climate is unforgiving, money for restoration. They demanded company: as people need friends, books need to be surrounded with others. They demanded space: though my library was not large, it was large enough. They demanded to be read—translated—written about. All these demands: I knew no collector who was not, in some way, harried by his collection. Yet to leave it behind … I recalled Walter Benjamin, whose suicide was occasioned—the story went—by being forced to leave his library. I recalled a happier example, Auerbach, libraryless in Istanbul, writing Mimesis.

Once again, these examples remitted to the Second World War. It didn’t matter whether the comparisons were exact. We knew this wasn’t Hitler. People fretted about which comparisons were appropriate, a fretting that I would include in any description of the people I was starting to call “us”. We had been bullied into prefacing any personal concern with disclaimers that we were aware that we were not actually a refugee, or trans, or Hispanic, and that of course it went without saying that things were far worse for the rural poor in Bangladesh—through which series of ritual salaams we would elaborately disqualify ourselves from saying whatever we wanted to say. I felt obliged to say that, in the context of pandemic, leaving behind a library was not a real sadness; but it was.

There were a lot of things I didn’t feel like saying. I didn’t especially want to add to the buzz. Enough people were doing that. Social media amplified certain personality types. I tried not to be like those people hysterically retweeting every death in a Romanian hospital; or their opposites, affecting a bodhisattva serenity that nobody felt. Preexisting personalities came to this new pandemic, and so did preexisting analogies: it was natural to find these in the Second World War, our culture’s great epic. The fact was, we had no experience of whatever had overtaken us. We had no idea how long it would last. We had little confidence in our rotten government, and weren’t sure whether to believe reports that millions might die. We didn’t know when we would again visit a shop, or eat at a restaurant, or see our families. We hoped at the very least that the storm would pass over our own houses, and the houses of those we loved.


When the first reports emerged of the new, highly contagious coronavirus, we were settling into middle age. That age brought experience and maturity—and while it was true that the experience was often painful, and that the maturity could often be confused with resignation, middle age was a relief, all in all, for those of us who had reached it intact. Even bad experiences—we had plenty by now—offered a certain relief. They meant a deepening of life, of understanding. Each year brought more experiences, good, bad, indifferent; but though we were familiar with pain and disappointment, disease and death, we had never before found ourselves locked into our own houses.

The ability to travel was a hallmark of our age, and one of which I had taken extravagant advantage. At the end of every year, I sent a letter to my friends. The map of those friends, it occurs to me, could be an illustration in a book about people like me. It would show something that characterized our generation of easy travel and instant communication, something that marked us off from our parents. With the exception of people who lived near them, I don’t think my parents, who were educated, cosmopolitan people, had foreign friends. I did: lots. And it was a coincidence that in the letter I wrote at the end of 2019, I mentioned that, though I often complained about it, I had finally decided to shut up and stop complaining about travelling. I was going to go ahead and admit that I loved it.

If I loved it, why complain? Because life was constantly herding me onto planes. If it would have been heavenly to take three or four big trips a year, it was grueling to take twenty. I had started to feel about travel the way I imagined a prostitute might feel about sex. You choose a profession because you have a certain bent, because you decide to make money doing something you enjoy—only to find a former pleasure deadened into a soulless routine. As I packed yet another suitcase or slept off yet another jet lag hangover, I fantasized about stopping as an addict might dream of getting clean. Definitely someday—but definitely not today. I even briefly had an idea to write a book about not crossing a border for a year. As a book, it would have been, as publishing people say, “notional.” The notion of a book about living the way most people lived was embarrassing, which is why it never evolved beyond a notion.

But when I thought about writing about my generation in history, the idea didn’t seem quite so absurd. I was far from the only person who lived from one airplane to the next. And even those who didn’t travel as much as I did took the possibility for granted. Some had done it at a certain point more than they did now; some planned to do so later, when the kids were older, say, or when they were a bit further along in their professional life. When we thought about staying home, we saw a personal choice. We would cut down for environmental reasons, or because travel distracted us: made it hard to raise kids, or hard for a writer (in my case) to concentrate. We might consider stopping because we knew that travel had become another form of consumerism, another strategy for accumulation, another way to seek attention.

When I was young, taking my first trips by myself, my preparation for a single journey could last years. I would learn at least something of the language. I would read the classic books. I would talk to people who had been there, and plan a detailed itinerary. Back home, I would read more, study more. In this way, I kept the journey in my head. Now, I dropped in—did whatever—left. Any books I bought sat by my bedside until, withered by their reproachful glare, I hustled them off to a faraway shelf, feeling the same guilt about travel that I felt about other forms of incontinence. And when I thought about a more contained life, I mainly thought in terms of personal morality, the way I felt about eating or exercising. It was not the activity itself I questioned. If I stopped travelling, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that travelling would stop, just as if I went on a diet I wouldn’t have thought that eating would stop.

 For a long time, long before the virus appeared at the Wuhan Seafood Market, I had felt chivvied by novelty, and had started to experience constant movement as oppression. I had always hoped a time would come when I could slow down, stay home, read old books. All my life, I had felt harassed by the present. We moved as fast as physics would allow. Our words moved even faster; and though instant communication was not one of the bad things about the internet, like bullying or fake news or the loss of a private life, there was only so much we could take. It seemed natural that a maximum would eventually be attained, and that eventually things would slow down again. Now, I saw that only great brutality could slow them down. And once I was trapped in the countryside, I thought about the feeling that everything was speeding up. It had dominated my whole life. I thought that a history of that feeling would be a history of my time.


Quarantine seemed temporary. People discussed movies they were watching, books they were reading; a few ostentatious souls announced they would master some fabulous skill. But the frenzy of March subsided, and if, at first, every day was different, and brought some unprecedented news, a few weeks indoors—though the news hardly improved, and indeed kept getting worse—made every day feel the same. The pattern was set around the ides of March. We sat home, read the news. We tried to do something during the day, then tried to sleep at night. Boredom became the problem for those with health and money. Starvation became the problem for those without money, and for those in ill health—including many who, at the beginning of March, had no reason to believe they had anything to fear—the problem became death.

Most, of course, didn’t die. People our age could still expect to hang around for a while. And we didn’t know, in those early days, how the story would end. But we knew our story had ended, the story as we had known it up to that point. We had been preparing for this end for a while, unconsciously. The world for which we had been constructed, which we had spent our lives navigating, was over. The virus was simply the last few pages, the denouement, of a book whose outlines we knew: a book whose plot told of people who had enjoyed an untold freedom, of an opulence unrecorded in all history, and also of way of life that had poisoned the planet, of ludicrously corrupt politics, of an economy that was a moral disgrace—of something that couldn’t last. We knew that the edifice was built on sand, not stone. The virus was the wrecking ball, the stick of dynamite, that brought down a long-empty building.

Bam! like that.

Nobody imagined it would be so sudden. When I was first thinking about writing about people like me, I hadn’t imagined a sentence like: “On Friday the Thirteenth, our world ended.” It hadn’t really ended, but the sentence suddenly became possible in a way it hadn’t been a few weeks before. On the day I flew to France, we were still a few days from a quarantine that would be enforced with cops and guns, a few weeks from imagining that we might not attend our parents’ funerals. Our assumptions would not vanish so quickly—the French aristocracy carried on after the fall of the Bastille, and few European Jews immediately grasped what Hitler meant—but everyone knew that the old life was history. We couldn’t yet say exactly how. We looked ahead with trepidation. As a journey has a beginning and an end, so, at least in the form I had known it, had the story of the people I was starting to call “us.”

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If anyone is still here (hi! thanks!), here is a link to a conversation I had last week with Roni Horn.

I have had an artist-crush on Roni for years, since she did a show in London called Rings of Lispector. In that show, she used texts from Clarice’s Água viva. I am sure Clarice herself would have loved this show because Roni turned Clarice’s words into objects; Clarice always aimed to create books that would be like music, like paintings, like perfume. Roni, well, did that for her. Ever since, I have followed Roni’s her exhibitions. We have been in touch here and there—but for some reason have never met. That’s why I was so delighted to be invited to speak by The Power Plant in Toronto. True, it was on Zoom, but we had a wonderful conversation that ranged from Clarice Lispector to Roni’s new book about more than forty years of traveling to Iceland, Island Demon.

Thanks again to everyone for reading this far, and have a great week.