Blog Post July: The Covid-19 crisis covered in books

Dear readers of my blog,

once again there is a moment of time to spare which I would like to devote to reporting on books bought, read and re-read in the past few months. Some such acquisitions relate in more senses than one to the current crisis. First, their acquisition was the result of our being allowed to browse in the shops once more. Second, they all relate to the problems of mankind to adapt to health crises, whether in the 19th or the 21st century. In parenthesis, before I begin in earnest, and it is important to be earnest now, let me say that this sentence is the only one alluding to Oscar Wilde this time. Perhaps you can point out a link after having read this post. Thank you in advance. As ever, I will acknowledge such help.

To give you an overview, I first list the titles with all the bibliographical details:

On 6 May 2020 I bought several books at Weener, a little town, still in East Frisia, but on the western side of the River Ems where I had a moment to spend in the local bookstore. Earlier, I had been wandering round the old port or talking to a dear friend on the mobile for in early April everything was closed and the streets were deserted.

Paolo Giordano, In Zeiten der Ansteckung, translated from the Italian by Barbara Kleiner, Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2020, 80 pp., 8.00 €.

It is a book on the Covid-19 crisis as seen from an Italian point of view, and it “was published in twenty countries” at the same time (p. 79).

Written like a diary, it closely resembles a second small-size volume, now already a bestseller in Germany, entitled “In spite of”.

Ferdinand von Schirach/Alexander Kluge, Trotzdem, München: Luchterhand, 2020, 80 pp., 8.00 €.

This book documents two conversations typed “to the moment”, to quote William Hazlitt's phrase for about the one hundred and eleventh time, by Schirach (born in 1964) and Kluge (born in 1932) who, owing to the lock-down of German society as of 16 March 2020, sat before their respective computers typing away a messenger dialogue while being 800 km apart in Berlin and Munich on 30 March last in the morning as well as in the afternoon.

While the first two books deal with the current health crisis both in personal and general as well as in literary and historical terms, the following ones bought at Oldenburg and Norden in May and July are primarily concerned with the past. Ironically, the Inspired Traveller's Guide, Literary Places, which I bought on the family's first outing to Oldenburg after having stayed in East Frisia for two months and a report on Paris in 1832 by the German Jewish writer Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) refer to the same period, the outbreak of cholera in Paris in 1832. While Heine wrote a report as the Paris correspondent for the Augsburg newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung, first published in the issue of 29 April to 2 May 1832, the entry in the Inspired Traveller's Guide on Paris revolves around Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables which, in its passages, dated 1832, is also concerned with that pandemic raging in France after having started in Russia about two years earlier (p. 10) and one of the rebellions quashed by the bourgeois régime after the July Revolution of 1830.

Sarah Baxter, Atlas der literarischen Orte. Entdeckungsreise zu den Schauplätzen der Weltliteratur, translated from the English by Barbara Sternthal, Vienna: Brandstätter, 2019, 144 pp., 25.00 €.

Heinrich Heine, Ich rede von der Cholera. Ein Bericht aus Paris von 1832, edited with a Preface by Tim Jung, Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 2020, 60 pp., 14.00 €.

Heine had moved from Germany to Paris in 1831, after having been subjected to “anti-Jewish aggression, the rule of censorship in the press and political hostilities” (p. 9). His article is re-published by the same Hamburg publisher Heine had in his life-time, Hoffmann und Campe, and his words used to describe his new job as the Paris correspondent of a paper well-known in Germany at the time, predict his own posthumous fame: like Victor Hugo, who had already started to note down his “Choses vues”, “Things seen”, largely unpublished in his life-time, Heine expected to be “the historiographer of the present” (p. 10). Also, he was awaiting “great things … that have not happened yet. They are, however, going to happen, and I am going to describe them calmly and impartially, as it is my duty.” (quoted on p. 10 from a letter Heine wrote in March 1832).

While Hugo waited for certain of the observations he made in 1832 to become part and parcel of the narrative of his novel Les Misérables, only published thirty years later, Heine's report was circulated very soon after he had written it. He was not shy either to state that “I was much disturbed in this work, most often by the gruesome screams of my neighbour who died from cholera.” (p. 13 (Preface); p. 25 (text).

All these books when mentioned in a conversation I had on the train to Norden this afternoon could easily be coupled with another classic, La Peste, by Albert Camus, mentioned by a colleague I commuted with, which was much read recently as well as Daniel Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year to which Camus refers explicitly in his epigraph. Incidentally, I also bought a German edition of Defoe's reconstruction of what happened in London when he was only five years old, in 1665, that is, before the Great Fire of London erased most of the medieval city in 1666.

I am not going to deal with these two books today since I have not a chance yet re-read them but hope to do so soon. To begin with, Paolo Giordano inspired me to think of the pandemic in both literary and scientific terms in that the title chosen for the German edition reminds me of Gabriel García Márquez' novel Love in the time of Cholera (1985; 1988, English edition) with the significant difference of the specification of “Love” being absent from the title in either Italian original or German translation.

Giordano writes a novelist's non-fiction book, inspired by his scientist's mindset as well as his memories as man. And it is as man with anxieties that he managed to keep at bay when attending six form college by solving mathematical equations on what he calls “afternoons of peace” (p. 13). He has become so accustomed to resolving difficult situations for himself by solving mathematical problems suggesting themselves to him that what was a personal pastime is now suitable, nay, indispensable to “understand what happens at the moment, in order to shake off premonitions and fears” (p. 14).

Since Giordano is not only a mathematician but also a novelist the fact that the current crisis boils down to our controlling whatever contacts we have in our social lives means that he is perfectly qualified to use mathematics as “the science of relationships” to “describe the links between, and the exchange of, entities while trying to forget what these entities were made of by turning them into abstractions such as letters, functions, vectors, points and spaces”. He concludes: “The current epidemic is an infection of our network of relations.” (p. 14)

As a mathematician, he is qualified to understand all this by means of abstractions, and as a novelist, Giordano can turn the abstractions into concrete relationships discussing, for example, the pandemic in a globalized manner as a concern “for all human beings in their entirety” (p. 41).

Once I had read this chapter, entitled “Once more against fatalism” I was certain to have found a suitable text for my French students to sum up in the form of a blog post since Giordano recalls a visit to a hospital in Africa ten years ago where women were treated against HIV while having their children with them and trying to make ends meet by prostituting themselves (p. 42). Coupling this memory with imagining what could happen in Kinshasa once Covid-19 had arrived there, Giordano argues that each and every person is accountable for fatalistic acts such as insisting on taking part in a certain birthday party at such a moment when the virus might infect “millions and millions of people ultra-susceptible for social and economic reasons” (p. 42) who might live far from us but whose lot should be our concern all the same (p. 43), simply because the virus travels very fast.

In their messenger conversation, Schirach and Kluge set out from an epigraph by Thomas Mann (1875-1955), chosen from his famous novella Death in Venice in which a writer called Aschenbach quips as “almost the formula for his life” that “nearly anything great in the world has turned out great in spite of worries and pains, poverty, loneliness, physical ailments, vice, passion and thousands of inhibitions” (quoted, p. 5). So the two writers – Kluge is also a famous film-maker, whereas Schirach in civil life spent decades in criminal courts, acting as a lawyer – try to find out what the current crisis can turn into in spite of having triggered “the shutdown of society” (p. 12), in spite of having caused the limitations of “basic rights”, including the right of demonstration in public (p. 14), in spite of having shown that, as ever, the virus “is classless” (p. 11). Their conversation ranges widely, allowing me, for example, to quote in several classes, both in English and in German, given the age of my students, an episode that links the so-called “Spanish influenza” from 1918/1919 to the Covid-19 pandemic: “Presumably, the Spanish influenza started in an American farm in rural Kansas, in early 1918.” (p. 10) Soon after, on “30 May 1918, a German dies of the Spanish influenza in New York. His widow invests her heritage in real estate in Queens. The grandson of this German becomes the 45th President of the United States: Donald Trump.” (p. 12) Now think contra-factually: If his grandfather had not emigrated in order to dodge military service in the German Reich, he could have returned …, and some young students said Trump might be in Merkel's place today …

Thus thinking of how closely history and the present are linked in terms of certain facts, it is possible to connect what appears to have no relation whatsoever, and this is what writers help their readers do. I cannot go into any more detail now – so please read for yourself and enjoy the way Kluge and Schirach ask people to look for models elsewhere and in other times before taking a decision now. I mention just one example that impressed me because what I am missing now is a certain rationality of procedure. This was applied after the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon in 1755. It was, of course, a local crisis but had hit both the city and its inhabitants in such a way that Carvalho e Melo (1699-1782), from 1756 “the first Minister of Portugal” (p. 48) did everything possible to have the city reconstructed and able both to resist earthquakes and flooding. To that end “seismographic research was institutionalized, profiting from a collection of all experiences, details and self-critical proposal – based on excessive questionings of contemporary witnesses”, survivors, that is (p. 48). All this led to the construction of model houses which were tested by “army units marching around them for days on end” (p. 48). Interestingly, these rational and scientifically grounded measures were coupled by a struggle against the power of the Catholic Church and its institutions (p. 51).

If you think now of the current crisis, what is missing in Germany at least, perhaps also in the US and Brazil with their federal structures, is a political mastermind whose authority is such that both scientists and society are willing to follow him or her. Too much of what should now result in concerted action is given up to particularized and local interests with the social media exerting pressures where – little informed as most users are by Tweets and Twitter news – they should start to think on their own – and read Kluge and Schirach's little book.

As time is running out again – for the daily chores do not wait for me to have finished this blog post –, I need to come to a close now. In spite of ranging widely in world literature, with five continents covered, and languages from German, Italian, English, Spanish to Russian, and Arabic, the Inspired Traveller's Guide is far from being a faithful mirror of world literature. While I do not go into the lacunae, which are typical of any such product of the publishing industry, the mere fact that not a single translated edition is given, or that apart from the translator of the book itself no other translators of such classics as Les Misérables, Ulysses, Oliver Twist, The Quiet American, Wuthering Heights, Huckleberry Finn, to name just a few, are mentioned. In fact, for German readers, all but Berlin Alexanderplatz and Der Zauberberg by Alfred Döblin and Thomas Mann would be translations. While the book is very well made and lovely to touch with a nice smell on top of that, I cannot recommend it as a guide to world literature in general in the sense that since most of the novels are translations, that fact ought to have been dealt with – at in the form of a list of books. In terms of Hugo's Les Misérables, it is interesting to note the fact – unmentioned in the book – that he wrote the novel when in exile on the isle of Guernesey, one of the Channel Islands. In his memory, he had preserved what he had witnessed in Paris until he left for Belgium in 1851 – which was before the rearrangement of the city according to Haussmann mentioned and described in the text (pp. 14/15). This includes both the rebellion of June 1832 and the hygienic conditions prevalent during the Cholera epidemic in the same year. Hugo could have profited from his notes taken as a contemporary witness as well – in that sense he and Heine could well be compared as reporters of “things seen” – in their respective cultures.

For the summer, I recommend you to go out and find the three short books. It is not necessary to have the coffee-table book but if you are in for sensory impressions as well and want to travel at least in your armchair you might also find pleasure in discovering new books and cities.

Wishing you all the best and hoping for better news from everywhere, I close this blog post by referring to one last book you might want to look out for: It was written in English and French simultaneously by Tatiana de Rosnay and published in France on 12 March 2020: La fleur de l'ombre, The flower in the shade (my translation). It is set in the near future – au futur proche – and was presented in 28 Minutes, a magazine on Arte recently. You find at least German sub-titles for this highly interesting interview – followed by a debate on the consequences of deconfinement in France.

Now, I am going to leave you until my return from the vacation,

Jörg W. Rademacher

16 July 2020


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