These are twelve tales for the empty hours. They’re stories about waiting, about watching, about deferral and delay, about abeyance, about being somewhere else, at a distance, at a remove. They’re books about being stuck.
Early in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Jessica asks a question. “What was it like? Before the war?” She knows she was alive then, a child, but it’s not what she means. The question is impossible to answer. There’s nothing to recall. “All I remember is that it was silly. Just overwhelmingly silly. Nothing happened.” Jessica doesn’t want to know about the events that came before the war, the abdication, the fashion, the politics, but something stranger and harder to grasp. What did it feel like to live in a world that wasn’t always exploding? Flashes of small incidence. Games, pinafores, girl friends, a black alley kitten with white little feet, holidays all the family by the sea, brine, frying fish, donkey rides, peach taffeta, a boy named Robin… It barely exists.
If you’re like me, you might have suspected, for a very long time, that we were going about our lives in the blank empty period before the war.
I live in London. My girlfriend lives in New York. A few months ago, this wasn’t really much of a problem. I can do my day-job from basically anywhere; there was nothing really stopping me from jetting off across the Atlantic to sprawl around her apartment for a few weeks and develop strange obsessive new opinions about pizza. Now? The catastrophe we were all waiting for has finally arrived, and it’s another wait. The coronavirus puts everything in abeyance. If you don’t want other people to die – and I don’t – the only thing to do is to stay inside. Put your plans on hold. Suspend all hope. A vast pause descends on the world, and the future disintegrates. It rots into empty time.
My girlfriend works in fashion. You can probably see the problem: it might be fun to swan around an empty home in something expensive for a day or two, but nobody really needs couture during a plague. It belongs to the old world, the one of seeing and being seen, before the war. It might still return, when we come out of this thing. (When we come out of this thing is already in mythic time now, like when Judgement Day arrives or when the revolution comes.) But things won’t ever be the same; reality is already mutating while our backs are turned. Distance and delay seep into the stuff of the world.
I talk to her on the phone. Her face swims out of pixels and glitch. Can you see me? Can you hear me? I can hear you but I can’t see you. I can see you but I can’t hear you. Because I’m a dickhead, I spend a decent chunk of my time coming up with annoying little try-hard troll-statements to get a rise out of her. Being queer, I say, is when you’re either a gay man or a straight woman. She’s better at this game than I am. Well done, babe, she says, her voice full of enthusiasm and serenity and distance. I miss her a lot. I don’t know when I’ll get to see her again.
I have a flatmate. I have some hens I can visit without the risk of contaminating anyone. They’re wonderful birds; they bounce and cluck and follow me around the garden on their stubby little legs, and then once they’ve raced down to where I’m sitting they’ll peck at the dirt a short distance away, cooing happily, pretending not to notice me. But they’ll glance, sometimes, with dark gentle eyes. Herzog was wrong, and chickens are not stupid. They like to know I’m there.
For everyone else, the best thing I can do is be somewhere else.
One of Adorno’s aphorisms: every work of art is an uncommitted crime. Literature has always been a kind of grey substitute for the world. (From the very beginning, in fact; the signifier and the symbolic begin as sacrificial offerings, born out of the terror of castration.) To read or write is the opposite of living, which is why Nietzsche had so much scorn for people who could read a book in the morning. When you read, you are not in motion, you’re not in your body, you’re barely in your own head. You are displaced. You are also alone. Literary prose is the best system we’ve ever devised for really accessing the subjectivity of another human being – but for it to work, the other person has to be absent, annulled in words, stripped down to the ghost of a voice. (This is why communities of writers usually produce mediocrities, and communities of readers are always ruled by psychopaths.) Every book is a miniature quarantine zone.
The tales in this list are not Great Books to finally get around to, now you have so much time. Some of them are long, but others are short, very short. These are not achievements to tick off your list, so you’re still productive while you’re self-isolating, so this enormous hush descending on the world doesn’t stop you Achieving Your Goals. If that’s what you’re after, you might as well just give up now rather than later, and just binge-watch something on Netflix like everyone else. These are not stories to distract you from your isolation, to make it pass quicker, to make you feel better, to nourish your soul during the uncertain months ahead. Literature is not therapy, and putting a bird-feeder on your window will achieve all those things better than any book ever could. These are books that lengthen the silence in things.
* * *
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Under such suffering, speech and silence alike are beyond me.
A man is pinned to a rock, alone. Others pass by. They beg him to ask forgiveness and free himself, but he’s full of scorn, and he refuses. Prometheus is certain that one day, Zeus will have to free him: a disaster is coming, and only he can prevent it. History completes the joke for us. The second and third parts of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, are irretrievably lost. We’ll never know who the enemy was that only Prometheus could defeat. He is still on his rock.
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The time is out of joint.
A late Elizabethan grimoire, a guide to communicating with ghosts. An atlas of interstices, hiding-places, shadows: the spaces behind a tapestry, the chapels, the maze of ramparts, the places where bodies lie, compounded with dust, the innards where something is rotten. An agony of indecision. But most of all, a guide to reading and writing when you’d rather be doing something else. In the first act, Hamlet decides to wipe away all saws of books: to give up words and act. When do we see him next? Enter HAMLET, reading.
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs?
A lazy amble through the world and words. Famously, Tristram isn’t even born until a third of the way through; to account for him would mean accounting for everything. Like many of the best books – Moby-Dick, or Ulysses, or the Bible – it’s a treasury of the whole of the world, in which all its variegated stuff is pressed up close together, and everything that exists is only a distraction from something else. Most of all, though, it’s a book about time. Chronological time, measured by the clock, and the sexually exciting pauses as it runs down and is wound up again; narrative time, bending and contracting and racing ahead of itself; writerly time; historical time. It stretches forever, and everything and nothing happens in it at once. This is a long book, but you have plenty of time.
Joris-Karl Huysmans, À Rebours
The tortoise was still lying absolutely motionless. He touched it; it was dead.
Jean Des Esseintes, a dying thirty-year-old aristocrat, shuts himself away in a house on the outskirts of Paris, where he builds himself a synthetic paradise. The walls must be painted in colours that suit an artificial light; the poisonous plants he grows must look like artificial flowers, with ghastly pink blossoms. Like the 120 Days of Sodom, it’s less a novel than a catalogue of sensations. In the 21st century, we’re all Sadeans now: maybe not murdering and mutilating, but impoverished aristocrats in a tightly enclosed world, where the only goal in life is to curate exceptional experiences. Lockdown only accelerates the process. In retreating from modernity, Des Esseintes becomes its founding genius.
Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’: A Tate of the Forecastle
Nothing seems left of the whole universe but darkness, clamour, fury – and the ship.
The titular character is James (or Jimmy) Wait, a crewman on a ship from India to London. He announces himself by shouting that name: it can’t be made out on the ship’s roster; it’s all a smudge. The chief mate thinks he’s trying to hold up the ship’s departure, and he’s not wrong. Wait is a gap, a blockage, a delay in the imperial circulation of goods and capital. As soon as the Narcissus sets sail, he starts insisting that he’s about to die. He is a bad omen. First the ship capsizes, then it’s becalmed. Wait admits that he feigned his illness, but he’s quarantined anyway. Then, he really does start to become sick. Only when he dies can good winds speed us to London. Obviously, the book’s title leaves it open to the accusation that this is simply a racist text. Is Wait a fully human and fully realised character? No, of course not. He has a head powerful and misshapen with a tormented and flattened face – a face pathetic and brutal: the tragic, the mysterious, the repulsive mask of a nigger’s soul. Which is the entire point: he lives in a world in which he’s only legible as a smudge, a blockage, a gap, a distance. You should be able to relate. His mask is your mask: the soul of a disposable human subject in a time of plague.
Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
I longed to go back to the forest. Oh not a real longing. Molloy could stay, wherever he happened to be.
There is a voice, maybe one voice, maybe several voices, it’s no matter, they are here, or perhaps they could be elsewhere, perhaps it’s you who are elsewhere and they who are here. No matter. You are lost here. You travel in straight lines by reading in circles and travel in circles by reading in straight lines. No matter. Go on.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Castle to Castle
I’m always talking about myself!… It was easy for Hamlet to philosophise about skulls!… He had his security! We certainly didn’t!
A world is ending, even if that world is the Third Reich. Céline, with a gaggle of fellow Vichy lackeys, flees to Schloss Siegmaringen, a kind of Nazi Gormenghast, where the French fascists are making their final pointless stand. In a sense, this is Céline’s most hopeful book: even with the nightmare of the war as his subject, he can’t help but be his bilious self, unchanged and unchangeable. He keeps surfacing, again and again, to the present, where he whines about his literary reputation. (I’m just no candidate for the Pantheon… highest priced worms in the world!) A panicked scene at a railway station gives way to an extended rant on the practice of rating women’s looks on a twenty-point scale. (I’m speaking of all this as a veterinarian, a racist so to speak… the socio-Proustian terminology of the drawing rooms could easily turn me into a murderer… I’m only handing out marks… nothing else… “Hike up your skirts! Now let’s see! What mark?”) All he has is bitterness and spite. Bitterness and spite might save us, too, in the end.
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose
‘What an infernal face!’ he exclaimed, and spat with disgust. ‘If there were only something there instead of the nose, but there is absolutely nothing.’
A fable for the disintegrating body. A man’s nose appears in a loaf of bread. At first it’s an execrable object, to be dropped off a bridge – but as its one-time owner tries to find the thing, he discovers that his nose has become a state-councillor in a gold-embroidered uniform with a stiff, high collar. It firmly but politely refuses to rejoin his face. Political power always has the ability to strip us down into our constituent parts. Your mouth, your hands, the fluid in your lungs. What is an N95 mask for? It keeps your nose in place.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights
I am a dreamer; I have so little real life that I look upon such moments as this now, as so rare, that I cannot help going over such moments again in my dreams.
It’s summer, the sun barely sets, and the city is empty. Everyone has fled for their summer villas; you have been left behind. You wander the streets alone. You are a stranger to everyone except the houses; you imagine them talking to you when their owners are gone. For a moment – a flash, a bright second – you meet another person and fall in love. But the rules of social distancing were imposed on you a long time ago. A whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?
Bruno Schulz, The Comet
A spool of insulated wire became the symbol of the times.
This is not a story about the end of the world. It’s a story about a world that wants to end. Not from exhaustion or despair, but in the full confidence of its knowledge of itself. The most progressive, free thinking end of the world, befitting the times, plainly honourable, and a credit to the Supreme Wisdom. It was Schulz’s last story. The greatest Polish author of the twentieth century was shot on the street by a Nazi officer in 1942.
JG Ballard, The Enormous Space
This conventional suburban villa is in fact the junction between our small illusory world and another larger and more real one.
* * *
The final story is At Night by Franz Kafka, possibly the last human individual to ever truly Get It. It’s extremely short, and I’m reproducing it in full.
Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, an innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.
We must be there for each other. Which is to say, we must be elsewhere, for each other.