As an omnivorous reader, I expected the start of COVID-19 to bring out all my high-minded readerly inclinations—my promises to myself to reread Anna Karenina, to finally wade into Trollope and to get beyond page 60 of Proust. (I had never made it through the first volume, even though Anatole Broyard, a New York Times literary critic, once told me that I was the sort of woman who could never marry a man who hadn’t read all of Proust and I was too embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t done so myself.)
For the first few weeks, however, I found that I could barely read—or do much of anything that required my concentrated attention. I pawed the ground, anxious and distracted, worried about when and whom the pandemic might hit someone I knew and how much vigilance (masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing) was enough. When I did manage to read, it was mainly one of my beloved Brit periodicals, like the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books. Then, suddenly, around the fourth week into the virus, someone recommended a book to me that caught my fancy and I was off and running—into other worlds, many with their own problems, but not in the shape of COVID-19 or Donald Trump.
There’s nothing like an impenetrable, heartbreaking historical dilemma to take your mind off the surreal present: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Island (2019), by Patrick Radden Keefe, fits the category of “true crime,” but in many ways surpasses it, widening its inquiry from the abduction and killing of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of 10, by the IRA in 1972—a time that came to be known as the Troubles—into a larger examination of the intersection of politics and psychopathology. It is journalism at its most pellucid and evocative and brilliantly structured, the whole complex saga beginning and ending with a diaper or “nappy” pin. The elusive but influential figure of Gerry Adams, who helped negotiate an end to the fighting with England in 1988, is perhaps the most fascinating—and chilling—of the many characters, both heroic and damaged, who pass through this story. It’s impossible to put down and equally impossible to forget. Above all, it reminds one, in these solipsistic times we live in, that the catastrophic is always relative.
And then there is the relief to be found from one’s own woes in a rigorous examination of another person’s private life, written in a tone largely without self-pity or after-the-fact rationalizations: Montauk, by the Swiss writer Max Frisch, was originally published in 1975 (reprinted in 2016) and is this prolific playwright and novelist’s last, resoundingly sui generis work. The ’60s-ish writer looks back on a short affair he had with a red-haired American book publicist 30 years his junior. Most of the memoir (today it would more likely be tasked with the term “metafiction”) takes place during a weekend the couple spends in Montauk, on Long Island. There are erotic twinges along the way, but there is something oddly desexualized about their amorous tryst, perhaps because it seems so denuded of real intimacy. Indeed, Frisch uses the occasion of the weekend to look back on his mostly failed relationships with women (which includes two divorces, various affairs, and a difficult partnership with the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann that eventually contributed to her suicide) and consider his part in them. Written in short digressive paragraphs that follow little chronology, Montauk reminded me of one of the reasons I read—which is to find out what is implied but not said and how the familiar can be rendered sufficiently unfamiliar so as to be of consummate interest to other people.
At the end of the third month of the pandemic, when it was becoming ever more clear that an end would not be in sight as quickly as was first envisioned, I was feeling particularly sad about a close friend, the writer Patty Bosworth, who had died of the virus and another friend, someone who had pulled me through my own dark times, who had come close to dying. I didn’t think there was a book, fiction or nonfiction, that could lift me out of my torpor when I came across A Burning (2020), by Megha Majumdar, by complete chance, having (uncharacteristically) failed to read the rave reviews the novel had received. I saw the book lying around a friend’s living room, and, drawn in by the cover and the starkness of the title, I started reading it in bed that night and immediately warmed to the opening line: “‘You smell like smoke,’ my mother said to me.” (Little did I know the relevance this passing observation would come to have.) Several pages into the novel, I knew I was in the hands of a writer with something wholly unusual to say and a wholly unusual way to say it. Set in the slums of India, narrated in part by Jivan, a Muslim teenager who is incriminated in a terrorist act she did not commit, the consequences of which go from bad to horrifying, A Burning is also told by a slew of other characters, ranging from a transsexual to Jivan’s high school gym teacher. Written with enormous skill and sophistication by a young Indian book editor who lives in New York, the novel vigorously propels itself forward while at the same offering a keyhole into a world that is vastly foreign to most of us, while at the same time infinitely relatable to. In all our righteous conversations about the infamous Other, whether it be African Americans or Native Americans or Mexicans or simply an incomprehensible mother-in-law, I have yet to come across a novel that makes the Other truly one of our own.
Finally, a dose of fabulism may be the best cure yet for a psychologically intolerable contemporary moment: Another book that helped me forget the anxiety inside and out were the galleys of a forthcoming novel (September 2020) called The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross. An implausible tale about Kreskol, a tiny Polish village of 900 squabbling Jews that the Nazis, in all their systemic efficiency, managed to overlook, what might have been a shticky and sentimental story about the ways of man or the battle between good and evil instead becomes a riveting narrative about the costs of living in one’s own time as opposed to the benefits and disadvantages of living in a “lost horizon” that has been overlooked by the contemporary world. It’s filled with a slew of intriguing characters, including the young and hapless orphan who is sent out to look for an unhappily married woman who has disappeared from the town one day and stumbles upon a universe beyond his dreams, filled with cars and planes and post offices. If this novel doesn’t take your mind off being holed up in a shuttered-down city or trying to escape the reality of the pandemic by socially distancing somewhere in the country, nothing will.