Retiring in mid-February, I foresaw a somewhat sedentary future. However, this virus has taken that prediction to unexpected heights. With my time in isolation (“isolation” being a relative term; after all, I do have a family and devote time to my own writing), I’ve been able to get to a measure of books that have been sitting on the shelves with my promise to get to them.
With that in mind, I thought I would offer up a series of pieces on recommended reading as well as other approaches to writing, creative or otherwise. These are all offered, of course, from my particular point of view, but some readers might want to give these titles a look as long as we’re all “hunkered down” for the time being.
With that, allow me to introduce the first in a continuing series I will label “Reading Well in Times of Illness.”
Wanna read a “plague” book? Here’s one for starters. . .
Where have you been all my life, Giovanni?
You’d think that, studying lit, I’d have read Boccaccio’s Decameron during my undergraduate studies, but somehow, that was not the case. Feeling guilty about that, I bought a copy last year, and the timing couldn’t have been better than the present to actually read it.
Full disclosure: mine isn’t the complete text but 25 stories chosen for the edition I selected, but I’m still glad to have gotten around to it at some point in my lifetime. Even with what appears to be a somewhat “clunky” translation, I regret the years of never having visited this work. I’ve long known how Boccaccio inspired Geoffrey Chaucer, after translating it into English, to write The Canterbury Tales, but readers can also see the influence that this has had on many future writers.
In the first story of day one, Boccaccio recounts the tale of a con man wrangling near-sainthood status from the Church. The character is reminiscent of Moliere’s Tartuffe with a trace of Nikolai Gogol’s Chichikov in Dead Souls.
One even sees traces of Shakespeare in these ribald, often downright dirty tales that are occasionally a dark but always fascinating peek into the human condition—something that hasn’t changed much despite all our other advances. Like Shakespeare’s plot twists, there are disguises, dirty deals, and other assorted forms of human villainy sprinkled with a hearty portion of goodness and generosity.
And so it goes.
By the way, that plagiarism of Vonnegut is not accidental since his view of human behavior and character are in Boccaccio’s writing as well.
Written in a style very much in the oral tradition of storytelling, Boccaccio’s narrators regale each other during a time of plague, proving how important “stories” have been and continue to be in buttressing our spiritual, cultural, moral as well as mental health.
Anyone willing to take a deep dive about 700 years back will find a worthwhile literary journey in these pages. Plus it’s easily found it online.
Bible studies, Burgess style
Did somebody ask for deliverance?
Moses, a fictional narrative based on the biblical figure’s life by Anthony Burgess, is one of many of his works that have gone unread, not my intention during the times I bought them.
While most know Burgess for A Clockwork Orange, that’s hardly his best. He is the primary reason I pursued an MFA after a 15-year absence from school. As a writer, Burgess stands as one of a select few who could go toe-to-toe with Umberto Eco.
Burgess is, by the way, the author of my favorite novel, Earthly Powers, a book ten years in the making. That book also has one of the greatest opening lines ever (but more on that later) as well as being a story in which everybody, and I do mean everybody—including some spiritual beings—comes out with blood on their hands. I consider Earthly Powers the greatest work of fiction from the 20th century. I know, I know: I blaspheme. I should go with Henry Miller, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or any one of the many other canonical writers considered sacrosanct in English departments everywhere.
Now I recall why I love (and envy) his writing so much. Moses combines aspects from two of his other works: Napoleon Symphony, where he presents his interpretation of the diminutive conqueror’s life while dividing the book into four sections attempting to replicate the pacing of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, and Man of Nazareth, a look at the life of Jesus as narrated by a Greek merchant returning from business in Jerusalem at the time immediately after the crucifixion.
At any rate, back to the Old Testament.
Moses strikes out on its own in several ways, beginning with its structure. A narrative in verse. it reminds the reader of the Greek epic poems. It humanizes its characters—even Ramses, the story’s initial antagonist.
Moses himself suffers from a speech impediment. This is not unexpected for readers familiar with Burgess since most of his characters with outward physical defects tend to be the only complete person: recall the grotesquely ugly minister defending Alex in Clockwork Orange or the narrator’s disfigured sister in Earthly Powers.
Like all things coming from the mind of Burgess, there are many moral and ethical lessons to derive from this one. Issues such as free will, individual responsibility, and respect for simply stated (not grandiose and intricate) law are chief among those.
This may be one of the most accessible and readable books from Burgess although I’d still recommend having a dictionary handy since the linguistic “tricks” found in his diction always entertain and educate the reader.
A “plague” book, Part II
Although best known for his Dune series, Frank Herbert’s 1982 book The White Plague may be just what the doctor ordered these days.
In a nutshell, Dr. John Roe O’Neill, an American biophysicist visiting Ireland on a research grant, witnesses his wife and twin sons killed during an IRA bombing. To say he “loses it” would be a serious understatement. The first chapter opens with an ancient Irish curse—“May the hearthstone of hell be his bed rest forever,” and Herbert delivers fully on this hex from there.
O’Neill returns to the states, isolated and vengeful, and decides that since a political cause took his wife and children from him, he would reciprocate. Designing a genetic virus that does not affect men but kills females, he adopts the name “The Madman,” releasing his biological scourge on the world by infecting low denomination bills.
Once released, the plague destroys the world in short order, causing whole nations to collapse, even forcing the Vatican to relocate to Philadelphia. As the world descends further into self-isolated tribes killing anyone approaching, Scotland Yard conducts its hunt for “The Madman.”
However, this not simply the story of investigators trying to locate and capture “The Madman.” That is there, of course, but there is much more.
Like the allegorical Magic Mountain—where Thomas Mann used a tuberculosis sanitarium as a vehicle for examining European nations on the edge of World War I, Herbert uses this book as a means to study nations and their peculiarities. It also offers the author an opportunity to study people’s reactions to the direst of situations as well as their use and pursuit of power.
At fewer than 500 pages, The White Plague offers a much more restrained analysis of such behavior as is seen in the massive Dune series.
Up Next: GRAND OPENINGS: Favorite first lines.