In our new series Quarantine Reads, writers present the books they’re finally making time for and consider what it’s like to read them in these strange times.
An extended self-quarantine resembles, in many aspects, any religious-minded circumscribing of the daily round—a meditation retreat, a monastic cloister, a ritual purification. There is the same restraining force, liminal and protean, keeping one within the enclosure—not quite mandatory, not quite voluntary, but a volatile mixture of superego, conformity, altruism, and the anxiety of social sanction. There is the withdrawal from social life, the distillation of most personal interaction to the telegrammatic and unavoidable. There is the ascendance of repetition—the same cycle of meals, the same rooms, the same window, the same orbit of light from that window. And within that tightened repetition, unintentionally noticing, finding yourself incapable of ignoring, certain physical tics and emotional reflexes, patterns that were previously subliminal. Brushing a chip in the wall paint as you round a corner, lifting yourself just barely but entirely off your chair as you pull into the kitchen table, discovering the tonic thrum of the refrigerator under the clicking of the kitchen clock, the uniquely personal sound and resonance of your spoon scraping, inadvertently but consistently, on the chipped bottom of your bowl. Both retreat and quarantined life become microcosm magnified to macrocosm, like the map drawn to the same scale as its territory in Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science.” The most minor elements of the daily routine flower to monstrous proportion—I have known, in the midst of a retreat, the consumptive, totalizing desire for just one extra bread roll; the tattooed memorization of the flowering, spidery cracks on a poorly plastered ceiling; the gnawing curiosity about what lay beyond the finite universe to which I had confined myself. And above all, there is the imperative to focus obsessively and intentionally on reflexive actions that were, in the previous life, unnoticed, the white noise of bodily existence—in the case of a meditation retreat, it is one’s breath; in the case of the coronavirus, touching one’s face moves from compulsive background to neurotic foreground. Every touch is monitored, assessed, brooded over.
And alongside this radical shift in scale, there emerges a deepening capacity for interiority, as if cloud cover had burned off a valley floor, revealing in sharpness each tiny aspect of the scene, diorama-like. It becomes easier and more natural to follow internal trains of thought; the inner monologue grows louder, more assertive; and the inner vision vivifies, leaning asymptotically toward eruption, tangibility. It is a paradoxical state, both heightened and diminished, murky and transparent, perfectly captured by V. S. Naipaul in his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival. He frames it, fittingly, as a variety of illness, a childhood “fever,” writing:
A great tiredness, not unpleasant, a tiredness with the little delirium that—alas, too rarely—had come to me as a child with a tropical “fever,” this fever associated with the chill of the rainy season, the season of extravagant, dramatic weather, of interruptions in routine, of days off from school because of rain and floods, and the coughs and fevers to which they gave rise. How often, as a child, having had my fever, I had longed to have it all over again, to experience all the distortions of perception it brought about: the extraordinary sense of smoothness (not only to one’s touch, but also in one’s mouth and stomach), and, with that, voices and noises becoming oddly remote and exciting. I had never had fever as often as I would have liked.
The “distortion” extends both outward, to the touch, and inward, to the sense of the body itself. A retreat, a quarantine, a sickness—they simultaneously distort and clarify, curtail and expand.
It is an ideal state in which to read literature with a reputation for difficulty and inaccessibility, those hermetic books shorn of the handholds of conventional plot or characterization or description. A novel like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is perfect for the state of interiority induced by quarantine—a story of three men and three women, meeting after the death of a mutual friend, told entirely in the overlapping internal monologues of the six, interspersed only with sections of pure, achingly beautiful descriptions of the natural world, a day’s procession and recession of light and waves. The novel is, in my mind’s eye, a perfectly spherical object. It is translucent and shimmering and infinitely fragile, prone to shatter at the slightest disturbance. It is not a book that can be read in snatches on the subway—it demands total absorption. Though it revels in a stark emotional nakedness, the book remains aloof, remote in its own deep self-absorption. The opening of the first monologue describes the strong spectral presence of the novel itself, lays down its own gauntlet: “‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’” I have read the opening pages at least a dozen times, but have not yet been able to string together the unbroken attention required. There is no better opportunity than this moment to try again, for The Waves is itself about this estranging and revealing state. The characters, in a ring, each take turns to talk to themselves, speaking to their interior landscapes with total clarity, and with all the hallmarks of extended isolation—the simultaneous telescopic intensity and dazed distance, the noticing of sensation and reflex as if they were new, numinous. Goes the round of private proclamation: “‘A caterpillar is curled in a green ring,’ said Susan, ‘notched with blunt feet.’ ‘The grey-shelled snail draws across the path and flattens the blades behind him,’ said Rhoda. ‘And burning lights from the window-panes flash in and out of the grasses,’ said Louis. ‘Stones are cold to my feet,’ said Neville. ‘I feel each one, rounded or pointed, separately.’ ‘The back of my hand burns,’ said Jinny, ‘but the palm is clammy and damp with dew.’” The descriptions of the exterior world are, fittingly, given to a disembodied third party, with a suprahuman eye—a bracing blast from the outside, to which we will eventually and inexorably return. For now, though, we are given the time to explore the close, feverish, interior world of The Waves.
Matt Levin is a writer living in Uganda.