Sharing lockdown with Fantine, Brother Juniper, and a hideous small boy

Contributor: David Marsh

If not for lockdown would I ever have taken up the gauntlet and turned to Fantine, the first tome (of five) of “a sort of essay on the infinite,” as Victor Hugo called Les Misérables? Now embarked on this epic literary voyage through two thousand paperback pages, I struggle at times not to exercise one, even two of Daniel Pennac’s imprescriptible rights of the reader: to skip pages and not to read to the end. Hugo introduces the tragic Fantine after about fifty thousand words, almost half of which are devoted to telling the reader that the Bishop of Digne is a just man. Yet the grandiose sweep of the story, its limpid style and haunting characters are driving me onwards. Wish me fair winds and following seas.

Lockdown has given me an opportunity to make modest inroads into the unread fiction littering my bookshelves that has for years been gathering dust. Those visible reminders of literary shortcomings, now remedied, include Pride and Prejudice, Dr Zhivago, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (the first two of the twelve volumes, so far), Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

While playing this literary catch-up, I invoked another of Pennac’s rights, that to re-read, and revisited the city of my schooldays, Rochester, in its 19th century incarnation as Cloisterham in Dickens’s last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, first through the opiated vision of the baleful John Jasper and then in the company of the bibulous Durdles, a stonemason whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the cathedral crypt proves key, and a “hideous small boy” he pays to “pelt him home (…) if I ketches him out arter ten!” (echoes of the curfew here in France, formerly “arter ten” and now “arter six”).

The Great Gatsby accompanied me on another journey into the land of déjà lu, but a few pages in I sensed something was amiss. At which point, the hideous small boy might have yelled “Yer lie,” this being “his only form of polite contradiction.” And he would have been right. In truth, memory, that constantly rewoven remembrance of things past, had transmuted a previous false start, film adaptations, and magpie readings into the book itself, thus adding it to the mental list of works I’ve “read.” How many other unread books, I wonder, are on that list.

I returned also to Romain Gary’s La Vie devant soi (translated by Ralph Manheim as The Life Before Us), a stylistically idiosyncratic, tragicomic paean to love. Momo, an orphaned Arab boy, tells of his struggle to help Madame Rosa, a survivor of Auschwitz and former prostitute who makes ends meet in the Belleville neighbourhood of Paris by boarding the children of streetwalkers. Old and ailing, worn down by daily cares, haunted by the past, Madame Rosa whenever distraught pulls from under her bed a large portrait of “Monsieur Hitler” she keeps there as a reminder of one thing, at least, she need no longer worry about.

With the distractions of the wider world beyond reach, lockdown has given me scope to read (and “listen” and “watch”) around a work of fiction, using it as a port of departure (and sometimes of arrival: see True Grit below) for a journey which in the case of The Grapes of Wrath took in a critical essay or two, John Ford’s film version, a television miniseries on The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns, Dorothea Lange’s photographs, Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, and, on YouTube, the film biography John Steinbeck: An American Writer. All of which served to anchor memory and deepen understanding.

The Coen brothers’ film True Grit, with its compelling storyline, vivid characters, and quirky idiolects, led me to its source, the eponymous novel by Charles Portis, about which Donna Tartt’s words render mine needless: “I cannot think of another novel—any novel—which is so delightful to so many disparate age groups and literary tastes.” 

Nonfiction works that can be read piecemeal, a chapter or essay or passage at a time, and shorter fiction have been constant and engaging companions during lockdown. Finds have included Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal, Things that Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, etc. by Galen Strawson, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition by Patricia S. Churchland, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake by Steven Novella, The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist by John Mullan, and Peter Singer’s Ethics in the Real World, as well as Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, bought in Lisbon shortly before the first lockdown, short stories (Graham Swift, Annie Proulx, and Luis Sepúlveda, who succumbed to COVID-19 in the first wave of the pandemic), and comic relief (PG Wodehouse, Damon Runyon, an audiobook of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, in a memorable reading by John Simm).

Wearied by the sameness of days, robbed of companionship, emotionally drained, we may in lockdown turn to an age-old question in the face of misfortune: “Why us?” The Bridge of San Luis Rey considers just such a question. Thornton Wilder’s novel begins: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” Believing the deaths to be an act of God, Brother Juniper, who was himself about to cross the bridge, wonders “Why did this happen to those five?” and seeks an answer by delving into the details of their lives. His six-year labour of love complete, he presents his findings and is burned for heresy, along with his book.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey poses questions that, in the end, remain unanswered, but its closing lines speak of what in a letter Wilder called “a strange unanalyzable consolation”: “soon (…) all memory of those five will have left the earth (…). But the love will have been enough (…). Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

David Marsh

2 comments

  1. I do so empathise regarding the Hugo – there are whole chapters of that book where I read them and thought: OK, yes, noted, but if I wanted to read a history book I’m sure I could find one. I wonder what a really good editor would have done with it? Possibly turned it into a musical…

    1. A musical, now there’s an idea! I’ve given that a miss, and will continue to do so, but there are good TV adaptations that edit out what perhaps readers nowadays would qualify as “waffle” and get to the heart of a powerful story. Were Hugo alive today, he would perhaps be railing against social injustice and the death penalty on TV and social media rather than in his novels. He was also, after all, an active and committed politician. It would be an interesting challenge for him to limit himself to 280 characters per Tweet!

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