Alexander and I
Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. Tatitana in the Bronze Horseman. Vianne in The Nightgale. Alexander in A Gentleman in Moscow. What do all these characters have in common?
All of these characters begin their stories on the precipice of change. The changing of their community, their country, and the world. Rather like Alexander, I am watching from the inside of my home. No, not because I am under house arrest as he is but, self-isolation in the face of Covid-19. Please don’t stop reading because you are up to your hat buried in information, memes, and news about this situation already. I promise that this blog is not all about to the capital C word.
As I was saying, I am a character midway my narrative and, suddenly, because of the author, everything is turned on its head. Here, I am on strike. There is an infectious disease sweeping the world. I’m stocking food to survive for weeks at a time in my home. Education is increasingly moving online in the face of global need. My job is changing forever as we spend more time online than ever before. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that 2020 is the mark of an epoch. Thinking about all of the changes happening around me got me thinking. Well, scared then depressed but, then thinking.
A few posts ago in Why Can’t I Read?, I mentioned that I couldn’t get through A Gentleman in Moscow despite it being perfect for me. I realized that I couldn’t finish it because the timing wasn’t right. That is why I ended up lending it to a friend for their book club and finishing it yesterday. The stage was set perfectly for me to connect with the book. For instance, take this quote:
Showing a sense of personal restraint that was almost out of character, the Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness. (page 419)
There you have it. A loving father’s advice that strikes a chord with the reader. But, the first piece of advice had been given previously by the Count to himself on page 28 after he is imprisoned in the Metropol hotel, where he’d been living, and threatened with death should he step a foot outside it’s doors. I read it – it didn’t stick. So, I am certain that if I had finished the novel when I started it weeks ago, it wouldn’t have stuck the second time either. I needed to be where I am in my life right now for it to fulfill it’s destiny in my life.
Meaning, I understood it and felt it’s rightness. I need to master my new circumstances. I have to find a way to embrace the changing nature of my job and master it. For my family’s sake, I have to master this period of self-isolation by being a good steward of all that I have been blessed with, all the skills I have, and my ability to learn what I need to learn. Or, I risk sinking into depression and worry and being left at the mercy of whatever my circumstances throw my way.
Speaking of depression and worry, that is what I need to fight against at every turn. Finding new and more online ways to have fun with my students, be cheerful when we’re together, and not let my professional worries drag us down – that is what I need to do. Now, spending the next few weeks at home with my family is going to take all my wisdom and more than a little grace to be cheerful. My mom used to tell us stories of how her family laughed, sang, and lived through the Second World War in Holland. There are beautiful childhood memories despite the pain, chaos, and want. I need to give my girls beautiful, happy moments to get through the dark times and create cheerful memories with them. Again, I know this quote wouldn’t have made the impression it did six weeks ago.
Isn’t the purpose of great literature to open your mind to new ideas, to have you experience things you wouldn’t have otherwise, and to provoke thought? I have been thinking a lot lately. Virginia Woolf once said, ” Then suddenly, like a chasm in a smooth road, the war came.” That’s kind of how it feels doesn’t it, change? These changes in my life certainly do. As I said earlier, it has me thinking. What literature will come about as a result of the events of 2020?
This had me thinking of examples from literary history. After WWI, we saw literature that focused on the loss of innocence in a generation and the horrors of war in books such as; Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. In the 1920’s and into the early 1930’s, works such as; Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, or Sanctuary by William Faulkner focus on living for pleasure, sexuality, and social progress and tend to celebrate life, jazz, and luxury. The Great War changed the world and literature changed with it.
After World War II, there is a resurgence and extension of realistic war and military books like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. We also have 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, Lord of the Flies by William Golding which are dystopians novel that illustrate and explore the perils of totalitarianism. These novels were written to make people think.
So, when I think about the writings that will come in the next five to ten years, I wonder what we’ll see? What themes will arise? What patterns will emerge? Whose voices will we hear? What narrative style and genre will be most prevalent? The literary future makes me wonder.
I’m going to leave you with one final quote that really resonated with me from A Gentleman in Moscow which will, hopefully, strike a chord with you, too.
He said that our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we preserve and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along. (page 441-442)
We are all being steered by uncertainties, yours maybe different than mine or they might be somewhat the same. But, navigating them with steadfastness, kindness, and a desire to help those around us, who are also working on living a life. Finding that “bold new life” that we were also meant to lead, is that what change is supposed to bring about? It seems to me, from what I’ve read, the life you were meant to lead comes from out of nowhere and in the most unexpected ways – usually brought about by change and adversity and the courage you show in the face of it all. It certainly did for Alexander. I hope that I can one day look back and say the same.