Covid Diary, January 2022
30 January, 2022
Day 1 (via texts) 8pm
“Bad News I’m afraid… Me too…”
Day 2 (18th January, 9-10pm)
Impossible to read new things today. So, through streaming eyes, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, from 2015, swims again into view; specifically the second chapter, Dan, and then the next, Constance.
I first read these two chapters immediately after the first one warm Spring evening in 2020, 6 weeks or so into lockdown, between 10pm and I think 3am. Then I went for a walk outside in the darkness, hearing the boats on the Regents Canal, or rather the canal water slapping against the sides of them; someone’s engine running, unable to sleep too; simultaneously in Limerick, Manhattan and this briefly free-seeming London night; utterly entrapped in a world that had shrunk to my garden and my immediate family – even the park next door was closed – and yet also freed, free to wander in Enright’s imagination. Perhaps this is why I reached for it again earlier – my world shrunk even smaller still tonight, to just breathing, pure repetition, a broken rhythm, blackness instead of greenness – the need instead for writing and reading, the possibilities of living therein?
Day 3 (19th January, 10-11am and midnight)
Yesterday passed by in a fog. Unable to concentrate on reading theory or new fiction, or even watching TV. Jack with me, which is soothing, just breathing and stroking. Hungry but no appetite, no energy to cook at all. But breathing is ok, and that’s all that matters I think. World shrunk. No idea how I wrote the above. Who did, even.
Siri Hustvedt describes the intersection of art and literature in her beautiful and tragic 2003 novel What I Loved. Principally their encounter is personified in the description of the friendship of two men in middle age, an artist and a writer, and of the women they love. Their families and family holidays, the city and its surrounding landscapes, are the settings for wonderful conversations and places of intense concentration and imagination.
Heat and fire define a dark city energy – nightlife, recreational drugs, crime and sexual madness: contrasted with the bucolic rejuvenation of life on the coastline, country living. This living is holidaying rather, which is depicted as the time for real, reflective, creative work. Hustvedt invokes Hannah Arendt’s archetype of a productively reflective Vita Contemplativa, I think: imagining imagination in motion as a sort of reverie and break in the rhythm of the urbane busyness of the commercial and academic year.
I loved What I Loved when it came out. Tried then to re-read Bellow’s Herzog, which I’d loved aged 23, in 1992, but Hustvedt had inoculated me against its ironic self-pity and bleakly-needy failed and self-destructive semi-autonomy. Her ventriloquist talent for male voices is astonishing, her clairvoyant gift for impersonating visual artists is almost incredible. It’s a deeply moral and sympathetic book about the consequences of artistic lives lived honestly and with courage, of the consequences of love, of freedom, and of the courage to make painful decisions. It’s painfully honest. Just painful in places. But beautiful and true too.
In this fever I’m living again in books, or rather, in the memory of books, which seem indistinguishable from dreams to me today. My own experiences and memories don’t seem real or to exist any more.
Day 4 (20th January, 9-10pm)
The never-ending sensation, contemplating The Golden Notebook – even the cover of the book gives it off – is of disorientation.
Read on the 73 bus en route from Hackney to Covent Garden in the autumn of 1990, Lessing’s masterpiece fills me with feelings of nausea still. Communists and feminists and a self-obsessed cast of outcasts negotiate life on the edges of bourgeois Camden in the 1950s. The profound gaps between political theory and social practise appear like psychic shocks and even psychotic breaks. Sex and affection sometimes coincide, honesty and passion ditto. A generational slow-fuse reaction to Stalin’s aftermath and the atomic age in general; love unravels, fraternity disintegrates, self-hood unspools, identities fracture like broken mirrors. The incapacity to know what to do and how to do it paralyses everything in the book, people become like objects; no, like broken objects, pieces of people, fragments of beliefs and faith-things. Only the sunlight is golden: everyone in it is in their own darkness though, only the grass is singing (as Lessing points out elsewhere). Reading it is like having a nervous breakdown. It’s brilliant, like broken people often are, seductive, addictive, and highly dangerous, the only book I’d hide from my children. You absolutely have to discover it yourself. I’m never recommending it to anyone.
My son is now ill too, so we were able to lay together this afternoon and watch a silly film, too weak to do anything else other than stroke the dog and try to discuss A Level choices. The same dilemmas come up again and again, the love of craft and drawing versus the need to earn a living; desire for academic exploration and discipline; fascination with metaphors and social meaning; and so in a bizarre reflection – like a burst of light from a mirror in a building far away suddenly bouncing into his room – I hear him say, as I heard myself saying 36 years ago: “architecture, I guess, this is what you’d do if you like books and art and cities and society… it’s the obvious thing….?” The room is suddenly golden, revolving, yet everything is broken.
Day 5 (21st January, 10pm)
Overpowering smell of rancid vinegar tonight, like rotten fertiliser, pickled eggs.
Keep thinking of Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means who squeeze through a hatch onto the rooftop of their London boarding house, only instead of fresh air and an exhilarating view, the grey taste of smog and coal ash everywhere.
Weird head-cold fantasies: chimney sweeps’ brushes pushing up through nasal cavities onto the roof of my mouth; Cod-Cockney accents curdling the sky. Ear nose and throat crimes, fish ‘n chips that taste of sand and ashes; a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar stay down. Umbrellas full of old fish. The canal water smell of burning leaves. Some sort of deranged synestheasia, rather than smells triggering memories, memories triggering smells. Smell dominating all the senses, but all there is to smell is ghosts.
Day 6 (22nd January, 9pm)
Awoke from a dream of golden light in a room looking onto a garden of golden morning light.
The possibilities are surreal but suddenly clear: go to Florence, avoid vinegar.
So that’s what I do: book a pair of rooms on Piazza Santa Spirito. This sounds like feverish fantasy but it’s the opposite. It’s suddenly really clear and possible to accept that we really do need to get out more.
Day 7 (23rd January, 10pm)
Rough day today. Eyes streaming, bone tired, bones ache, heavy headed, feelings of self-disgust. Nothing clever or interesting to say.
Day 8 (24th January, noon )
Finally, some fresh air. Just above freezing this morning, grey, weather-less and still – some blessed equilibrium.