Shortly before the London lockdown, at an eerily quiet branch of Waterstones, I managed to get my hands on The Decameron, by Boccaccio, and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. But Camus’s The Plague had gone the way of dried pasta and toilet roll; there was just a desolate gap on the shelves where the copies had once been.
The primary lesson of plague literature, from Thucydides onwards, is how predictably humans respond to such crises. Over millennia, there has been a consistent pattern to behaviour during epidemics: the hoarding, the panicking, the fear, the blaming, the superstition, the selfishness, the surprising heroism, the fixation with the numbers of the reported dead, the boredom during quarantine.
Defoe would have recognised the impulses behind the strange tableaux of life interrupted in central London: piles of ice melting outside abruptly closed bars; a truck unloading gym equipment at an oligarch’s house in Mayfair; jittery shoppers with overloaded trolleys. “Many families,” he writes, “foreseeing the approach of the distemper laid up stores of provisions sufficient for their whole families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely, that they were neither seen or heard of till the infection was quite ceased.”
The sudden, powerful need to know what’s coming is predictable, too. We turn to historical witnesses who can explain what it’s like. Defoe’s motive for writing A Journal of the Plague Year was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Marseille in 1720. Anticipating its spread, readers wanted to know what it had been like in 1665. Defoe, responding to demand, provided them with an instant book, fashioned out of statistics, reminiscences, gossip, anecdote and blood-curdling dramatic detail. “Passing through Token-House Yard in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, “O death, death, death!”
Defoe almost certainly didn’t witness this – he would have been about five. Novelistic moments such as these would make the book compelling at any time, but right now it has a painful relevance. Defoe is particularly strong on the unpreparedness and prevarication that made the impact of the plague more severe. Or, as he puts it: “I often reflected upon the unprovided condition that the whole body of the people were in at the first coming of this calamity upon them; and how it was for want of timely entering into measures and managements, as well public as private, that all the confusions that followed were brought upon us, and that such a prodigious number of people sunk in that disaster which, if proper steps had been taken, might, Providence concurring, have been avoided.”
Defoe is sometimes dismissed as a hack, but his lack of vanity about his prose is one of the things that gives the book its power. There’s something amazingly bracing about his vividness and curiosity – the bills of mortality, quoted in full; minor characters such as the religious fanatic Solomon Eagle who walks around naked with a pan of burning charcoal on his head; and the imprudent John Cock, a barber who is so relieved by the apparent retreat of the epidemic that he returns to normal life too soon and pays the penalty. Moral: don’t be a John Cock.
So much of the behaviour of our 17th-century forebears is uncomfortably familiar. The citizens of east London watch complacently as the plague tears through the West End, and assume they will be fine. They’re proved terrifyingly wrong. Defoe adds in a chilling parenthesis: “For indeed it came upon them like an armed man when it did come.”
Even before germ theory, Defoe’s common sense and perceptiveness lead him to conclusions of which our chief medical officer would approve. He gives a prescient warning about the danger of asymptomatic carriers: “The plague is not to be avoided by those that converse promiscuously in a town infected, and people have it when they know it not, and that they likewise give it to others when they know not that they have it themselves.”
If human behaviour remains dismayingly constant, one thing that has changed for the better is science and our understanding of it. Seven hundred years on, there’s something deeply poignant about Boccaccio’s pre-scientific description of the spread of the Black Death in his native Florence. “What was particularly virulent about this plague was that it would leap from the sick to the healthy whenever they were together, much as fire catches hold of dry or oily material that’s brought close to it. And that was not all. Not only did speaking with the sick and spending time with them infect the healthy or kill them off, but touching the clothes of the sick or handling anything they had touched seemed to pass on the infection.” You feel like the audience in a pantomime, wanting to shout across the centuries and tell him who the villain is and how he operates.
The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. It is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city’s port and sole source of food and supplies. Thucydides states that people ceased fearing the law since they felt they were already living under a death sentence. Likewise, people started spending money indiscriminately.
Not everyone responds to plague by immersing themselves in data about epidemics. The escapist response to disaster is another predictable move and The Decameron epitomises it. After his short but terrifying description of the Florentine plague, Boccaccio sends his troupe of young characters into quarantine, where they spend the remainder of the book, swapping funny, ribald stories: the plague doesn’t feature again. It’s a welcome relief to lose yourself in a world of cuckolds and randy nuns. And once more, plus ça change. The gilded Florentine youths are doing the 14th-century equivalent of binge-watching Sex Education on Netflix.
Thomas Mann and Camus are less interested in plague itself than in using it to make existential points. The plague in Death in Venice is an avatar of death in general, the terrible mystery, the pale horse; it is something that strips away vanity and reveals unpalatable truths. In Mann’s novella, it is the catalyst for Von Aschenbach’s humiliating descent into clownish self-destruction. At the same time, the pages dealing with the cholera epidemic are vigorous and apposite. The hotels in Venice empty swiftly, despite official protestations that there is nothing to worry about. It’s a young English travel agent who finally cuts through the official flannel. The doubts he raises about administrative competence and probity are ones that in due course we’ll all be obliged to consider. “‘That is,’ he continued in an undertone and with some feeling, ‘the official explanation, which the authorities here have seen fit to stick to.’”
Camus is the real odd one out. The Plague is often read as an allegory of the French experience under occupation, but right now there seems nothing allegorical about it: the hero, Dr Rieux, seems like a naturalistic depiction of a frontline care-worker forced into impossible decisions over who gets a ventilator. At other historical moments, the constant reflection on the meaning of the plague could seem heavy-handed – Gallic, not in a good way – but in 2020 it’s like reading The Crucible while your elderly parent is on trial for witchcraft. For long stretches, you forget any notion of allegory and simply wonder how Camus could have got it so right: from the panic buying of peppermints that people think will be a prophylactic, to the high mortality rate in the municipal jail, to the exhausted healthcare workers, and the terrible monotony of quarantine, something with which we are only just beginning to get acquainted.
And then, of course, the plague ends. That’s the actual good news that these books bring. The epidemic always passes. The majority of people survive. Thucydides himself had it and recovered. “I shall simply tell it as it happened,” he promises of the plague that ravaged fifth-century Athens, “and describe the features of the disease which will give anyone who studies them some prior knowledge to enable recognition should it ever strike again.”
Should it ever strike again is the phrase that awakens our sense of hubris. For all the talk of an unprecedented crisis, we are living through something with many precedents. “There was particularly high mortality among doctors because of their particular exposure,” Thucydides wrote 2,500 years ago in a sentence that could appear in tomorrow’s paper. We have assumed that deadly epidemics belonged to a phase of history that was behind us, as quaint and irrelevant as candlelight and milking your own cows.
When the number of fatalities finally peaks and dwindles, Defoe’s citizens pull up their windows and shout to each other to share the news. Camus’s Oran is liberated; its citizens struggle to make sense of what has happened to them. Back in fifth-century Athens, the Peloponnesian war continues. Whether society changes for the better or worse, or simply stays the same, is what we will find out.