Lionel Shriver is grateful for pandemic quarantine (no she isn’t)
The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Lionel Shriver, the very outspoken author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and the forthcoming novel “The Motion of the Body Through Space,” reads Pushkin in Russian, learns Greek and imagines a world with no book sales. Or does she actually watch British reality TV and raunchy videos, drink and yell at the news?
Tuesday, 14 April
Jeff and I arise at dawn, so we can sit out back and watch the sunrise. London is so much more peaceful when no one is doing anything unnecessarily productive in it. The clear sky is undisturbed by planes full of folks who didn’t need to go places after all. Now that our neighbors believe that COVID-19 lives on fur, they keep their cats inside. So our garden is full of birds, and I can skip my daily ritual of retrieving all the corpses.
“You know, I’m glad for the lockdown,” I say reflectively. “All this opportunity for contemplation and solitude. And the social solidarity is so uplifting.”
“Yes,” Jeff says. “Social solidarity is a lot easier when you don’t see anybody.”
I return to “Remembrance of Things Past,” because during this becalming stasis it makes sense to read a book in which nothing happens. Jeff picks thoughtfully at the sitar he ordered on Amazon. I’ve always wanted to read Proust, Jeff has always wanted to learn the sitar, and thanks to the British government we can fulfill our dreams.
I head to the Tesco Metro covered in “PPE” (gotta dig all our hip new lingo). Silent, wary social-distance queuing with fellow Londoners I’ve learned to spurn as leaky vessels of lethal contagion means a 15-minute trip now takes two hours. Again I relish the extended meditation and chance for inner wisdom. Lately I really know myself, right? So it hardly matters that I don’t know anyone else.
Jeff and I take a lingering online tour of the British Museum, gawking at big chunks of rock that have endured, stoic and implacable, for thousands of years. Their defiant inertia seems to be telling us something. They’re not going anywhere. So what’s our problem?
At dinner I remark beamingly, “I’m pleased we agreed not to drink during this period of enlightenment and cultural enrichment. The mental clarity is so refreshing.”
This evening, I read Pushkin aloud in Russian. Jeff doesn’t speak Russian but he gets so caught up in the rolling rhythms of the poems that he is moved to tears. I am so moved that he is moved that I cry too. Then Jeff is moved that I am moved that he is moved, and the sofa gets terribly wet. We have tender tantric sex, because we’ve never been this close. Cheers, Boris Johnson.
(I lied. We got up at noon. I read the Telegraph, the New York Times and the Spectator, then maniacally worked on my new manuscript, the only fiction I can stand to read. We watched the Channel 4 News, Newsnight, Sky News, PBS NewsHour and one more car-crash presidential press briefing on CNN. We killed a second bottle of wine. We made a fumbling stab at sex but Jeff was too drunk.)
Authors like Lionel Shriver, Alexander McCall Smith, Laura Lippman and Steph Cha are under coronavirus quarantine too. Here’s what they’re reading.
We stream “Swan Lake” at the Royal Opera House and a host of improving documentaries. We take turns singing karaoke to “Madame Butterfly.” Jeff starts “Moby Dick,” because the whole human race is also engaged in a noble, death-defying battle with Mother Nature. Disinclined to despoil his enjoyment, I neglect to point out which of these parties usually wins.
“I confess,” I ruminate at dinner, “I was peevish at first that my new novel will be released into a black hole, with no bookstores or promotional events. But maybe next month’s publication date is another lucky break. Isn’t selling one’s work a little grubby?”
“It’s a defilement,” Jeff agrees readily, with a sense of excitement.
“An audience for any true work of art,” I say with a returning excitement, “is also a defilement. Surely there’s a purity to a novel no one reads. Reading is a kind of contamination — or appropriation.”
“I feel the same way about jazz,” Jeff says vigorously. “When anyone listens to me drum, they interfere with the music. If clubbers pay a cover charge, the relationship is transactional. The music becomes about money — in a way, it becomes money. I’m so relieved that, on the other side of this, all the venues will be bankrupt and replaced with pawnshops and off-track betting. That way I can play all by myself, like a real pro.”
I pat my husband’s thigh with a touch of condescension. “Oh, honey. You’re right about how fortunate you are to be shed of a viable occupation. But ‘on the other side of this’? Who said anything about another side?”
I take my 2020 diary to bed and put big, joyous black X’s through “Reviewers’ Dinner,” “Book Launch,” “Solo Spectator event at Emmanuel Centre,” “Swiss Festival,” “Ely Festival,” “Bath Festival,” “Dublin Festival” and “Hay Festival,” and then let Jeff do the honors on his own account. He strikes through “JW tour of Portugal” and “JW tour for ‘Bloom’ with Carmen Staaf and Michael Formanek” with a zestful flourish.
(OK, the X’s are real. Otherwise, I lied. We got up at 2 p.m. We watched Knower’s video “The Government Knows When You Masturbate” three times. We devoured five episodes each of Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Come Dine With Me.” We streamed “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and then watched “Quiz,” which, being about “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” gave us the cozy Russian-doll feeling of “Gogglebox”: watching people on TV who are watching TV. I can’t believe Jeff has already polished off that tequila.)
Jeff and I divide up the parts of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” and perform the script aloud. I decide it’s time I learned Greek. I learn Greek. Then I learn to play the violin. It takes a few minutes but within the hour I can get through the Prokofiev Violin Concerto #2 at a good pace. Jeff is doing an online course on Indonesian cooking. I take up watercolors. Then I knit bright woolen masks for the National Health Service.
At 8 p.m. we lean out our front windows and bang pots with wooden spoons to express our gratitude for NHS staff. We feel a warm glow of conformity. The dented pots are ruined, but that’s all right because banging out the window makes so much difference to what happens.
I’ve been managing emotionally but today I’m anxious. Britain’s “three-week” lockdown is closing on four weeks. How will the government keep us safe? Worried, after destroying our cookware, we turn on the news. Dominic Raab announces that the lockdown will last three more weeks.
“Thank God!” I gasp.
“It was super important he didn’t even hint when we’re going to ‘exit,’” Jeff says appreciatively. “The British are a dim and impulsive people, and at even the word ‘exit’ they’d all rush into the street and start licking each other.”
“Back to carving Italian marble?” I propose.
(Not quite. We woke at dusk, which Jeff used as an excuse to crack open the cognac. I carped that he really shouldn’t start drinking before we’ve had our “morning” coffee. Jeff got belligerent and broke the snifter, then tried to blame me for it. We both refused to sweep up the glass. I grabbed the bottle for rewatching Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation” — while we still had one.)
Lionel Shriver’s new novel, “The Motion of the Body Through Space,” is out in May. Please don’t despoil it by ordering a copy.
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