Pandemic Literature, Part 1

Like many people, I’ve become obsessed of late with learning about how previous generations survived pandemics and other events that threatened to change the world. I’ve compiled a reading list on the subject, because for me, novels are the best way to understand a culture and a way of life.

I recently watched a 1998 PBS special on the Spanish flu. One of the people they interviewed talked about losing his mother when he was 10 years old. The man was remarkably articulate, with a gentle voice, his language full of imagery and wisdom. I knew instantly that he was a writer, and probably a very good one.

The man was William Maxwell, who I subsequently learned had spent 40 years as fiction editor of the New Yorker and published several books, including an autobiographical novel, They Came Like Swallows, about losing his mother in the epidemic. I bought it immediately.

Maxwell writes beautifully and insightfully. The book is divided in three sections, from the perspectives of two brothers and their father. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more convincing and engaging narrative from a child’s point of view. Ordinarily, such things come across as too cute or inarticulate, but Maxwell manages it with subtlety and grace. His structure is one of increasing understanding—from the young boy devoted to his mother; to his older brother, who watches the crisis happen; to the father, struggling to deal with his grief.

It’s a portrait of a particular time and place—a small town in the Midwest in 1918—but at its core, it’s a story of family. Bunny, the sensitive child, is pampered by his mother and afraid of his father’s gruffness. Robert, who lost part of a leg in an accident, now finds himself feeling responsible for his mother’s death. And James, the father, realizes how much his life was determined by his wife, how clueless he is about how to go on.

There’s an elegiac tone throughout—not just for the mother’s death (which feels inevitable from the start, before anyone gets sick), but for a way of life, the innocence of youth. The prose itself carries the emotion along, the beauty of language going hand in hand with the tragic content, such that I felt an urge to weep on nearly every page.

How wonderful, in this age of the underambitious and the overrated, to discover another master from not that long ago.


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