The coronavirus shutdown had barely entered its second day before social media was aflame with rumours of the likely aesthetic consequences. Doubtless, some Twitter wag suggested, Richard Curtis was already hard at work on a senior citizens’ romcom, in which, as it might be, Bill Nighy and Anna Friel would be found simpering at each other from adjoining balconies. If this prospect weren’t enough to chill the blood, the following days’ newspapers were full of reports of writers whose desk drawers just happened to contain pandemic-themed thrillers that their agents had reckoned unsaleable two years ago but were now positively glistening with commercial allure.
Sadly, the evidence of recent cultural history insists that all those unpublished manuscripts would be better off staying where they are and that Mr Curtis should be encouraged to wrench his hand from the contract. When the first coronavirus books start appearing in a year, or even six months’ time, they are far likelier to be dispatches from the medical front line written by NHS staff. You could just about imagine a halfway decent poem being written about empty streets, deserted parks and the afternoon’s death statistics. The coronavirus novel, on the other hand, will probably have to wait.
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If this sounds unnecessarily proscriptive, then the lesson of two world wars and the assorted national meltdowns of the past seventy-five years is that fiction is no good in a crisis, resists being written to order, dislikes having to confront world events head-on and prefers operating by stealth. The most successful short-term responses to the Second World War, most literary historians agree, were filed by poets or reporters (even Julian Maclaren-Ross’s war-era short stories, collected in The Stuff to Give the Troops (1944) are effectively pieces of reportage). Meanwhile, the best novels written about the war while it was taking place tend to underplay the actual fighting. Monica Dickens’s The Fancy (1943) is mostly set in a west London aircraft factory harnessed to the war effort. Its characters’ waking hours are governed by the war’s privations – ration books, clothing coupons and the sight of people unrolling their bedding on Tube platforms during the early morning commute. Military conflict is incidental to the novel: it simply hangs in the background like slowly descending fog.
Significantly, the great British ‘war novels’ took years, and sometimes decades, to complete. Unconditional Surrender, the final instalment of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, hung fire until 1961. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy petered to a close in 1965. The Military Philosophers, the last volume of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence to deal with his hero Nick Jenkins’s wartime career, emerged as late as 1968. Part of the reason for this delay lay in the fact that it took Waugh and Powell a certain amount of time to establish the ideological framework in which they imagined the Second World War to have been fought. They were right-wing writers who assumed that the ‘People’s War’ interpretation of the conflict had worked a deeply injurious effect on postwar English life. But another part lay in the authors’ sheer hesitancy, their recognition that vast international crises don’t easily yield up their import and that the best treatments are sometimes those that come in at the obliquest of angles. Like The Fancy, Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day (1947) is a war novel that in certain respects is scarcely a war novel. Set over a twelve-hour period in a Sussex village in the summer of 1946, it features a married couple who are just beginning to come to terms with some of the war’s implications for the hitherto placid tenor of their domestic lives: the absence of servants, the faint awareness that the substance of their world ‘had very slightly curdled and changed colour’. In much the same way, Julie Burchill once remarked that pop music’s finest response to the Northern Irish Troubles of the 1970s was the Undertones’ ‘Here Comes the Summer’, in which the principal subjects are girls and beaches and the Troubles go unmentioned.
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If viruses and world wars are difficult to accommodate in fiction, what about the ogre politicians of left-wing demonology? I am just old enough to remember the first ‘anti-Thatcher’ novels, written by such authors as Julian Rathbone, Terence Blacker and Tim Parks, which began appearing in the mid-1980s. They were, almost without exception, satirical and/or strident. One might remember the words put into an imaginary Thatcher’s mouth by Michael Dibdin in Dirty Tricks (1991): ‘You don’t want a caring society … You say you do, but you don’t, not really. You couldn’t care less about education and health and all the rest of it … All you want to do is sit at home and watch TV. No, it’s no use protesting! I know you. You’re selfish, greedy, ignorant and complacent. So vote for me.’ Similar harangues are doubtless being put into the mouths of fictional Boris Johnsons as I write.
An unintended consequence of these torrents of unmediated fury, as many a left-wing novelist now seems willing to concede, was that many of the novels sent out into the world with the aim of satirising Thatcherism ended up coming very close to glorifying it. Again, Thatcher’s most convincing appearances in fiction are those in which she slides momentarily yet unignorably onto its margin: the ‘gracious scuttle’ of her walk-on in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004); the scene in which, in her previous role as secretary of state for education, she addresses a group of students in Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love (1995).
The same point could be made of Donald Trump. Any fictional judgement, as opposed to a savage article in the New Statesman or a withering London Review of Books critique, pronounced at this stage in proceedings is liable to be horribly premature, however satisfying to the wounded sensibilities of the person who writes it. Howard Jacobson is supposed to regret having rushed out Pussy in the early days of the Trump presidency, and I can’t have been the only reader who thought that The Golden House (2017), Salman Rushdie’s take-down of the modern American political system, began to go wrong at the precise moment that the Trump character started to throw his weight around. There are novels to be written about coronavirus, but they probably shouldn’t be written yet. And the novelist who at some point will chasten us with an account of what Trump did to America is probably still in kindergarten.