In a world of lockdowns, the intimate thoughts of long-dead people can be surprisingly uplifting. They went through hell and survived to tell the story. We can thus rest assured that even the direst predicament is bound to end, eventually. We can compare notes. We get a yardstick to measure our own feelings, our own experiences. Besides, reading someone else’s diary appears as if we are invading their privacy. In a safe way, though.
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist and arch-doomstress, identified six reactions people had when living through the Black Death (in her 2008 book of essays, Payback). “To sum up the reactions, […] Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life. These are the only six reactions possible in a crisis, if the crisis isn’t a war. If it is a war, you could add two more – Fight, and Surrender – though these might be dark subsets of Helping Others and Give Up and Party.”
Social media is now beaming with witnesses, many of them overbearing. It might be preferable to browse through diaries already published in book form. To start with, only the most outstanding memoirs, or those of the most outstanding people, pass the publishing hurdles. Moreover, there were editors involved, so the texts were properly proof-read and cut down to form. Or, as a recent meme puts it: “Resist the temptation to take up writing poetry.” Not everyone who feels they have something to say can say it well.
The perennial favourite is, strictly speaking, not a proper diary but a work of fiction masquerading as a journal – Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Published in 1722, it purported to had been written by an anonymous saddler in London during the Great Plague of 1665. Clearly, this could not have been the case – Defoe had been but five years old. Nonetheless, the book is brimming with insight of uncanny timelessness. “I had two important things before me; the one was the carrying on my Business and Shop; which was considerable, and in which was embark’d all my Effects in the World; and the other was the Preservation of my Life in so dismal a Calamity, as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole City; and which however great it was, my Fears perhaps as well as other Peoples, represented to be much greater than it could be.”
In Slovenian, the crisis diary to look for was written by Fran Milčinski, a judge and comic novelist (Dnevnik 1914–1920, published by Slovenska Matica only in 2000). Written during the Great War, the journals were never meant to be published. They depict life at its fullest and most intimate, at a time devastated by the Spanish Flu. But the pandemic receives only scant notice. Mostly, it is about lockdowns and disruptions, fear, loathing, and shortages. “A beautiful spring day,” Milčinski noted on 4 April 1915. “One cannot believe that war, plague, and famine have descended. How could it be under the gentle, mellow sun?” On 28 October of same year, Milčinski recounted the visit of a nurse. “28 years old, looks 40.” She drew strength from telling hairy jokes. Such as the following one about elderly newlyweds. “On their honeymoon, before going to bed, they each put a glass of water on the nightstand without knowing the other’s motives. She deposited her dentures, he, his glass eye. Being thirsty at night, she downed his glass, thinking it contained only water. Trouble ensued, a doctor was called in, prescribing cabbage and mash potatoes. The doctor waited out and finally performed the examination. ‘My lady, someone is looking out at me.’”
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