‘Doesn’t it bother you that we live so briefly? I think it does.’
Fleur Jaeggy, The Water Statues, trans. by Gini Alhadeff, New York: New Directions, 2021 (1980)
The thought has occurred to me more than once: what if these are the best times of my life? My days are brimming with simple joys: I wake in a bed warmed by a night spent with the woman I love. Doves are cooing and the morning sun filters through the bedroom blinds. We walk together through the streets of the neighbourhood, pointing at birds and flowers or fruits hanging from trees, laughing at dogs playing in the park, saying hello to passing strangers, air fresh. We live in Sydney, surrounded by parklands and lush flora—the green shades of grass and treetops and everything in between are almost as soothing as the sight of the ocean. There is barely a rush. Back home, we settle for a breakfast of fruit and fresh coffee then go to our separate rooms for work. At the end of the workday, we are already at home, as if by magic. We exercise, cook, eat, then, soon, it is time for bed again. The roads at night are totally silent; life is simple, as if we live on the edge of a village.
As I write, I am in the fourth month of lockdown for the second year in a row. I am determined to mark this time. There is a curfew from 9pm till dawn and I can’t travel more than five kilometres. I have had my first vaccine dose, as has my partner. My sister, who lives only a few streets away, works at a prison where there is currently a virus outbreak, so seeing her is too risky. My partner’s parents, who live on the other side of the world, have both had Covid—indeed, friends and family, near and far, have suffered, but out of our reach. We cannot socialise, no cafes or restaurants are open for dining in, bars and clubs are totally shut. Life has become a long, boring religious holiday, a day of mourning, like Good Friday, an event which we talk around, maybe even talk at—but not through.
Last year, in what I thought was the worst of the pandemic, I spent night after night monitoring air traffic on FlightRadar24. While I followed the trajectory of planes and helicopters, I believed I was watching the spread of the coronavirus in real time. During that period, I wrote, I read, I exercised, I worked long hours and I pushed myself in every way I could because I wanted the time lost to mean something. My partner and I made things and cooked and baked together, conscious of how we managed our relationship against an unknown threat from outside. We considered questions like, what is life for? What can we do about it? What will we do if we make it through? I thought I had answers.
This time, the world around me has receded beyond my line of sight but also my grasp. Today was the same as yesterday, the same as this time last week, as this time a year and a half ago. Today will be the same as tomorrow. In the last twelve months, we have had long periods of normality; now it seems like we failed to make the most of them—or, indeed, that it did not matter.
This lockdown was a month old when Roberto Calasso passed away. When I heard the news, three things came to mind: firstly, Calasso’s wife, Fleur Jaeggy—I wondered if she was OK, what this meant for her, what she would do with her days now; secondly, I thought of his oeuvre being reduced to the finite; and I thought of Tiepolo Pink.
My pandemic reading, including Tiepolo Pink, saved me. This is and isn’t hyperbolic: we are living in extraordinary times. The book saved me because I was wondering how to shatter, for a moment at least, my daily reality. Can you sit on a veranda or at the window for long enough to see the seasons change? Can you wait for the lizard to appear every day, or the doves? Can you, each day, watch the wind shaking the trees or the light fade? Unable to sleep one night, I watched a video titled 100 Kyoto Gardens: walled Zen gardens in rain, lush and verdant yet impeccably kept. Crickets thrumming as in a haiku. Small, personal waterfalls. Fleeting signs of life, a cat or a silhouette in the distance or the flash of a skirt. Those rocks, you know the ones, set upright, as if they have fallen out of the sky. The images were nice, but I soon became annoyed because none of it was real.
The thing I like most about Calasso is the joy he has in his subjects. Has he written on anything he dislikes? It should probably go without saying: I have never read his books for veracity. This seems important to disclose simply because there are readers who approach a book in the hope it will add to their vision of the plane they exist on, and that it therefore needs some factual heft to it. I am not that kind of reader—no, I am a dreamer. In turn, this, I think, makes me Calasso’s ideal reader—I read his writing to see the world through his eyes, to appreciate what he appreciates, to delight in his delights. I am happy to follow the connections he makes, like the mention of Tiepolo pink in Proust: ‘She too went away to change her dress—not heeding my protestations that no “outdoor” clothes could be nearly so becoming as the marvellous garment of crêpe-de-Chine or silk, old rose, cherry-coloured, Tiepolo pink, white, mauve, green, red or yellow, plain or patterned, in which Mme. Swann had sat down to luncheon and which she was now going to take off.’ Wrongly, I’m sure, I have a vision of Calasso, possibly as a young man, reading the second volume of À la recherche du temps perdu and making a note of the phrase in his notebook, and then there he is, an older man, standing before a Tiepolo in a crowded gallery, marvelling at the scene, its characters, its style, and, just as he steps away, remembering the phrase, wondering for a moment if he himself wrote it. But no, Proust, that lazy deity, did and so he, Calasso, would have to write the book about the phrase.
I want to say that everything under this roof is all I need; the pandemic has been a period of reduction—doing less, being asked for less, seeing fewer people, pruning excesses from my daily, waking life in the way a yogi does when he disappears into the mountains, so that the consciousness becomes like a block of marble. Gleaming and nuanced yet hard, impenetrable. A thing of beauty. But in reality I am bored and seeking distraction. Writing has been difficult, tedious—I look back on my pandemic output and I wonder if my work will ever recover. If I think too hard about it, I am furious—I worry that I am wasting time and that I, my city, even my country, are being left behind. So I try not to think about it. We know we are living in history. The times we will tell our grandchildren about. What will we do if we make it through?