A Novel for the Plague Years

When the Spanish Influenza comes on stage in William Maxwell’s 1937 novel They Came Like Swallows, the family at the heart of the book pays it little attention. The reader knows, however, that this is the gun that is going to go off.

Eight-year-old Bunny Morison is deep in his own thoughts when he’s arrested by the sound of a word. His father, James, is reading the headlines out loud for all to hear. “What is Spanish influenza?” he recites. “Is it something new? Does it come from Spain?” Here’s what Maxwell writes about the moment: “The word epidemic was new to Bunny. In his mind, he saw it, unpleasantly shaped and rather like a bed pan.” Bunny is Maxwell’s stand-in in this autobiographical novel, and he shares his creator’s appreciation of the talismanic power of certain words and phrases. He does not know what an epidemic is, but he knows it’s not the kind of thing you want around you. Bunny’s mother, Elizabeth, is no more interested than her youngest son in this talk about far-off things. She asks her husband to read about something else. 

It’s late summer 1918, and the Morisons, like the rest of America, have their own concerns and “real” news, like the war, to worry about. They also have little clue what is coming at them. As recounted by John Barry in “The Great Influenza,” the US government had discounted the seriousness of the outbreak throughout 1918. President Wilson himself never mentioned it publicly, even after falling victim to it himself

A family oblivious about what is to come; a nation in denial; some magical thinking and a shaky understanding of biology. All of this may seem familiar. 

When the Spanish flu comes, it strikes Bunny first, then his older brother Robert, and finally both his parents. The mother does not survive it, just as Maxwell’s own mother did not. In the aftermath, the family falls apart, as James leaves his children in the care of a relative and plans to sell their home. It’s a short, sad novel, saturated by Maxwell’s own grief and pervaded by a sense of isolation.

***

The plague syllabus contains many books, from The Decameron and A Journal of the Plague Year to Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and Station Eleven. Most of them have many elements in common: disbelief, panic, dread. What makes They Came Like Swallows so apt for our pandemic is the scale. The book lacks the dramatic sweep of Love in the Time of Cholera, the philosophical weight of The Plague, or the sheer horror of The Road, but that’s where its power lies. Narrated, in succession, by Bunny, Robert, and James, the novel uses the narrowness of the character’s lives and the limitations of their consciousness to register, through the very failure to comprehend what is happening to them and to the world, the enormity of both a disease that would end up killing at least 50 million people and the loss of a mother and wife.

Maxwell, who was the fiction editor at the New Yorker for four decades, described his own work as an effort “to examine the significance of small things out of a distaste for the grandiose.” A pandemic might seem a strange choice for such a writer, but They Came Like Swallows is a masterpiece of small things that captures the way so many of us are living now.

Almost every moment in the novel occurs indoors. For Bunny, who lives inside his own imagination, this is no problem, but for his older, sporty brother Robert, this is a cruel joke. “His mother couldn’t keep him home indefinitely,” he thinks to himself. Things as awful as that didn’t happen.” Sounding like millions of children across the nation right now, he asks “What good was it having school closed? What good was all the time in the world? So long as he had to stay in his own yard, what good was anything?” As we all now know, not much good at all.

Like our president, Robert’s Uncle Wilfred is impatient with the stay-at-home orders and ready to open up America. “It’s one thing to close the bowling-alley and the pool-halls,” he declares. “But to close the church of Jesus Christ is something else again. Anybody would think that church gatherings are unhealthy–that they’re particularly conducive to the spread of disease.” 

It’s easy enough to recoil at Uncle Wilfred or Robert, particularly in hindsight, when we know what the Spanish Flu did. Covid-19 has killed more than six hundred thousand people around the world, made millions sick, and thrown tens of millions into grief and financial desperation. There are heroes working in hospitals, nursing homes, and essential services, but for many people, the most salient daily experience of the pandemic is an Uncle Wilfred-like state of disbelief that we now largely live our lives confined to our home and the Internet. 

There are many strangenesses about this moment, but one of the most striking is that we are living through a world-historical event that will have massive, global consequences for at least the next decade, and yet has your life ever felt so small, so pared down? We are socially distanced, and yet the whole planet is united in this experience. We are together in our isolation. There’s never been a moment in my life when so many people around the globe were doing the same thing. 

It’s just too bad that thing is nothing. A few months into this, who doesn’t share Robert Morison’s sense of time: “One day became for him hopelessly like another.”

***

It’s a matter of preference, if not personality, whether in times like these you seek comfort in art about times like these or in their opposite. Two of Netflix’s biggest hits last spring, Outbreak and Tiger King, speak to competing coping strategies, embrace or escape. 

I spent the first month of the lockdown in escape mode, reading the entire Tintin series on my own and reading Tove Jannson’s extraordinary Moominland books with my daughter, but I eventually found myself needing something closer to our current reality. They Came Like Swallows gave me a comfort I’m tempted to call homeopathic, using fiction about a pandemic as a way to feel stronger during a pandemic.

The literary critic Frank Kermode once argued that the power of fiction is that it provides “a sense of an ending.” One of the miseries of our moment is that we are entirely lacking that sense. Maxwell’s novel does not provide it.

It does, however, provide some shape for the major event of his own life, the death of his mother, but it never finds any meaning in it, since it can never deliver her back to life. As in one of Maxwell’s favorite novels, To The Lighthouse, the mother’s death in The Came Like Swallows occurs outside of the narrative, between Robert’s and James’s sections. It’s a hole in the story, just as it was a hole in Maxwell’s life. What is there to comprehend, after all, when a loved one does? One day your mother is here. The next day she is gone. There’s no making sense of that. There’s no drama in it. It’s barely a narrative. It’s just memory and grief. But there’s something respectful about that refusal of meaning, something honorific even.

That’s where Maxwell’s power as a guide through this moment comes in. They Came Like Swallows is not so much about the Spanish Flu as it is about the possibility of letting the world be what it is and still finding something of value there, even if it’s something as small as a phrase or, better, a child’s appreciation of a phrase. Maxwell’s greatest genius was his ability to render the comings and goings of the thoughts and emotions of others, especially children, which he accomplished through attention to minute particulars and the fine emotional movements that occur in a moment, a lesson he learned by reading modernists like Virginia Woolf.

Take, for instance, the moment, on the last day Robert is allowed outside, when he and his friends are saying their goodbyes without any knowledge that it’s their last day together for a long time. 

So long, McCarty
See you tomorrow
So long
Whose cap is this
So long 
Somebody lost his cap
See you tomorrow I said
And don’t forget
See you tomorrow

“So long, see you tomorrow” is a phrase that so captured Maxwell’s imagination that over forty years later he used it again, as the title of his best novel. There and here it captures an essential aspect of the child’s experience of time, where every parting is also a promise of a return. So long is not so bad, or long, when I will see you tomorrow…until I don’t. 

Maxwell’s fiction often returns not just to the past but to that moment between “so long” and the tomorrow that never comes. He goes there not to make sense of it, but to render it real once more. 

Time kills us all of us twice, once directly and then indirectly, by killing everyone in whose memory we live. The Spanish Influenza burned itself out in 1919, but it also burned itself out of memory and history. It’s striking how little fiction there is about the century’s worst pandemic. There has been a great deal of interest in the topic in recent years, especially now, but I was taught nothing about it in high school history classes. Is it possible that two decades on, at the end of the Great Depression, with fascism on the rise around the world, that many of Maxwell’s first readers might have already forgotten the Spanish Flu? 

If so, that only makes Maxwell’s deeply sad novel even more comforting right now, since it’s his profound commitment to remembering not the great events of history but the moments and emotions of those living through them. It’s his commitment to a human scale of being, and a resistance to the grandiose and historical that should provide us solace right now and a way of living through this. 

So long. 
We cannot go back to the way it was.
But we will come back. 
See you tomorrow.

James S. Murphy is living in the Golden Age of Webinars @james_s_murphy