Put down The Plague, a novel by De Maistre is more hopeful

In lockdown for 42 days in 1794, author finds pleasure ‘in travelling round one’s room’

Portrait of Francois Xavier De Maistre (1763-1852), French writer and humorist. Photograph:  DeAgostini/Getty

Portrait of Francois Xavier De Maistre (1763-1852), French writer and humorist. Photograph: DeAgostini/Getty

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, many people have sought in literature a balm for current fears and anxieties. In Japan, a translation of Albert Camus’s The Plague has sold more than one million copies since the outbreak. Daniel Defoe’s account of the bubonic plague’s grip on London in 1665, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), has received renewed attention, as has Mary Shelley’s contagion novel The Last Man (1824), and Station Eleven (2014), by Emily St John Mandel.

What unites these novels, however, is a deficit of optimism likely to disturb rather than calm an already anxious reader. Collectively possessed of historical, practical and philosophical acuity as they are, they might not be ideal sources of reassurance.

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