PARIS—An email arrived a few days ago, shared by a friend of a friend of God knows who, that purported to be something F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote while “quarantined in the south of France during the Spanish influenza outbreak.” And almost as quickly came another email from someone else telling me the original was a fake. Indeed, it had been a parody written for McSweeney’s a few weeks ago.
Still, it was interesting. “It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so,” writes the fictional Fitzgerald, and one might say exactly the same of Paris right now, or Rome, or San Francisco.
If I hadn’t known already this was a joke, the giveaway comes when the faux Fitzgerald tells us in uncharacteristically awkward prose that he told Hemingway the bars were closed, and Hemingway punched him in the stomach for his pains, “to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t.” Faux Fitzgerald criticizes Hemingway for considering the virus “just influenza,” and adds, “I’m curious [about] his sources.”
For my part, I was curious to discover what experience Fitzgerald actually did have with the pandemic of 1918-1919.
From one of the walls of books in the narrow corridor of my apartment I pulled The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and found that in late January 1919 he was a U.S. Army lieutenant sick with influenza in the American Red Cross Base Hospital at Camp Sheridan, Alabama. He was mourning the death by the same disease of his close friend and mentor, the then-famous Catholic Monsignor Sigourney Fay. “I’ve never wanted so much to die in my life,” Fitzgerald wrote in the real letter. “My little world made to order has been shattered by the death of one man.”
The poorly written parody had been considerably more upbeat.
But once I was standing there in the hall, “sniffing the dusty perfume of good literature,” as Aldous Huxley once wrote, I started browsing the titles of old travel books that had not been pulled from the shelf, I suppose, since the last move some years ago. And the ones that caught my eye were, in fact, by Huxley himself.
There was a time in the 1960s and early ’70s when Huxley’s essays about hallucinogens, “The Doors of Perception” and “Rx for Sense and Psyche,” were in the backpack of every kid hitch-hiking to Haight-Ashbury. But I don’t think he is much read these days. Or, if he is, it is because his dystopian 1932 novel Brave New World has somehow lingered on high school reading lists.
(I greatly prefer his 1958 essay in which he revisits the novel with an eye on the present. Among his propositions, legislation “to prevent political candidates not merely from spending more than a certain amount of money on their election campaigns, but also to prevent them from resorting to the kind of anti-rational propaganda that makes nonsense of the whole democratic process.”)
But I digress.
Huxley’s greatest appeal, for me at least, has always been as a travel writer. And when I cracked my copy of his 1925 collection, Along the Road, the title of the first essay jumped out at me here in my quarantined apartment in my locked-down city: “Why not Stay at Home?” it asked.
Right there on page three, Huxley tells us what we all know but what most travel writers try to conceal as diligently as their more dubious expenses. “Tourists are, in the main, a very gloomy-looking tribe,” writes Huxley. “I have seen much brighter faces at a funeral than in the Piazza of St. Mark’s. Only when they can band together and pretend, for a brief, precarious hour, that they are at home, do the majority of tourists look really happy. One wonders why they come abroad.”
Of course, he has a ready answer, which we modern Americans would state crudely as bragging rights. “Traveling gives one something to talk about when one gets home. The subjects of conversation are not so numerous that one can neglect an opportunity of adding to one’s store.”
The snobbery of travel is such, Huxley wrote (and who would dispute this?) that certain places—Paris and Rome, for example—are “aureoled with glamour, till they are made to appear, for those who have not been there, like so many fabled Babylons or Bagdads.”
“Few things are more pathetic,” Huxley writes, “than the spectacle of inexperienced travelers, brought up on these myths, desperately doing their best to make external reality square with fable.”
But for some people, and Huxley ranks himself among them, “traveling is a besetting vice,” and “like other vices it is imperious, demanding its victim’s time, money, energy and the sacrifice of his comfort.”
“Your traveler-for-traveling’s sake is like your desultory reader—a man addicted to mental self-indulgence.”
Ah, yes, I thought as I read that line. And that is exactly what I am looking for on day five of my virus-imposed house arrest, which may soon be day 25, or 55, or, best not to think about it. I am not traveling, so I want to be reading—about traveling. And I can see by the underlining and marginalia in my little Huxley collection many of those places—and those times—that I want to revisit.
Huxley’s essays in Along the Road were written almost a century ago, and one relocates not only in space but in time on every page. His recommended best book to take along on a journey, for instance, is any one of the 32 volumes of the quarter-size Encyclopædia Britannica published on what we probably would call Bible paper, but in those days the colonial Brits called India paper.
Huxley loves the ordered randomness of these reference works:
“It is the book of books. Turning over its pages, rummaging among the stores of fantastically varied facts which the hazards of alphabetical arrangement bring together, I wallow in my mental vice,” Huxley tells us. (He does love his vices.) “A stray volume of the Encyclopædia is like the mind of a learned madman—stored with correct ideas, between which, however, there is no other connection than the fact that there is a B in both. … That one does not oneself go mad, or become, in the process of reading the Encyclopædia, a mine of useless and unrelated knowledge is due to the fact that one forgets. The mind has a vast capacity for oblivion.”
Huxley is also an inveterate people watcher. Taking snippets of conversation and appearance, “one reconstructs in the imagination the whole character, the complete life history” of complete strangers—then dreads actually meeting them. “For, alas, the objects of one’s curiosity prove, once one has made their acquaintance, to be, almost invariably, quite unworthy of any further interest.”
Yes, Huxley is a terrible snob. But he is also a wonderful observer, fascinated by the surprising contrasts of first-hand experience. In Along the Road, most of the traveling is done in Italy, and to several places I, for one, have never visited.
He goes to Portoferraio on the island of Elba, and skips the Napoleon museum, but takes in a spectacle of hideous blast furnaces seen from the old town above the sea: “The chimneys, the cranes, the furnaces and buildings, the heap of rubbish, the very ground in this little area between the Mediterranean and the mountains—all were soot-black. Black against the sky, black against the golden-glaucous hills, blackly reflected in the shining blue water.” It seemed to him to be beautiful. “The mind delights in violent contrasts,” he wrote.
Huxley’s descriptions of the Palio at Siena are a tour de force, but they are not as memorable as passages in the same essay about the flights of swifts and swallows around the tower where he has a room. “I have sat at my window watching them tracing their intricate arabesques until I grew dizzy; till their shrill crying sounded as though from within my ears and their flying seemed a motion, incessant, swift, and bewilderingly multitudinous, behind my eyes.”
Here in the hallway of my apartment, I stand in front of the bookshelf transported one moment to the black furnaces of Elba, the next to the hypnotic swallows among the towers of Siena.
And still, the plague slips in among the pages. But, reading Huxley and Fitzgerald, who were of the same generation, I am struck by how little they wrote, directly, about the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. One reads in passing that Fitzgerald was hospitalized, and that 250 of the students at Eton, where Huxley was briefly a schoolmaster, fell ill.
Weirdly, in “The Gioconda Smile,” a famous short story in the Maupassant mode that Huxley wrote in 1922, the insufferable protagonist during a brief moment of contrition plans to get back to writing “that book he had been intending to write for so long—The Effect of Diseases on Civilization.” These include the plague at Athens as recorded by Thucydides and “malaria in Southern Italy.” But no mention of the Spanish Flu.
Historians say that in Europe, especially, the generation decimated by the Great War of 1914-1918 saw the disease as one more part of that apocalypse later known as World War I. Even the Americans—who didn’t reach the battlefield until the last year of the war, and who lost about as many casualties to the flu as to German gas and guns—seem to have felt that way. It was all part of the same horrific picture.
Then it hit me: if there is a light at the end of the tunnel, or at the end of a book-filled corridor, at a time like this, it is that something like a new world emerges afterward. The day after is not the same as the day before, as French President Emmanuel Macron told us a few days ago.
What came after the Great War and the Great Pandemic a century ago was a decade of extravagant life as chronicled by Huxley, in his way, and quintessentially by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Personally, I am looking forward to the Roaring 2020s.
A note to readers: After I wrote this essay, I was pleased to discover that most of the essays cited from Along the Road, which is long out of print, are available in Aldous Huxley’s Complete Essays: Volume I, 1920-1925, in hardcover or as a Kindle edition.
Complete Essays, Vol. 1: 1920-1925 by Aldous Huxley