So, if we’re to believe David Miliband, head of an International Rescue Committee meant to prevent a full-on outbreak of the Ebola virus, we’re now at an “absolute tipping point” that could lead to “widespread disaster.” Great. With that in mind, here are ten classic novels where the unthinkable — life-slaying pandemic and endless pain — is thought, recorded, and written about at length. These novels will not help you deal with an outbreak of the Ebola virus, but they do pose a lot of interesting existential questions about pestilential doom.
Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (1351)
This masterpiece and Ur-narrative of plague literature is framed by a story about the Black Death in Florence during the 14th century. Boccaccio teaches us, perversely, to see the plague (in Latin “plaga” means “violent blow”) in the same way we see love. So the next time you imagine someone contracting Ebola, instead just pretend that they’re falling in love.
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
This one is for you city dwellers. Defoe’s “journal,” a docufictional account of London in 1722 as it is ravaged by bubonic plague, poses the timeless question: When pestilence descends upon your city, will you flee, sparing yourself unimaginable pain and horror? Or will you stay and “help others” (die)? Defoe’s innovative work has inspired several plague narratives, most importantly Albert Camus’ The Plague.
Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)
If you believe that Ebola has been exacted on us by a vengeful God, or that it is humanity’s penance for its collective sins, then you will probably hate The Plague. If, on the other hand, the idea of Ebola makes you wonder about the meaning of life, you may well love Camus’ story of a cholera outbreak in Oran, Algeria. Also the novel might actually be about Nazis. So all of those people who make fun of the ISIS=Ebola thing should also be making fun of Camus.
Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund (1930)
In many ways Hesse’s best novel, Narcissus and Goldmund takes one of his trademark philosophical wanderers (think Steppenwolf and Siddhartha) and plunges him deep into medieval Germany, where he visits whole regions laid to waste by the plague. The novel is really too voluminous and grandiose to summarize here, but I will say that it deals with the crucial question: What if someone thinks you have the plague, but you really don’t?
José Saramago, Blindness (1997)
Want to see how fragile a society is? Give it Ebola. Or, in the case of Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago, give it blindness. This is the book to read if you want to sort of, you know, assess how bad this can all get in a contemporary setting.
Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826)
A strange, genre-bending sci-fi novel written in the early 19th century, this one gets geopolitical by questioning the international responsibilities of its characters. Are Europe and America somewhat responsible for the spread of Ebola? The Last Man sort of anachronistically suggests that we are.
Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (1912)
Like Shelley’s The Last Man, this one takes place wildly far into the future (considering it was written in 1912), in this case charting 60 years of the “Red Death” that depopulates the planet before the novel begins in 2073. It questions, among other things, historical transmission. When Ebola ravages our world, what of our culture will we choose to pass along to those who might survive?
Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed (1827)
Manzoni is known mainly for this, a three-volume historical novel that depicts a plague that struck Milan two centuries earlier. It’s too vast and wonderful to properly summarize here, so I’ll only add that it deals with the way plagues spread because of human denial and wishful thinking…sound familiar?
John le Carré, The Constant Gardener (2001)
From John le Carré, talking about the reality of the AIDS epidemic: “by comparison with the reality, my story [is] as tame as a holiday postcard.” Like the BBC 4 show Utopia, which was recently canceled (and will now be reinvented by David Fincher and Gillian Flynn) it questions whether an international conspiracy is behind the epidemic.
P.D. James, The Children of Men (1992)
If you’ve seen the film, you probably already know this story. What if a pestilence causes fascistic political forces to overwhelm the population? James combines the likes of Defoe and Shelley, merging questions of individual and geopolitical responsibility.
Jim Crace, The Pesthouse (2008)
This novel portrays an America that has been more or less totally defeated by a plague. It is not a pretty picture of America. People are more shunned than quarantined. Maybe we’re starting to see the groundswell of this now?