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

First published in the Irish Times on 21 April 2020

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 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague) has sold more than a million copies since the outbreak. Daniel Defoe’s account of the bubonic plague’s grip on London in the year 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 to calm, an already anxious reader. Collectively possessed of historical, practical, and philosophical acuity as they are, they might not be ideal sources of reassurance in the current time. A more comforting read that still addresses our present condition, Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 fiction Voyage autour de ma chambre (A Journey Round My Room) is a curious and oddly soothing reading experience.

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

Written in an age when the European Grand Tour was a tradition for aristocratic young men, De Maistre’s parody is an account of a forty-two day period of confinement to his bedroom, during which he navigates the room in the customary spirit of exploration and openness. Arrested and confined to his Turin home after fighting a duel, De Maistre was a military man and author, born into French aristocracy in 1763. However, the democratic nature of his voyage is what he first recommends to his reader: “The pleasure to be found in travelling round one’s room … is independent of Fortune.” That, alongside the “interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road” are the spoils that prompted him to publish an account of his homely travels.

Just as we have become accustomed to the conditions of lockdown, De Maistre soon accommodates himself to his confinement: “It is quite true that I have made myself as comfortable as possible in my room; but still, alas, I was not my own master in the matter of leaving it.” No trips to the supermarket (though his servant, Joannetti, remains at his service); no two-kilometre radius for exercise (his landscape comprises a mere “parallelogram of thirty-six steps around”).

Starting from an armchair, readers travel northwards to contemplate the author’s curtains, the elm-trees outside his window, and his bed. Each object that enters his field of vision is an opportunity for increasingly digressive personal and philosophical meditations. While the bed “sees us born, and sees us die,” the paintings on his walls prompt a longer contemplation on art and aesthetics. As the narrative progresses, we encounter a journey largely comprised of these contemplative digressions. Though he presents the reader with regular detail on his soft furnishings (rose and white bedspread; two mattresses), faithful dog (Rose, again), desk, library, and travelling-coat (“made of the warmest and softest stuff I could meet with”), De Maistre does not offer an exhaustive geography of everything in his room. Rather, he presents us with a domestic psychogeography, as selected objects provoke reflections on friends, imaginary dialogues with classical figures, and thoughts about his absent beloved, Jenny.

The parts of the narrative that chime most crisply with us in our current confinement, however, are those brief moments when the author is alive and receptive to moments that escape our attention in the regular course of busy days. In the heightened attitude of seclusion, De Maistre is not the only one who has begun to notice “the confused twitter of the swallows that have taken possession of my roof, and the warbling of the birds that people the elms”: birds, lately, are amplified in our quietened streets. The mirror on his bedroom wall appears, symbolically, as a further means for the self-examination that the author pursues. From it, he begins to conceive a “moral mirror, in which all men might see themselves, with their virtues and their vices.” In the manner of the old photographs increasingly circulating in our WhatsApp chats, the author indulges in the particulars of some rediscovered old letters: “How great a pleasure it is to behold … the interesting scenes of our early years, to be once again transported into those happy days we shall see no more.” If tinged with sentiment, these documents also impart a valuable perspective: “In these mirrors of the past I see [my friends] in mortal agitation about plans which no longer disturb them.”

Throughout his confinement De Maistre’s spirits vary, as do our own: he is predominantly positive, though, and heartened by the knowledge that his internment will end, as our own will, too. In the meantime, the author recommends that the reader embraces the unfamiliar benefits of isolation, and the quiet opportunities it offers for discovery and self-knowledge. At the end of the book, as he prepares to step outside and re-enter society, De Maistre is equivocal. On the one hand, he thumbs his nose at his wardens and their punitive designs: “Was it a punishment that I was exiled to my chamber, to that delightful country in which abound all the riches and enjoyments of the world? As well might they consign a mouse to a granary.” On the other, he contemplates the resumption of the social contract, as we may soon regret the need to cast off our comfortable tracksuit bottoms: “The yoke of office is again to weigh me down, and every step I take must conform with the exigencies of politeness and duty.” However, he is ultimately consoled in the moments before opening his door: “I am borne along by an unseen power which tells me I need the pure air, and the light of heaven, and that solitude is like death.” That final conclusion is striking: after offering so much succour for the soul in the preceding pages, De Maistre reminds us that we are social animals too, and are as nurtured by crowds as by our own company.

When our doors open again, as De Maistre’s did, we too will thrill with expectation.

An 1871 English translation of A Journey Round My Room is freely available on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/journeyroundmyro00mais/page/n3/mode/2up



Justin Tonra

Dr Justin Tonra is a lecturer in English at the School of English & Creative Arts at NUI Galway