The squares of Europe’s capitals are deserted, its bars and restaurants empty, once bustling roads now silent. With no one around to talk to, the only option is to surf the internet in search of nostalgic memories and answers to the unanswerable causes of a catastrophe that has changed the world as we knew it.
When the Austrian author Thomas Glavinic came up with this post-apocalyptic scenario for his harrowing and critically acclaimed 2006 novel Night Work, translated into English by John Brownjohn in 2008, he had no idea how closely it would come to resemble the real world 14 years later.
As reality has caught up with fiction, Glavinic may not be the only writer to embark on a work of fiction based on Covid-19, but his is probably the first work in progress already being published. The German newspaper Die Welt has been printing his “corona novel” in daily instalments.
“I wanted to capture the mood of this time in history, which we will remember for a very long time,” he told the Guardian.
The first eight parts of the yet unnamed work have consisted of a description of his foray to the local pharmacy, a diatribe about the uninterrupted building works in his neighbour’s apartment, and rumination on theology and global finance that reads more like blog entries.
Glavinic said he planned for the work eventually to take a fictional turn. “It’s a hybrid of a diary and a novel. Capturing the moment also involves inventing things if they want to be invented.”
Many of his previous works were written in a seemingly non-literary style only to veer off to explore more existential questions. They include Der Kameramörder , or The Camera Killer, a thriller published in 2001 and written in the exacting prose of a legal protocol, and Wie Man Leben Soll , or How One Should Live, a novel published in 2004 in the form of a self-help manual.
“My intention with every novel is to create a piece of literature that is written from the heart of our society, but also captures the essence of this society without necessarily being able to put a name to it,” he said.
Glavinic, who was born in Graz, is approaching the current crisis from an unusual angle not only because he once wrote a book about a similar scenario, but also because he has, by his own account, already spent the last three years living in de facto self-isolation.
“Three and a half years ago a lot of things happened in my life at the same time. I managed to liberate myself from a long-term addiction to cocaine and alcohol, and I realised that I was a couple of hundred thousand euros in debt,” he said on the phone from his apartment in Vienna.
The resulting depression led him increasingly to avoid social contact and hole himself up at home, where he often stayed awake for days on end.
“If you are inside a clinical depression, you can’t even write an email or pick up the phone. I lived off stock cubes and went for three and a half years without reading a newspaper. I didn’t even know who had won the World Cup,” he said.
His practical advice, as the rest of world becomes accustomed to the idea of self- or government-imposed quarantine, is to regularly watch episodes of the US animated sitcom Rick and Morty.
“It embodies what I call ‘optimistic nihilism’, which is the philosophical attitude you need to survive a global crisis without falling into a depression. It’s basically ‘We’re all going to die, but that’s not a reason to kill yourself’.”
Despite having specialised in stories about loners and misfits, Glavinic said he believed human interaction was essential. “If you have the opportunity to spend the weeks of quarantine not on your own, then you should try it, because it can help you get better.”