Let us look on the bright side. Self-isolation, which used to be called house arrest or a 24-hour curfew, might prove liberating. We can move past the shaming fiasco of toilet paper hoarding. As Shakespeare would have said of coronavirus, "there is a world elsewhere".
With a bit of grit, we could better ourselves. After a few weeks' self-isolating, we might emerge from the cocoon fluent in Chinese, at least competent in calculus, honed by Pilates regimes and able to cook our own dinners. Sex could become inspired. Piles of books on our bedside tables would shrink, as would rolls of fat around our tummies. Following New Zealand advice, we could spend our quarantine out in the fresh air wherever possible, mucking about in the garden, thinking, or sitting placidly reading a book. A bird feeder would bring chatty company into the backyard. Windows would be left open to circulate fresh, clean air and catch an autumn breeze. We would then not be self-isolating, but self-satiating.
Then we could gaze into the world elsewhere. I have long been fascinated by the windows in paintings from the late Middle Ages. Inside, bourgeois or noble couples sit mute, stiffly and complacently, with a window frame behind their heads. Beyond that window lies a world of wonders, either fanciful (castles with crenellated towers, dragons breathing fire) or naturalistic (peasants ploughing a field, fishers hauling in their nets). Both the fanciful and the naturalist perspectives are genuinely good for us. Even isolated, we can seek them out.
How might we reach such a world? In self-isolation, the obvious answer is bingeing on Netflix or chardonnay. Wine is relatively benign; hard liquor more reliably produces depression and bad dreams. Netflix is handy too, provided your picks avoid serial killers, global extinction or any cruelty to children. In addition, we should once more thank providence for SBS on demand, a uniquely Australian reservoir of good taste, true love and cheap thrills.
As an alternative to the TV and the wine rack we could read. A nation of addicted readers could emerge from behind their face masks. Masochists might want to devour books about pandemics. Many are excellent: Havoc, in its Third Year (Ronan Bennett) could be followed by Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) or The Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks). The most gripping and pertinent, though, would be Andre Brink's The Wall of the Plague, in which the fate of a medieval European town, vainly trying to seal out the plague, is used as a metaphor for apartheid-era South Africa.
I respect all those books but recommend none of them for this time. They assume too many of us will die, in quicker and nastier ways than we dreamed possible. Unhappily, they are all more intense than any disaster movie. A world elsewhere demands a few sunlit uplands, spring blossoms, dogs barking, wine corks popping, hope. All those happy elements lie tucked away just beyond the window frame.
One way to enter a world elsewhere is by re-reading those writers who have created an entirely self-contained, self-referential world. That said, their big, long, slow books might need updating. Tolkien's Frodo could toss the coronavirus germ deep into the flames of Mount Doom. Proust could trade in his cherished madeleines for a vaccine, his cork-lined room for an oxygen tent. Tolstoy would expound on War and Peace and Germs. Chaucer could record The Coronavirus Tales.
Smaller books cater better to our shorter attention spans and accommodate an autumn chill in the open air. Nowadays, we do not need any Romantic "willing suspension of disbelief", but rather a willing suspension of alarmist news broadcasts and apocalyptic warnings - for an hour or two.
Any of Jane Austen's six novels offers instant immersion therapy, transporting the reader back to a world of mannered malice more scathing than any trolling twitter feed. To Know A Woman and The Heather Blazing are compact gems: look them up. Turning to my personal favourite, although Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road is only 204 pages long, each segment in that adventure envelops readers in excitement with an edge of irony and a side of wit. Chabon writes as though mixing an eccentric literary cocktail. In a similar way, any Maigret novel by Georges Simenon moves us out of Australia into Paris' Quai des Orfevres. We shift ground from our strained self-isolating diet into a routine of high-cholesterol lunches preceded by beer, accompanied by wine, and followed by a cognac. Simenon's is truly a world elsewhere.
I once pointed out a tiny sliver of blue sky to a Dublin taxi driver, only to have him comment: "that's where the optimism comes in". In self-isolation optimism might seep in, "for peace comes dropping slow/Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings". A few generations ago, lazy parents used to admonish their kids to make their own fun. Now we have to.