In March, Covid-19 changed our lives utterly. We were cut off from the world. Outside it was cold, and by 4 P.M. it was dark. We each were alone, and didn’t know what would happen next.
I wanted a way to connect, to see people’s faces, and to talk about something important besides current events. Since I’m a Lit professor, I proposed a program for the Cornwall Library – “Cornwall Reads Great Fiction.” I would read a great story each week – out loud, so no one had to prepare – then lead a discussion. People could lose themselves in the narrative – funny, or challenging, or heart-rending – and talk about it. I wanted the solace that literature provides; Cornwall Library said yes.
We read distinguished writers: William Trevor, V.S. Pritchett and Norman Rush; Munro and Chekhov, Wharton and Hemingway. And we had distinguished participants: ahem, Cornwall! Our own Titus Welliver read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Our own Blair Brown offered lapidary observations about Chekhov. Our own Frances Taliaferro had been the teacher of Lydia Davis, whose celebrated translation of Madame Bovary we read.
I’d earlier agreed to give a course on Madame Bovary, which I teach at Hunter; we folded it into ”Great Fiction.” Our audience grew: our participants were from New York, Pittsburgh, Maine and London, as well as intrepid souls from Salisbury and Lakeville.
The discussions were wide-ranging, articulate and energetic. We disagreed on many things – How can you call him sympathetic? He’s a jerk! But can we feel sympathy for him because he admits it himself? Sometimes my students criticize Emma Bovary, but Cornwall readers felt compassionate: I wondered if it was because we were feeling vulnerable ourselves. Certainly we’d immersed ourselves in other peoples’ lives, other times and other countries – Russia, France, Italy, Africa, Canada. We discussed empathy, beauty, authenticity and compassion, as well as modernism and romanticism.
Teaching by Zoom was challenging but fun. People were at home, so I could observe their natural habitats. I knew what their rooms looked like – Titus, that sure looked like a bed headboard – and I knew how their dogs sounded (there is something about Zoom that makes a dog bark, often in response to another dog, barking from another Zoom connection). I knew who sat beside their spouses, and which spouses passed quickly behind the sofa, avoiding the camera’s eye. Jane Bevans often sat on the sofa and knitted, which was immensely calming. Siblings turned up unexpectedly, old friends and new. The faces on my screen created a mosaic of connections – to the Library, to Cornwall and to literature.
Covid is still with us, but it’s warmer now, and lighter. We’ve found other ways to connect. I’ve ended my part in “Cornwall Reads Great Fiction,” with thanks to the Cornwall Library for making possible this way to connect.
Later, how will we look back on this time? For all of us, this will be the dark cold spring of Covid. For some of us it will be the time when we read great stories, and talked about them together.
📸: top photo: Roxana Robinson by Beowulf Sheehan; bottom photo: Zoom screenshot of Roxana Robinson and participants