We’re all faced with the same challenge: finding comfort and sanity in this world turned upside-down by the coronavirus. From Windham, in upstate New York, Joyce Zonana writes about how she finds what she needs.
More than fifty years ago, I read a novel that would influence me for the rest of my life: Henri Bosco’s Malicroix. I had been led to it by Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a wondrous book about how humans relate to “felicitous” spaces: cellars, garrets, huts, houses, drawers, chests, wardrobes, corners . . .
I was living then in a bare three-room walkup in Brooklyn, having moved out— at eighteen— from my parents’ home, very much against their wishes. I felt guilty and lost, but I knew I needed to be on my own. Most of my days were spent huddled on the floor of my bedroom, afraid to go outside by day, afraid even to enter the cockroach-infested kitchen at night.
But I could read, and somehow Bachelard’s book came to me and taught me what it might be like to be safe in the world, to feel safe in the confines of a house— or a book— that nurtured and sustained me.
Bachelard’s central example of such a house was in Malicroix. Called “La Redousse”— The Redoubt— it was located on a wild island in the south of France. Early in the novel that simple structure of plaster and reeds shelters its lone inhabitant through a monumental windstorm. “Like a she-wolf, the house hugged me close,” the narrator writes. “At times I felt its motherly scent reach down into my heart.” The narrator has inherited the house from a solitary great-uncle. But to actually acquire it, he must live in it alone for three months, facing his fears and experiencing his own solitude.
Reading about that house in Bachelard’s book, I knew I wanted to read Malicroix. I could find it only in French. So that’s how I read it, only partly grasping what it said. I’d grown up speaking French, but this dreamy book— Bachelard had called it a “vast prose poem”— eluded me. And so I decided I would have to translate it, if only to understand it. I plugged away at it. Publishers rejected my drafts, and I put the manuscript aside.
Today, I write from a small farmhouse in upstate New York, where my husband and I have been fortunate enough to be during the COVID-19 crisis. Built in the mid-nineteenth century, this house has some of the same qualities as La Redousse. With its heavy wood beams and earthen basement, it has withstood windstorms and floods. It comforts me at a time when comfort is hard to find. As we learn that our world for now is much more threatening than we had imagined, we embrace our solitude and create safety for ourselves in our homes and in the books that first gave us shelter.
And I’m happy to be able to announce— improbably but most fittingly— that my translation of Malicroix, taken up again eight years ago after I started spending time in this very house, is about to come out, almost fifty years since I first started to work on it!
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey (Jewish Women Writers).