Robert Zaretsky, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague

Robert Zaretsky, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022) 208 pp. $22.50 Cloth. ISBS: 9780226803494 

Faced with lockdowns and isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic, Robert Zaretsky did what many people – especially those of us who work in the humanities – do in times of crisis or trauma, for solace, courage, or for temporary relief or escape: he read. Given his background and profession as a historian combined with the context of the crisis, it’s probably no surprise that a large part of what he read (or re-read) was work that goes by the label of ‘plague literature’. A category of reading material that defies definition, including as it does all genres of literature – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, and memoirs – plague literature is typically characterised as such either due its content, dealing explicitly with disease encounters, or due to the context of its production, which is to say that the authors wrote them in reaction to a personal experience with disease, usually a devastating one.

Zaretsky was not unique in his choice of reading material during the Covid-19 pandemic and there’s ample evidence that people from different walks of life were drawn to reading plague literature during those trying times. He himself describes his choices as too predictable (3). But he is singular among plague readers because in very short order, he managed to combine his reading with his experience of living through Covid-19 to produce a piece of plague literature himself. Another feature that sets him apart from many others is his work, for several months during the pandemic, as a volunteer hospitality aide at a nursing home. The ‘caregiving’ component of the book’s subtitle refers to this aspect of his life during the pandemic.

Part memoir and part extended book review, Victories Never Last takes the reader through five main chapters, each built around a specific work of plague literature drawn from different periods of history from ancient through to modern times. The authors, if not the works themselves, should be familiar to most of us: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the Meditations of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Michel Montaigne’s Essais, The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus. In an introductory chapter, Zaretsky tells us that he chose these books ‘with neither a plan nor a project in mind, simply turning at first to writers whose voices were familiar’ (4). But reading them while consciously experiencing a plague firsthand for the first time in his life, made the experience different from earlier readings, he says; voices that he had once found comforting, now seemed ‘edgy and tinged with urgency’. Like chyrons – the ticker tapes of captions that run across the bottom of television screens with no relevance to the talking heads on the screen – lines and passages from these familiar works began to impinge on his consciousness. Explicitly, these passages ‘threaded their way,’ in chyron-esque fashion, onto other books which he read for the first time. One of these works, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, together with Camus’ incomplete work The First Man, form the meat of an epilogue.

The title of this book bears some explanation, for it wasn’t immediately obvious to me, and without the subtitle I would have never been drawn to it. Even if we were to think of disease as an adversary in a long-drawn out war, and to think of the title as an allusion to the fact that pandemics and epidemics are recurring events that we are never truly and completely victorious over, the analogy does not hold in this case. At the time the book was published we had not – and a year later, still have not – emerged victorious from our skirmishes with Covid-19. The epigraph to the book, an excerpt of an exchange between characters in Camus’ The Plague, offers some better clues. When the protagonist, Dr. Rieux laments his inability to cope with seeing people dying, his friend replies that ‘Your victories will never be lasting’. That entire exchange remains somewhat cryptic to me, but in the light of Zaretsky’s experiences, learning of the death of some of the residents of the nursing home where he volunteered, I can see how the passage might have resonated with him and why he eventually chose to paraphrase it in his title.

Victories Never Last is a short book and I think it would take away from the reader’s experience of it to describe it in any further detail. I will mention that there is a regularity to the pattern of the individual chapters: following a pair of epigraphs, one from, and the other about, the main text under discussion, Zaretsky offers some historical context for the way in which the text came to be written, before going on to interweave his experiences at the nursing home (which, for the sake of protecting the privacy of its residents, Zaretsky does not identify) with liberal quotes from the text. Some chapters also contain descriptions of other writings that influenced the writer: the influence of the Iliad on Thucydides for example, and that of Galen’s medical treatises on Marcus Aurelius. Other chapters feature additional works by the same author: for example, in Chapter Four, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Had this book been any longer, I suspect the regularity of the narrative might have become monotonous, and it would have felt more like a textbook than anything else, but Zaretsky’s expositions are pithy, and that, combined with the poignancy of the residents’ stories, kept me engaged until the end.

Early on during the Covid-19 pandemic, when I was an editor of a newsletter for the History of Science Society, I polled various members of the society and published a reading (and watching) list of their recommendations of plague literature and films. Later I read books from that list and composed mini reviews for many of the texts, at least in my head. When I came across a description of Victories Never Last there was, at first, a slight pang of envy that someone had actually put into writing what I had only thought would be a good idea. Upon reading the book, the envy transmuted to something more like gratitude, for in relating his experiences, Zaretsky enhanced for me what his chosen writers did for him: he ‘helped me better see the world, perhaps even myself’ (9).

Neeraja Sankaran, National Centre for Biological Science, Bangalore, India