This Devastating Fever
Title: This Devastating Fever
Author: Sophie Cunningham
Publisher: Ultimo Press
Alice had not expected to spend the first twenty years of the twenty-first century writing about Leonard Woolf. When she stood on Morell Bridge watching fireworks explode from the rooftops of Melbourne at the start of a new millennium, she had only two thoughts. One was: the fireworks are better in Sydney. The other was: was the world’s technology about to crash down around her? The world’s technology did not crash. But there were worse disasters to come: Environmental collapse. The return of fascism. Wars. A sexual reckoning. A plague.
Uncertain of what to do she picks up an unfinished project and finds herself trapped with the ghosts of writers past. What began as a novel about a member of the Bloomsbury set, colonial administrator, publisher and husband of one the most famous English writers of the twentieth century becomes something else altogether.
Complex, heartfelt, darkly funny and deeply moving, this is Sophie Cunningham’s most important book to date – a dazzlingly original novel about what it’s like to live through a time that feels like the end of days, and how we can find comfort and answers in the past.
Sophie Cunningham’s This Devastating Fever leads us toward the great upheavals of the modern age, drawn as they are from narratives embedded in the past. What begins as a wryly sardonic take on a writer setting out to fictionalise the life of Leonard Woolf – partner to Virginia Woolf and member of the famed Bloomsbury set – quickly becomes so much more. Cunningham reveals her deep knowledge of the literary world, poking fun even as she draws the reader towards a somehow both devastating and heartwarming conclusion: the world may be on the precipice of doom, but writers still offer a way to illuminate – even leaven – all that lies ahead.
When Leonard stood up he was taller than expected. After more than twenty years of marriage you would have thought Virginia would have the measure of her husband, but she did not. Leonard leaned towards her. Virginia held his face in hers and admired its deep lines. She found it rather marvellous that the two of them seemed to have grown tighter like this. Not just in spirit but appearance.
‘We must prepare for Vanessa’s,’ she said. ‘Your headache?’
‘Of no account. She misses Julian. Besides, there are to be dress-ups.’
Leonard looked hangdog. He didn’t mind how ridiculous they would seem once in costume; he had dressed up as all manner of creatures over the years: Prince Albert, March Hares, Mad Hatters. It was his wife’s health that concerned him.
‘We are going to the party,’ Virginia continued, ‘and I have worked out exactly what we are to wear.’
Leonard raised an eyebrow.
‘I’ve had Louie set aside some boxes. That is all it will take.’ He waited.
‘Bookshelves!’ Virginia clapped her hands together. ‘Each of us a bookshelf. One labelled Fiction, the other Non-fiction.’
‘Which of us will be which?’
‘Seriously, Leo. Do you even have to ask?’
Alice Fox had not expected to spend the twenty-first century writing about Leonard Woolf. When she’d stood on Morell Bridge watching fireworks explode from the top of Melbourne’s taller buildings at midnight on the first day of the year 2000 she’d had only two thoughts. One was: the fireworks are better in Sydney. The other was: is Y2K going to be a thing?
Y2K was not a thing. But, as it turned out, there were other things. Environmental collapse. Hen’s collapse. The return of fascism. Wars. Plague.
In the early days of writing her novel, Alice’s agent, Sarah, would occasionally take her to lunch and ask what was taking so long. Alice had explained once, twice, many times that she had hoped to write a novel about September 11, and been inspired by Leonard’s response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Then the shot was fired in Sarajevo which destroyed the civilization and the way of life which I had known in the first 34 years of my life.
Leonard Woolf, 1964
Alice had experienced a similar foreboding on September 11 as she watched the towers come down. Her pursuit of echoes, of reson- ance, had gone on from there.
‘Interesting,’ Sarah had responded, once, twice, many times. ‘But not, in and of itself, a novel.’
Alice would return to first principles: at the beginning of their relationship she and her not-yet wife, Edith, drove to Seymour to buy their second Burmese kitten. The first had been lonely, so they’d returned to purchase the only sibling from the litter that hadn’t sold. Apparently his square, oversized head and crackly meow made him less appealing, though his square head was, as far as Alice and Edith were concerned, exactly what made him magnificent. They named him Wilson. Wilson, and his sister, Iris, became quite the distraction. Once she had two cats, Alice would try to identify the correct position to put their baskets on her desk, next to the photo of her baby self being held aloft by her father, sometime in 1964. Black and white. Her little embroidered dress. Bloomers. She was gazing into her father’s eyes. He was gazing into hers. They were both laughing at the joy of being there, together, loving each other, making the world anew. It was hard to fit all this—computer, sentimental items, books, cats—onto her desk. Perhaps she needed a bigger one. She might have to get into the car and drive to Ikea, which would mean getting caught behind a tram. She might buy a Linnmon/Oddvald combi- nation then realise she needed another Billy for her books. These would have to be put together.
Sarah—who was, like Alice, a white Australian woman, well north of middle age by 2020, and, as a consequence, used to non-sequiturs— would try to rein in these meanderings.
‘Are you telling me you can’t finish your novel because you have cats?’
‘That is one reason, yes.’
‘I’m going to send you a book to read,’ Sarah said. ‘It’s by Geoff Dyer and is about how he tried to write about DH Lawrence but couldn’t.’
All over the world people are taking notes as a way of postponing, putting off and standing in for.
Geoff Dyer, 1997
Over the course of two decades and many awkward exchanges, the lunches became less regular, though the excuses Alice came up with continued apace: climate change anxiety. The need to make an income. Dengue fever. The writing of books that were not the novel. Caring for Hen.
Caring for Hen had led to a crisis regarding the nature of narrative itself and when Sarah asked why, Alice tried to explain that dementia was a form of discontinuous narrative. Tried to explain how she’d felt simultaneously fascinated and devastated as she watched new forms of logic assert themselves in her friend’s brain: words detached, language floated apart, yet some relationship, some tension, some bond, continued to organise the sounds the woman Alice loved into Hen-shaped molecules of meaning.
Another pressing issue, not particular to Alice alone, was that it stopped being possible to make a living writing novels. This meant, that sometime in the twenteens, Alice started teaching people How to Write a Novel™. She enjoyed the work but wished she was able to model How to Write a Novel™ for her students by ACTUALLY WRITING A NOVEL. But, as she explained to them, her novel was a shapeshifter, a series of mirages. Drafts took shape. Shimmered. Disappeared.
About the author
Sophie Cunningham AM is the author of seven books, across multiple fiction and nonfiction, children and adults and include City of Trees – Essays on life, death and the need for a forest, and Melbourne. She is also editor of the collection Fire, Flood, Plague: Australian writers respond to 2020. Sophie’s former roles include as a book publisher and editor, chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, editor of the literary journal Meanjin, and co-founder of The Stella Prize celebrating women’s writing. She is now an adjunct professor at RMIT University’s non/fiction Lab. In 2019, Sophie was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her contributions to literature.