Thursday, May 28, 2020

Sixty-seventeen Days of Quarantine from James W. Ziskin

"Describe your lockdown life. Has it had any unexpected sweet spots in it? And what are you most looking forward to doing again afterwards?”

From Jim

The origin of the word quarantine comes to us from the Italian peninsula, from Venice to be specific. The modern Standard Italian word is quarantena, which literally means "about forty." During the 14th century, it was used by the Venetians to define the number of days arriving ships were required to remain isolated before their crews and passengers could come ashore. Forty days. This period of isolation was prompted by the Black Death that ravaged Europe from 1347-1350, wiping out, according to new estimates, anywhere between one third and half of the population. The Venetian policy of quarantena mitigated the spread of the disease in that maritime republic. But remember that Italy was not unified as sovereign nation until 1861. Prior to that, the peninsula was a jigsaw puzzle of kingdoms, duchies, grand duchies, and republics. So Venice protected itself, while Messina in Sicily failed to quarantine ships arriving from plague-ravaged areas in the Near and Far East. Other European port cities suffered the same fate as Messina, and once the plague had taken hold, it spread rapidly throughout the continent through trade, mostly via merchant ships.

Today, quarantine has come to mean any period of isolation intended to prevent the spread of disease. It doesn't have to be forty days. In fact, my own isolation experience this year is approaching eighty days. And since this week's question is about our own lockdown lives, I think it's appropriate to borrow another word that is currently gaining traction in Italy.

Ottantena. Built on the same model as quarantena, it means "about eighty." But now Italians are using it to describe an eighty-day quarantine. I suppose novantena (ninety days) will be next. One shudders to think what the French would call an ottantena and novantena. Quatre-vingtaine (four twentyish) and quatre-vingt-dizaine (four twenty-tenish)?

I believe this partially answers the question of how I've been spending my time during the lockdown: thinking about etymology and marvelously complicated French numbers. Unlike the French, the Belgians and Swiss have simplified seventy through ninety-nine by adopting numbers derived from Latin roots, septante, huitante, and nonante (seventy, eighty, and ninety). while the French say quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (four twenties-nineteen) for ninety-nine, the Belgians and Swiss say nonante-neuf. Damn, I love language.

But enough of my musings on numbers and quarantines, I have experienced a few unexpected sweet spots in the past seventy-seven days. That's soixante-dix-sept (sixty-seventeen) if you live in France. Septante-sept if you live in Belgium or Switzerland. Sorry. I promise I'm done with the French numbers.

My biggest news over the past two and half months is that I found myself in a zone, writing-wise. In April, I wrote 30,000 words of my new novel. Then, in May, I really hit my stride, and have logged 69,000 words and counting. It's been the most productive period in my writing life. No other time comes close. I'm planning to finish the first draft by June 1. Of course, that's when the painstaking work of revision will begin. I typically do eight to ten new versions of a book.

This new novel, tentatively entitled Monsoon Summer, is a throwback thriller set in 1975 India, during the Emergency. Danny Jacobs, a young American journalist, arrives in Bombay for a new assignment and gets caught up in the chaos of the Emergency. His enigmatic expat neighbor, Willy Smets, is helpful and friendly. But Danny is smitten by Sushmita, Smets’s enchanting and clever Indian lover.

I describe it as Gatsby Meets Graham Greene on the Subcontinent. And, by the way, it is not an Ellie Stone book. If I can wrestle it into shape and--provided it isn't a boring hot mess--I hope to sell it before the next pandemic hits.

Stay safe and read more.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Good to hear that your writing more these days, Jim. It's been going like that for me too.

Paul D. Marks said...

The new novel sounds interesting, Jim. I like that, Gatsby meets Graham Greene.

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Dietrich and Paul! Stay safe. Read (and write) more.

Finta said...


James W. Ziskin said...

Good question, Ann. Probably not. Maybe a monkey.

But Ellie is mentioned a few times. She's the hero's boss at the wire service back in New York.

Nancy Cole Silverman said...

I love that you’re writing about India. The plot sounds fantastic, and of course you do have a way with words. So whether we’re seventy, eighty or ninety days into a quarantina, whatever you turn out I look forward to reading. Write on!

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Nancy! The admiration is mutual. I love your books! Hope you're keeping well. Jim

Terry said...

This sounds wonderful, and inspiring. By the way, how is your house getting cleaned during the shut-down?

Terry said...

Uh, oh. Jim, this one is for you, with the monkey.

Susan Courtright said...

What a fascinating departure, Jim. And timely. So happy you're also on a writing binge. Lockdown is good for me as well. #writeon

James W. Ziskin said...

Yes, they are aggressive, Terry. I've got lots of monkey stories from India. Jim