Writing a novel that’s set in a humid, swampy summer feels otherworldly when you’re snowbound. (And that’s all I’ll publicly say about the work-in-progress.) This has been my setup since Friday, when Winter Storm Jonas (or #Snowzilla2016, if you ask WaPo) surged into northern Virginia: sitting at my desk, slowly adding pages as the inches piled outside, and feeling myself in an altogether foreign place. George Washington University—where I’m a PhD candidate and where I teach—closed over the weekend, and the university closed again today because public transit wasn’t operating. (Yes, if you know anything about Metro, you can fairly quip that nobody can say that Metro “operates,” even on a good day.) From my window, I can see that the only clear road is US-1, and I can see the occasional vehicle fishtailing. If that view is anything to go by, tomorrow’s operating status is also somewhat dodgy.
However, there’s something unifying about a blizzard, about the knowledge that we’re all shut in. Whether or not we’re victims or beneficiaries of the storm, well, that depends on your own perspective. The local NBC affiliate has certainly encouraged this outlook on the storm: constant footage about attempts to have fun and break cabin fever, and the absurdly adorable footage of the National Zoo’s giant panda Tian Tian rolling about in the snow. Even our cats, Campbell and Teagan, were entranced by the descending snowflakes.
During the weekend of writing, reading, binge-watching Making a Murderer and The Great British Baking Show (the joys of Netflix), and binge-playing old Final Fantasy games on the Game Boy Advance, I would look out to the snow and think of the passage that immediately occurs to every Modernist scholar during a snowstorm. It’s in the end of James Joyce’s novella “The Dead,” when Gabriel Conroy experiences an epiphany about his wife Gretta’s lost love, Michael Furey:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Every time there’s a winter storm event, I have to stop myself from spamming social media with this chunky quote. There’s much to love here, including Joyce’s deft and lyrical use of chiasmus (“falling faintly . . . faintly falling”) or such gems as “the dark and mutinous Shannon waves.” But what is most evocative is the image of snow here. The novella grapples with Gabriel’s intense, inner desires, and the snow effectively douses Gabriel’s ambitions as it settles across the Irish isle. (This would have required an epochal storm, much like our recent Snowzilla.) The snow here is a cosmic event, one that shrinks Gabriel yet situates him in an Irish universe. It suggests that death is the great equalizer, but it is a strangely hopeful image: Joyce’s cinematic eye can pan out (or in) indefinitely, expanding to view a galaxy of Irish images or the singular flaws of a man like Gabriel.
Perhaps I’ll one day expand these thoughts and write a longer essay on snow in fiction. (Even now, I can think of so many other stories/novels that illustrate the universality of affect through snow.) But for now the sight is too beautiful to spend much time on it: white and soothing, the snow is general all over the Commonwealth of Virginia. Be safe out there, folks, and stay warm.