British-Canadian writer Lisa Appignanesi has found lockdown a difficult time to write, but despite this she has created a new short story exclusively for Index.
Appignanesi, a screenwriter, academic and novelist, said: “It’s very hard to move within the instability of the time to something imaginative.”
Her story, Lockdown, focuses on an older man, Arthur, who reflects on his past in Vienna during the period between the two world wars.
Appignanesi has a long relationship with the Austrian city.
“I’ve done an awful lot of work on Viennese literature and, indeed, on Freud, so Vienna always feels very, very close to me and I lived there for a year,” she said.
“Vienna is a fascinating place. It was a great city – first of all head of an empire with many, many immigrant groupings in it, and then when it lost its imperial status in World War I it was a very impoverished city.”
She says the period of lockdown focused her mind on the restrictions imposed upon the elderly. “I have long thought about what happens to the mind within the body, people’s relationship to time in that sense. You grow old and stuff happens to your body and, initially at least, it doesn’t seem to affect your mental capacity and the way you grow through time as you are living it.”
She is also interested in the idea of people being present in different ways and how, for instance, the potential anonymity and the disembodied nature of Twitter means that people can unleash their anger differently from how they would if they were in the room with someone.
“Some of the rampant emotions of our time, particularly anger,” she said, “were to do with the fact that people on Twitter are not only anonymous but they are disembodied.”
In an article for this magazine in 2010, Appignanesi wrote: “The speed of communication the internet permits, its blindness to geography, seems to have stoked the fires of prohibition. The freer and easier it is for ideas to spread, the more punitive the powers that wish to silence or censor become.”
Appignanesi, a long-time campaigner for freedom of expression, was born in post-war Poland as Elżbieta Borensztejn. Her Jewish parents had what she has described with understatement as “a difficult war”, hiding under different aliases to escape arrest. The family moved then to Paris, which she remembers, and later to Montreal, Canada. She once told BBC Radio 3 that she “grew up with the ghosts of those that died in the concentration camps”. Given the family history, it is no wonder she worries about authoritarian governments and restrictions on speech.
She is now concerned about how governments are changing the rules of freedom of expression while the world is distracted by Covid-19, and the threats that may manifest themselves. “Your attention is distracted by something – something happens behind the scenes, and usually the same people are doing the distraction. This time it was the virus.”
One news item that grabbed her attention recently was about the closure of Guatemala’s police archives (see page 27), a library of information about the country’s civil war. Her concern is that “those archives are about the disappearances of people under the dictatorships, which were lethal”.
As others track governments who want to control the national story, Appignanesi says we must learn from history.
“It’s very important for our documents in Britain to be interpreted in different ways, and supplemented by stories we don’t know.
“There are always new histories to discover.”