Will we emerge stronger from the Covid-19 crisis?

While China is just getting back on its feet from what was and still is one of the biggest sanitary crisis and epidemic of its history, the virus prettily-named Covid-19 has now found a new outbreak in Europe. We did not think that this situation could be possible in our democratic and developed societies and yet, this is happening. We feel like we are living inside a futuristic novel, or even a dystopia. What we, young Europeans, didn’t think would ever happen during our lifetime, is yet happening: freedom, the main feature of our societies, is now deeply restricted; the borders our parents and grand parents abolished are now closed again; forces of order are in the streets to control our every move; but, most of all, science, which we thought was more developed than ever at this point of the history of mankind, is actually failing us. This crisis is therefore way more than just a sanitary crisis. It is also an economic, political, and social crisis – all in all, a human crisis. Apart from being rightly anxious, it is interesting for us now to observe our societies. The Occident seems to be facing a wall, that would have appeared suddenly and which, in the hurry, is forcing it to rethink its whole way of working, of existing.

The first characteristic of the globalized societies that the Covid-19 has put into question is the economic model, both capitalist and global. When the sanitary crisis first struck the “factory of the world”, but also one of the most powerful economies of the planet, it is not only a city, not even a country, but the whole world which suffered the consequences. Trade and production were slowed down, sometimes even to a critical point. Then, when Europe and other important actors of the global economy, like the USA or Iran, were touched in turn, what has been observed in China happened to them too, but on an even bigger scale. Up to that moment, the world’s most important stock markets had already been weakened in February, before crashing  repeatedly as the virus outbroke in Europe and US. There was a “black Monday” the 9th of March; and another crash on the 12th of March. On March, the 9th, The European and American stock markets recorded their worse performance since the economic crisis of 2008. On March, the 12th, the Paris stock market index, the “CAC 40”, and the Milan FTSE MIB recorded the worst decline of their history, respectively -12.3% and -16.92% The German index, “DAX”, followed closely (-11.4%). The Wall Street Stock Exchange stopped twice for fifteen minutes, before reaching on the 16th of March its worst day since 1987. The financial crisis has required the intervention of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank which announced extraordinary plans to provide liquidity to the financial system and to appease the markets. However, the financial instability persists and further economic measures from US government, EU and the other European countries will soon follow. All of that added to disagreements between Russia and Iran on the oil prices, created a very strained and anxious atmosphere in the whole world. The question we are now facing in this economic crisis (which is probably only beginning), is about the legitimacy of this system, in which we live and on which we rely. How can we keep providing each individual with the bare necessities, when we rely on a worldwide trading system that is temporarily amputated? The lack of national, or even continental resources and the inability of States to produce some materials without relying on other countries ; added to a consumer society that is used to have access to any existing food or object within easy reach, underlines clearly the limits of our current economic system. Numerous factories had to convert themselves in order to keep providing with the bare necessities that were lacking. This is the case of LVMH which turned many of its French sites into a fabric of production of hydroalcoholic gel, in short supply in France. But LVMH could do this only because it had the practical and financial resources to do it. In spite of everything, this whole situation demonstrates that, because we do not have any system of local production, trade or consumption, we are now stuck in a worrying situation, provoked by an international crisis. The partial failure of the current system is even more blatant that the very idea of producing and consuming locally has been promoted for a while now by ecologists and environment activists. It thus took a consequent sanitary crisis to put into question our global system and underline its limits – without putting an end to it. We can only hope to emerge from this crisis aware of those limits and ready to change them, or even to give it up if that is necessary.


Naturally, democracy is also suffering from the Covid-19 epidemic. This model of society, which highlights personal freedom, is now facing obvious difficulties. When the time came to count on civic-mindedness and individual responsibility to face this sanitary crisis, problems started. It was the case for Italians and Spanish, peoples so “external”, who were forced to stay stuck indoors – at first reluctantly resigning themselves to do so, thanks sometimes to preventive penitential measures. It was also the case in France, which tried to put back the confinement measures up to the last minute. But it finally came to it, when facing a crowd of French people who were sure they had all the rights to keep on moving freely. If we compare this situation to the one that took place a couple of months ago in China, an authoritarian country, we highlight the difficulties faced by the modern democracies to implement such drastic measures, which go against their values. Besides, in France, which was suffering since a few months from a crisis in its hospitals, this unprecedented epidemic is allowing doctors and hospital staff to finally be heard. Indeed, the epidemic is pointing out all the problems they were already reporting. They are now finally granted all of the government’s attention and we can only hope that this country will emerge stronger from this crisis: with a government which would have finally understood the importance of taking care of its health system; and which would have understood that a democratic society worthy of the name can not work if its doctors, nurses and nursing assistants are suffering.

The third distinctive element of modern societies that is put into question because of this historical sanitary crisis, is, of course, scientific progress. The occidental Man from the 21st century, who comes from a society built on technological and scientific advances, probably had a too strong tendency to think he/she is invincible. Reinforced by medical advances and born in a complete comfort thanks to technological advances, he/she is now like violently slapped on the face. What he/she thought was possible only in Africa (still at war against Ebola) or in Asia – all in all, only in developing countries – has eventually come to him/her as well: a pandemic that may kill him/her. Let him/her be reassured: this generation won’t be the last, and most of us will get by fine, safe and sound. But this is an ancestral fear that springs back up, that of a combat against an invisible enemy, against which we cannot fight because we do not have the right weapons. It is the fear to die, or to see our loved ones die, and not to be able to do anything against it. Feeling immensely helpless. Finally, it is about feeling ourselves as bodies before anything else, even though we try so hard to convince ourselves that we are only made of souls. This is about feeling ourselves as bodies, and being aware more than ever of our bodies’ limits and weaknesses. The occidental Man of the 21st century should thus emerge from that epidemic as a reborn Man, will it be regarding his/her relationship to Science, but also to his/her own identity.

Eventually, last but not least element challenged by the pandemic is free movement. That principle is at the core of the European Union’s values. It has already been jeopardized those past few years by the migration crisis, true challenge of modern Europe and USA, and by the resurgence of nationalisms. However, it is now completely call into question, as many States are barricading themselves. This will be one of the biggest challenge of this sanitary crisis for the “Old Continent”: prove that closing the borders is not a long-term solution, and that it should not, under no circumstances, divide us – on the contrary, we should unite to fight against this common enemy.

Laura Poiret

“We Are Made of Love, Grief, Tears and Pain”


I have the sea in front of me and the words I have just read stir in my head. Suddenly, I’m transported to the atmosphere of Icelandic fjords, so wonderfully created by J. K. Stefánsson in The story of Ásta. I can see these fjords opening

“as a scream in front of the icy sea and its depths, some of them as a silent hate, some others as an exhalation, but maybe the most part of them are a mix of all this”

Stefánsson paints Iceland in an impressionistic way with his words: using the paint-brush of poetry – because

poetry is always resilience”.

Resilience to what, exactly? To life’s seasons and to change, the author seems to suggest. And so, page after page, that iced isle seems to rise straight towards the reader as it was solid and to be hard and fascinating, never softening its tightness even in the warmest moment of the year: “here you are born in the cold world” and you learn with no consolation the equivalence between living and fighting, sometimes lightened by the feeling of the sublime which reaches its peak in the northern lights. Ásta is exactly like Iceland – she is hard and stormy, and her beauty is stabbing, hence, dangerous.

However, The story of Ásta is not the story of her life, there is not a real biographical purpose. Instead, it is the story of the vicissitudes of her soul, marked by the persistent shift of time and place. You switch from the mythical atmosphere winding all the months adolescent Ásta spent in West Fjords, passing through the contemporary Wien, mitteleuropean unlocked door and getaway for student Ásta, until the present time of Trump and climate change considered mostly by the author – an author who cannot be easily tracked.

Storia di Asta

Therefore, Stefánsson’s prose, fluid and immersive, is not immediately approachable to the reader because of this persistent space-time shift. Even the intention of following her soul’s path jeopardizes the linearity of the narration: Ásta’s thoughts are added up and sequential, they appear – one after another – in continuous flow that simultaneously involves all other characters (including the narrator) who have to do with her and their thoughts – ergo, voices and points of view are superimposed. What emerges is a kind of polyphony in paragraphs, marking in italics every incipit by a sentence (sometimes similar to a maxim) or by few words which sum up the main emotion or the existential question of the paragraph. In some cases, only the first word of the first sentence of the paragraph is marked in italics – as if it was a way to say that the beginning is the most important part, but it is meaningless without the proper conclusion. Ásta’s mother, Helga, knows this very well. As well as the narrator who, in the prologue, is worried about how

“to tell a person’s story without touching other lives around”,

while in the epilogue he resolutely states that

“it is impossible to tell a story without fail, without take an hazardous path or without having to come back, at least twice – because we live simultaneously in all ages”.

Hence, the story is one of the spasmodic and heart-breaking quest for oneself, for a place among people and among the gathered wounds: “is it too much wanting to know cardinal points?”, one wonders. The characters rush towards answers they do not have, towards the love they long above all things, often misreading it and sometimes mistreating it. They run also and above all towards the craved happiness (“Where is my happiness? Have you seen it here somewhere? Is it hiding under the bed?”), but they do not always recognize it in its immanent manifestation because they are steered who knows where. A searching life, indeed; a getting away life, as well – the failed fulfilment of one’s own wish is a symptom of cowardice and courage at the same time.

Although the cycles of search and getaway that characterize Ásta, always victim of a self-proclaimed hereditary defect, come out in different forms, they are the authentic engine of all characters’ lives and they are stirred by Stefánsson into an emulsion as simple as it is real: the simplicity and the complexity of thought. The first allows for the adaptation to the world, for the letting go, at least a partially of one’s own claims; while the second does not ignore a certain amount of suffering, as deep as the sensibility of the one who endures it. However, this kind of binomial proceeding can be found during the whole narration

– “this light sometimes curiously married into the dark”; “God and the devil are a double-headed monster” –

which is, in the end, nothing less than a big question about life and death

(“Actually, the truths of the heart do not always agree with the ones of the world. It’s because life is inexplicable. It is grief. It is tragedy. It is the strength which make us shine”),

about the meaning of literature and the meaning of memory for life

(“So must literature firstly prepare us to die, and not help us to live better?”).

Livia Corbelli

[1] J.K.Stefansson, Storia di Asta, Iperborea, 2018

(N.d.A: all quotes are translated by the author of this article, they may be different in the English version of the book).

«Nous Sommes Faits d’Amour, des Chagrins, des Larmes et de Douleur»


La mer se tient devant moi, et me rappelle les mots que j’ai lus ; le paysage devant moi change alors que je me laisse bercer par les descriptions des fjords islandais si magnifiquement créé par J. K. Stefánsson dans Histoire d’Ásta. Je les vois s’ouvrir

« comme un hurlement devant la mer glaciale et à ses abymes, certains sont une haine silencieuse, certains d’autres sont un soupir, mais la majorité d’entre eux sont probablement un peu de toutes ces choses à la fois ».

Ainsi, Stefánsson peint l’Islande de façon impressionniste : à travers le pinceau de la poésie ; car,

« la poésie est toujours résistance ».

Résistance à quoi ? Aux saisons de la vie, et à leur changement – semble-t-il suggérer. Voilà, alors, qu’il dresse sous les yeux du lecteur ce territoire dur et fascinant ne rendant pas plus souple sa rigueur, même pas dans les moments les plus chauds de l’année : « ici on voit le jour dans le froid »  et on apprend, sans aucune consolation, l’équivalence entre vivre et se battre, parfois assouplie par ce sentiment du sublime dont le sommet culmine dans les aurores boréales. Ásta est exactement comme l’Islande – elle est dure et tumultueuse, et sa beauté est lancinante, donc dangereuse.

Toutefois, Histoire d’Ásta n’est pas l’histoire d’une vie, il n’y a pas de réelle intention biographique. Il s’agit plutôt de l’histoire des vicissitudes d’une âme, rythmée par le glissement continu des temps et des lieux.  On va de l’atmosphère mythique enveloppant les mois passés par Ásta adolescente dans les Fjords Occidentaux, en passant par la contemporanéité de Vienne, porte européenne sans serrure et refuge pour une Ásta jeune étudiante en fuite, jusqu’au présent de Trump et du réchauffement climatique, considérés par un narrateur dont on perd facilement les traces.

Storia di Asta

Ainsi, bien que la prose de Stefánsson soit fluide et immersive, elle n’est pas immédiatement accessible justement à cause de ce glissement spatio-temporel constant, mais pas seulement. La volonté de suivre le parcours d’une âme compromet aussi la linéarité de la narration : les pensées d’ une Ásta s’additionnent et s’enchaînent dans un flux continu qui implique en même temps tous les personnages (y compris le narrateur) ayant une relation avec elle et leurs pensées : ainsi les voix et les perspectives se superposent. Il en ressort une sorte de « polyphonie paragraphée », qui marque en italique chaque incipit à travers une phrase (souvent presque une maxime) ou à travers  quelques mots qui synthétise l’émotion principal ou la question existentielle du paragraphe même. Dans certains cas, c’est seulement le premier mot de la première phrase du premier paragraphe qui est en italique – comme si cela signifiait que le début est la partie la plus importante, mais qu’elle est dépourvue de sens si on ne sait pas comment la conclure. La mère d’Ásta, Helga, le sait très bien. Et le narrateur aussi, qui s’inquiète dans le prologue de la façon dont il pourrait

« raconter l’histoire d’une personne sans toucher les vie de ceux qui l’entourent aussi »

tandis que dans l’épilogue, il affirme bien plus résolument qu’ 

« il est impossible de raconter une histoire sans se tromper, sans prendre un chemin risqué, ou sans devoir retourner en arrière, deux fois au moins – puisqu’on vit simultanément dans toutes les époques ».

Alors, l’histoire est celle de la recherche spasmodique et déchirante de soi-même, de sa propre place entre les gens et les blessures collectionnées : « est-ce trop de connaître les points cardinaux ? », se demande-t-on. Dans ce livre, on court vers les réponses qu’on n’a pas, vers l’amour désiré par-dessus tout, souvent en le confondant et dans d’autres cas en le maltraitant. On court aussi et surtout vers la félicité convoitée (« Où est  ma félicité ? L’as-tu vue dans les parages ? Se cache-t-elle sous le lit ?), même si on n’est pas toujours capable de la reconnaître dans sa manifestation immanente car on est orienté on ne sait pas où exactement. Une vie à la recherche, certes ; une vie en fuite, également – la non-réalisation de ses propres désirs est simultanément un symptôme de lâcheté et de courage.

Quoique ils apparaissent dans des formes différentes, les cycles de recherche et de fuite marquant Ásta – toujours proie d’une soi-disant tare héréditaire – sont en réalité le moteur de la vie de tous les personnages, agités par Stefánsson dans une émulsion qui est tout aussi banale que réelle : celle de la simplicité et de la complexité de la pensée. La première permet un adaptation au monde, un abandon au moins partiel de ses prétentions ; tandis que la seconde ne peut pas faire abstraction d’une certaine quantité de souffrance, autant profonde que la sensibilité de celui qui l’éprouve. De toute façon, le procédé binomial est présent dans toute la narration

– « cette lumière qui est parfois apparentée à l’obscurité » ; « Dieu et le diable sont un monstre à deux têtes » -,

laquelle au fond n’est rien d’autre qu’une grande interrogation sur la vie et sur la mort

(« Au contraire, les vérité du cœur ne s’accordent pas toujours à celles du monde. Pour cette raison la vie est incompréhensible. Elle est douleur. Elle est tragédie. Elle est la force qui nous fait rayonner »),

sur le sens de la littérature et de la mémoire pour la vie

(« Alors la littérature doit en premier lieu nous préparer à mourir, et non pas à nous aider à vivre mieux »).

Livia Corbelli

[1] J.K.Stefansson, Storia di Asta, Iperborea, 2018

(N.d.A : : toutes les citations sont traduites par l’autrice de l’article, elles pourraient être différentes dans la version française du livre)

“Che Siamo fatti d’Amore, di Lutti, di Lacrime e di Dolore”


Col mare davanti che mi rimesta in testa le parole che ho letto, smetto di essere dove sono e mi lascio andare alle suggestioni dei fiordi islandesi che J. K. Stefánsson ha così splendidamente creato in Storia di Ásta. Li vedo aprirsi

“come un urlo davanti al mare gelido e ai suoi abissi, alcuni sono un odio silenzioso, altri un sospiro, ma forse la maggior parte sono un po’ di tutte queste cose” (p.60).

Così Stefánsson dipinge impressionisticamente l’Islanda: col pennello della poesia; perché

la poesia è sempre resistenza” (p.154).

A che cosa? Alle stagioni della vita, e al loro mutare – sembra suggerire. Eccola, allora, ergersi solida davanti agli occhi del lettore quella terradura e affascinante che anche nei momenti più caldi dell’anno non elasticizza granché la propria rigidità: “qui si viene al mondo nel freddo” (p.64) e si impara, senza consolazione alcuna, l’equivalenza tra vivere e lottare, qualche volta alleggerita da quel sentimento del sublime il cui apice sta nelle aurore boreali. Ásta è proprio come l’Islanda – è dura e tempestosa, e di una bellezza lancinante, perciò pericolosa.

Storia di Ásta non è però la storia di una vita, non c’è una reale intenzione biografica. E’ piuttosto la storia delle vicende di un animo, scandita dallo slittamento continuo di tempi e luoghi. Si va dall’atmosfera mitica che avvolge i mesi passati nei Fiordi dell’Ovest da Ásta  adolescente passando attraverso la contemporaneità di Vienna, porta mitteleuropea senza serratura, fuga-rifugio di Ásta giovane studentessa, sino al presente di Trump e del climate change considerati da un narratore di cui facilmente si perdono tracce.

Storia di Asta

Dunque, una prosa scorrevole e coinvolgente quella di Stefánsson e, tuttavia, non immediatamente accessibile proprio per via di questo costante slittamento spazio-temporale, ma non solo. Anche la volontà stessa di seguire il percorso di un animo compromette la linearità della narrazione: i pensieri si sommano e si susseguono in un fluire continuo che coinvolge al contempo tutti gli altri personaggi (compreso il narratore stesso) che con lei hanno a che fare, sovrapponendone le voci e i punti di vista. Ne emerge una sorta di polifonia paragrafata, marcata in corsivo e ad ogni incipit da una frase (spesso quasi una massima) o da poche parole che sintetizzano l’emozione principale o il quesito esistenziale di quel paragrafo. Altre volte, in corsivo all’inizio del paragrafo c’è soltanto la prima parola della prima frase – come a dire che iniziare è la cosa più importante, ma non significa nulla se non si sa come finire. Lo sa bene la madre di Ásta, Helga. E lo sa bene anche il narratore che nel prologo si preoccupa di come si possa davvero

“raccontare la storia di una persona senza toccare anche le vite che la circondano” (p.8);

mentre nell’epilogo, più risolutamente, afferma che

“è impossibile raccontare una storia senza sbagliare, senza intraprendere percorsi arrischiati, o senza dover tornare indietro, come minimo due volte – perché viviamo contemporaneamente in tutte le epoche” (p.453).

La storia è, quindi, quella della ricerca spasmodica e straziante di se stessi, del proprio posto tra la gente e tra le ferite collezionate: “è troppo conoscere i punti cardinali?” (p.130), ci si chiede. Si corre verso le risposte che non si hanno, verso l’amore desiderato sopra ogni cosa, spesso confondendolo, altre volte bistrattandolo. Si corre anche e soprattutto verso la felicità agognata (“Dov’è la mia felicità, l’hai vista qui in giro? Si nasconde sotto il letto?”, p. 289), non sempre capaci di riconoscerla nella sua manifestazione immanente poiché proiettati altrove, chissà dove. Una vita alla ricerca, sì; una vita in fuga, pure – la mancata realizzazione dei propri desideri è allo stesso tempo sintomo di vigliaccheria e di coraggio.

Benché appaiano in forme diverse, i cicli di ricerca e fuga che contraddistinguono Ásta, sempre preda di una sedicente tara ereditaria, sono in realtà il motore delle vite di tutti i personaggi, agitati da Stefánsson in una emulsione tanto banale quanto reale: la semplicità e complessità di pensiero. La prima consente un adeguamento al mondo, un abbandono almeno parziale delle proprie pretese, mentre la seconda non può prescindere da una certa dose di sofferenza, profonda quanto la sensibilità di chi la avverte. Comunque, il procedimento binomiale è presente in tutta la narrazione

– “questa luce che a volte è stranamente imparentata col buio” (p.317); “dio e il diavolo sono un mostro a due teste” (p.373) –

che in fondo non è nient’altro che un grande interrogativo sulla vita e sulla morte

(“Anzi, le verità del cuore non sempre si accordano a quelle del mondo. Per questo la vita è incomprensibile. E’ dolore. E’ tragedia. E’ la forza che ci fa risplendere.”, p.472),

sul senso della letteratura e della memoria per la vita

(“Allora la letteratura deve in primo luogo prepararci a morire, e non aiutarci a vivere meglio?”, p. 166).

Livia Corbelli

[1] J. K. Stefansson, Storia di Asta, Iperborea, 2018


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