“In our winner we were looking for something that is incredibly well written, enjoyable and also important. How to Survive a Plague is all of these things and also works on three levels: it’s the personal story of a gay man, the history of the prejudice that gay men faced during the AIDS epidemic and the worldwide scientific story of the search for a treatment for AIDS.”
An Elephant in Rome
" January 1, 2021 Read this issue IN THIS REVIEW AN ELEPHANT IN ROME Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City 224pp. Pallas Athene. £19.99. Loyd Grossman Acheerful bricolage of biography, art history, trivia and travelogue..."
— Times Literary Supplement
France is closer to Shilts in his ambition to provide something resembling a total history of the crisis, though in fact both his and Shilts’s are deeply American books. There are important differences – France takes the view from New York rather than San Francisco, and, writing from the end of the crisis, is able to tell a more optimistic (‘happier’ would be the wrong word) story, focusing on the significance of Aids activism – but they are both written from inside the gay movement by gay men, and tell the story year by year as an unfolding drama, with a cast of recurring characters, to whose thoughts and conversation we are granted intimate access.
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A way of doing justice to the past is to deal justly in the present. One of the painful pleasures of reading France’s book is reaching the end and realising that some of its leading characters, marked so definitively for death, lived; Act Up’s Peter Staley and Mark Harrington look impossibly grey and prosperous these days, restored to what Nadezhda Mandelstam called the ‘privilege of ordinary heartbreaks’.
The story of how Aids activists took on the FDA and leading scientific experts has been told before, most notably by the sociologist Steven Epstein. However, the great advantage France has is that as a journalist with the New York Native he was an eyewitness to many of the key moments during the spread of the disease and, as a gay man, shared in activists’ pain and suffering. It is a difficult balancing act, but France avoids hagiography. Instead, he uses his privileged access to put us in the heart of the action, or more usually, inaction.
It's the prose version of France's Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name - and somehow manages to pack all the emotional power of that film with far more granular detail and narrative force. I doubt any book on this subject will be able to match its access to the men and women who lived and died through the trauma and the personal testimony that, at times, feels so real to someone who witnessed it that I had to put this volume down and catch my breath... He's brutal about bureaucratic incompetence and political cowardice. And yet he is also fair enough to show that the science of disabling a dazzling resilient retrovirus was fiendishly difficult... And what lingers in France's book is the toll that memory took and still takes... This is the first and best history of this courage, and a reminder that if gay life and culture flourish for a thousand years, people will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'