The Plague by Albert Camus
Translated by Stuart Gilbert
My second read for the 1947 Club is a book that’s very dear to my heart: Albert Camus’ “The Plague”. It’s a book I first read back in my 20s on that fateful Sunday that I read four books in a day; I can’t remember what the other three were (though I daresay I could find out if I went through old journals), but Camus’ masterpiece made such an impression on me that I sent hysterical postcards out to all my friends insisting they read it straight away – such were the ways of communicating in those pre-Internet days!
I’ve re-read the book, in the 1990s, but not since so I was really pleased to have an excuse to pick it up again. I think I may have read Camus’ most famous work “The Stranger/Outsider” first, but personally I always thought “The Plague” was his best, and I did wonder what my response would be to it at this point in my life. As it was, I’ve ended the book emotionally drained and stunned, so whether this will be any kind of coherent review which does the book justice remains to be seen….
The book is set in the French Algerian town of Oran; introduced by an unnamed narrator, it’s an ordinary place, with the usual mix of good and bad, old and young, living their lives but about to be hit by catastrophe. One morning, Dr. Rieux leaves his house and stands on a dead rat; this is a symbol of what’s to come as an infestation of dying rats is followed by the first cases of illness and death. Initially, the authorities are reluctant to accept that this might be an outbreak of bubonic plague, but as the deaths multiply they have no choice but to close the town walls, put strict control measures in place, and battle the disease alone. The book mainly follows a group of characters at the centre of the fight: Dr. Rieux himself, firsts to identify the plague; Tarrou, a visitor to Oran for unknown reasons, with private means; Rambert, a visiting journalist trapped by the quarantine procedures and desperate to get back to Paris and the woman he loves; Cottard, an elusive and edgy character with some kind of secret; and Grand, a lowly clerk with hidden depths of his own.
The room was in almost complete darkness. Outside, the street was growing noisier and a sort of murmur of relief greeted the moment when all the street-lamps lit up, all together. Rieux went out on the balcony, and Cottard followed him. From the outlying districts—as happens every evening in our town—a gentle breeze wafted a murmur of voices, smells of roasting meat, a gay, perfumed tide of freedom sounding on its way, as the streets filled up with noisy young people released from shops and offices. Nightfall, with its deep, remote baying of unseen ships, the rumor rising from the sea, and the happy tumult of the crowd— that first hour of darkness which in the past had always had a special charm for Rieux—seemed today charged with menace, because of all he knew.
As they battle on against the plague, surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast (from Dr. Rieux’s mother to the local magistrate, the other doctors and the Jesuit priest Fr. Paneloux), we watch as the mood of the town turns from initial disbelief, to anger and resistence, then to resignation and dull acceptance. As the disease reaps its grim harvest, the humans and their medicines seem very puny by comparison. There will be those who survive and those who do not, and all the while the narrator considers what it is to be human, what is the point of life and why such catastophes are visited on us. Eventually, of course, the tide will turn and the plague will retreat, but those who survive, like all survivors, will be changed forever.
Thus week by week the prisoners of plague put up what fight they could. Some, like Rambert, even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice. But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear set up by these. That is why the narrator thinks this moment, registering the climax of the summer heat and the disease, the best for describing, on general lines and by way of illustration, the excesses of the living, burials of the dead, and the plight of parted lovers.
“The Plague” is one of those life-changing books that ensures you see the world differently after reading it and I can understand why I responded to it the way I did back in the 1980s. Of course, it’s often read as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War and certainly the parallels are there to see. With the restrictions on movement, the quarantine camps and the crematoria running constantly, it’s not hard to see the imagery as being that of Nazi Germany. And the responses of the people to the plague, which is portrayed as a maglignant force with a life of its own, could equally be applied to the reactions to occupation by a hostile, invading army; incredulity followed by some citizens fighting back, some accepting the situation and most coming to see it as something to be endured whilst cutting themselves off emotionally.
Yes, the plague gave short shrift indeed, and they must set their shoulders to the wheel again. Throughout December it smoldered in the chests of our townsfolk, fed the fires in the crematorium, and peopled the camps with human jetsam. In short, it never ceased progressing with its characteristically jerky but unfaltering stride. The authorities had optimistically reckoned on the coming of winter to halt its progress, but it lasted through the first cold spells without the least remission. So the only thing for us to do was to go on waiting, and since after a too long waiting one gives up waiting, the whole town lived as if it had no future.
Much of the power of the book comes from Camus’ wonderful writing (and the excellent translation by Stuart Gilbert); and also from the fact that it is not just the story of an occupation (whether by disease or man, it seems to be much the same). The book digs down to the roots of being; the necessity of humans to have a stable life, to be with the ones they love; the effects of forced separation; whether a Priest is justified in calling out a doctor or whether he should accept illness as the will of God; if the things men do in extreme circumstances is heroism or simply actions taken out of necessity; and so on. The setting of Oran is also vividly conjured; its geography, its climate and the changing seasons as the story develops are all brought to life wonderfully by Camus’ pen. “The Plague” ends up being a gripping tale and an intense meditation on what life actually is, and compulsively readable to boot.
On moonlight nights the long, straight streets and dirty white walls, nowhere darkened by the shadow of a tree, their peace untroubled by footsteps or a dog’s bark, glimmered in pale recession. The silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great men, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faces, conjured up a sorry semblance of what the man had been. In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed on us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice.
I found myself feeling deeply connected with each of the characters in the book, all of whom were very real and very human. On my first reading I related particularly to Tarrou, the man who eschews cruelty of any kind and helps lead the fight the disease with dignity. But this time round, it was Rieux, with his boundless humanity and unstinting care for others who stood out for me. Grand, too, with his endless quest for a perfect sentence, and Rambert the lover, focused only on the thought of escape to his beloved, will stay with me. I ended the book feeling as if I had lived through it, rather than just read it, and coming back to the everyday reality of my own life was a shock.
So re-reading “The Plague” is going to be one of the highlights of the 1947 Club, and indeed of my reading year. It’s sometimes risky going back to a book you read and loved decades ago, just in case your high opinion of it is dented. However, in the case of Camus’ masterpiece, I think I’m affected just as strongly and just as much as I was back then. Of course, I’m barely scratching the surface of the book here; I’m sure reams of pages and University theses can and have been written on it. However, I’ll just say, as I did to my friends back in the day, that you should read “The Plague” – it’s a work of genius and you *won’t* see the world in the same way after it.
(Interestingly, Camus makes a knowing little reference to his other great work early in “The Plague” when he mentions in passing: Grand had personally witnessed an odd scene that took place at the tobacconist’s. An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case that had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach…)