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“…space is colourless and life dead…” #1956Club #Camus

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My phone camera really struggled with the weird silvery dotty cover of this books….

When I was trying to decide what I’d read for the #1956Club, I had “The Fall” by Albert Camus on the pile of books I owned, but I don’t think I really intended to pick it up. However, after powering through the wonderful Christie, I wanted a little space before embarking on the Ed McBain; and it struck me that the Camus is very slim so possibly wouldn’t take *too* long to read. Plus I could remember absolutely nothing about it from my first read, which was possibly in the 1990s! So needless to say, it came off the shelf! “The Fall” was Camus’ final completed novel (my edition is translated by Justin O’Brien) and should by length really be termed as a novella. However, for its length it’s a complex work throwing up any number of ideas, and although I read it quickly, the concepts it raised are lingering on…

I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.

Taking the form of a series of monologues, the book is narrated by a man who calls himself Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Formerly a high-profile Parisian lawyer, he now finds himself adrift in Amsterdam, a habituee of a bar called Mexico City and a self-titled “judge-advocate”. A chance encounter with another man in the bar leads to him embarking on his life story – and dark reading it can make. Clamence was a self-assured, successful man; regarding himself as above the rest of humanity, he prided himself on his charity, his achievements and most importantly, how he appeared to others. However, his seemingly impermeable exterior is pricked one day – he walks away from a dramatic event, and ever after appears to hear mocking laughter wherever he goes. His self-image is ruined, and his fall from grace is not far away…

Ah, this dear old planet! All is clear now. We know ourselves; we now know of what we are capable.

As I said above, this *is* quite a complex work, though I found it very readable. Clamence is not a pleasant narrator; his arrogance and hypocrisy are quite repellent, and yet Camus has written him so wonderfully that you can’t help but follow him as his life descends into debauchery and finally he retreats to the lowlands of Amsterdam. His character gradually reveals itself, and the clever narrative, with Clamence’s responses often intimating the unheard part of the conversation, leads to a brilliant ending with unexpected implications for his conversational companion.

So we are steaming along without any landmark; we can’t gauge our speed. We are making progress and yet nothing is changing. It’s not navigation but dreaming.

There are, of course, religious overtones to the story, with the life of Clamence perhaps representing a secular version of the Fall of Man. Certainly, his behaviour leads the reader to judge him; but then, maybe *we* are not in a position to judge either? The constant reiteration of height – Clamence preferring things like mountain peaks to the top decks of boats – supports this reading of the story. And of course Amsterdam is itself below sea level, constantly damp and foggy, so a deliberately symbolic choice of location.

I found nothing but superiorities in myself and this explained my goodwill and serenity. When I was concerned with others, it was out of pure condescension, in utter freedom, and all the credit went to me: my self-esteem would go up a degree.

“The Fall” really was a fascinating, if dark, read; Clamence is in the end a cold, detached character reminding me somewhat of Meursault from “The Outsider” (Camus does seem to excel at those, although the cast of “The Plague” are somewhat more human). His cynical attitude, however, often shows cracks and it’s obvious he’s haunted by a guilt he seems unable to acknowledge, a guilt caused by the results of his moral passivity and unwillingness (or inability) to act.

As I said, I hadn’t intended to read this for our club week, but I’m so glad I did. I’ve re-read both “The Outsider” and “The Plague” in recent years and been happy to rediscover what a wonderful writer Camus was. “The Fall” is perhaps a little neglected in comparison to those two works, but it really does warrant careful reading for its explorations of what it means to be human, how much we hate to be mocked or judged, and yet how much worse is the way in which we judge ourselves. A wonderful book and one of my highlights for 1956! 😀

 

“…a tragedy and a personal disaster.” #camus @OxUniPress #veryshortintroduction

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Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction by Oliver Gloag

I can’t recall when I first stumbled across the “A Very Short Introduction” series from Oxford University Press; however, I know I seem to own increasing amounts of them, and the ones I’ve read have been most helpful (The French Revolution springs to mind!) So I was very interested to see that a new volume, taking on Albert Camus, was about to be released and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.

You may well be familiar with the format of the “Short” books; mostly under 200 pages long, they’re designed to give a concise and readable introduction to what can be a complex subject, although they aren’t just *definitions* as such. As the publisher’s website points out, they’ll often offer provocative discussions of the subject in question – which is what can make them even more interesting!

Albert Camus is, of course, a favourite author of mine; I first read his work in my 20s and was bowled over, particularly by his novel “The Plague“. It’s a remarkable piece of writing and has stood up to sustained re-readings (though I *don’t* think I’ll revisit it right now…) However, I wouldn’t claim to have completely understood the thinking and theories behind his non-fiction works, so I would keen to find out what the “Short” book would reveal.

And author Oliver Gloag does take an intriguing approach to his subject. He considers Camus’ life and work from a number of different angles which are broadly chronological but take in different aspects of the writer’s beliefs. The opening chapter, “Camus, son of France in Algeria”, I found particularly revealing; Gloag clearly lays out the history of French colonialism in Algeria, Camus’ status within that regime and the pivotal upbringing he had which was behind so many of his views. I confess to having had a very sketchy knowledge of the Algerian situation and this lucid chapter clarified many of Camus’ attitudes for me, and also the context of much of his work.

Gloag goes on to follow Camus’ career as he moves from journalist to novelist, his philosophies and beliefs, as well as his relationships with fellow authors and intellectuals in France of the 20th century. He is very good on delineating the differences between the theories of Camus and Sartre, who I’d always rather lazily bracketed together but who in fact seem to have had very different philosophies (the absurd vs existentialism). He also concisely covers their many schisms and that chapter was also particularly interesting.

See page for author [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the thread running through the narrative seems to be Camus’s complex relationship with Algieria, a country which features in so many of his works. Troublingly, Camus did not support Algerian independence, instead wishing to maintain a colonial status quo which simply improved conditions for the native Algerians. This *is* problematic, and Cloag demonstrates how this stance recurred regularly in Camus’ writings. Camus appears to have been a man of contradictions: wishing to avoid conflict yet fighting with the resistance; espousing freedom but not necessarily extending his views to women. I guess he was human; we expect our philosophers and humans to be perfect, but they *are* as fallible as us at the end of the day.

As I read through the Camus Very Short Introduction, I realised that I actually have a very sketchy idea of his life and so the book was a fascinating primer on that. It’s clear, concise and illuminates many aspects of Camus which I hadn’t considered or come across before. However, as I read I did realise that the book was coming from a very particular angle. Cloag specialises in post-colonial literature and because of this particular discipline, he does insist on viewing Camus pretty much exclusively through a post-colonial lens. This does add some fascinating insights into Camus’s life and work, but I did find myself questioning this slightly as the book went on. Camus was a product of his time and upbringing; he transcended this in some ways with his wish to change the French colonisaton of Algeria to one of a fairer basis (though not to fight for its independence); however, I’m not sure that this is the *only* aspect of his life that influenced his work and I wondered whether it was slightly limiting to look at him only in this context. However, this is a minor quibble and I think I’ll have to read up a little more on Camus’ life and thought before making any final judgement!

So “Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction” turned out to be a fascinating and very stimulating read. I  did get much from it, particularly in my understanding of the Algerian situation, where Camus sat within that and how it might have influenced his work. The section on Camus and Sartre was very enlightening too, and the whole book was beautifully lucid and very readable. (I harp on the lucidity because so often books about people and ideas *aren’t* that clear…) As I’ve said before, I have a very grasshopper mind and I do love to hop from topic to topic, exploring new concepts and philosophies. The Very Short Introductions are therefore ideal for me – I could do no worse at the moment than attempt to educate myself during lockdown by reading a whole chunk of them; and the Albert Camus volume is an excellent and thought-provoking entry in the series!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

On My Book Table…5 – too many books!!

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Oh dear. If you follow me at all on social media, you might well have gained the impression that there have been a  *lot* of books coming into the Ramblings lately from a variety of sources. There have been review books, lovely finds in charity shops and kind fellow bloggers contributing to Mount TBR. When you add in the fact that I have had a book token plus money off on my Waterstones loyalty card, it’s clear things have got a little out of control… The book table was looking *very* crowded, so much so that Mr. Kaggsy was starting to get a wee bit concerned that it might collapse under the weight of all the volumes on it. And I have to admit that seeing a huge great mound of books lurking there glaring at me and demanding to be read was making me feel very pressured. So I took drastic action at the weekend and took them all off the table, had a shuffle and an organise and – well, you’ll see at the end of this post how I left the table…

But I thought I would share some of the books which are currently vying for attention, posing nicely on the table before being moved – there really are some tantalising titles waiting in the wings!

First up is the three volumes of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”. There is a readalong going on on Twitter, and this is a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. Have I picked it up and started it? No… I do want to, and it’s a year long challenge. So let’s hope I can at least *start* reading them this year.

Ah Proust… Reading “A La Recherce…” is also trending all over Twitter. I’ve read the first two novels in the sequence, and invested in some reasonably priced hardback copies in the hope this would have the effect of getting me reading Proust again. Plus I have some beautiful shorter works and peripheral works lurking. Again, hopefully I will get going with this soon.

To complicate things further, I have some *very* large Oulipo related books just screaming for attention. There’s Calvino. There’s Perec. I adore them both… And some incredible anthologies. Looking at them I just want to shut myself away and do nothing but read for weeks.

This not-so-little pile contains various heavier works. “Ulysses” of course – I’ve read the first chapter and again long to sink into the book. There is Montaigne and French Existentialists and all manner of dippable philosophical work. *Sigh*. All so tempting…

Speaking of French existentialists and like… I’ve always loved French authors of the 19th and 20th century and their books were some of the favourites of my twenties. This rather wobbly and imposing pile is full of things like Sartre and Gide and Barthes and Camus and Huysman and Radiguet and books about French authors. Although the first translated books I read were by Russians (in my early teens), France has a special place in my heart too…

I have been blessed with some beautiful review books by lovely publishers and just look at the variety: Virago, Russians, Bulgakov!, golden age crime, Frankenstein, Capek… Well, what choices.

There there are random recent arrivals from various sources, many of which might be familiar from my Instagram feed. “Party Fun with Kant” came from Lizzy (thank you Lizzy!) and looks fab! “Left Bank” should perhaps have been in the French pile above, and was an impulse buy with my book token from Waterstones at the weekend (well, not quite impulse – I’d looked at it the previous weekend, walked away and of course went back for it a week later!)

Of course, Lizzy and I will be hosting the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight starting on Sunday, and this pile of their lovely books contains some titles I haven’t read yet. I love Fitzcarraldos – always so interesting and off-centre!

So as you can see, I’m suffering from too many choices at the moment. A good number of these were on the book table, and moving *everything* off it has helped to clarify my mind a little bit, as well as stopping me feeling quite so overwhelmed. I think things are not being helped by my current speed of reading. I did really well in January, getting through some marvellous works quite quickly. However, work is fairly horrendous right now, meaning I’m fairly exhausted when I get home and don’t always have the mental energy to engage with reading for any length of time. To take the pressure off, I’ve reduced the book table to hosting one single book, the one I’m currently reading:

“This Little Art” is one of the Fitzcarraldos I hadn’t read yet, but it’s quite perfect for me at the moment. It’s about translation, lots of Barthes! and is absolutely fab so far. I’ll hope to get it finished in time to review during our #fitzcarraldofortnight, but it’s not a book to rush, rather one to savour.

Am I the only one who struggles with too many choices? Which would you choose from the above piles to tackle next?? ;D

 

Penguin Moderns 17 and 18 – Picking up the reins again!

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It’s been a while since I read and wrote about any of the lovely little volumes in the Penguin Moderns box set; in fact, I see it was last October, which is fairly alarming!! However, I said in my no-plans-for-2019 post that I *did* want to pick these up again soon – and lo and behold! I have! 😀

Penguin Modern 17 – Create Dangerously by Albert Camus

See page for author [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve read a reasonable amount of Camus over the years, but pretty much always his fiction as far as I can recall; so a nudge to read some of his essays was always going to be welcome, and the three featured here are fascinating. The title piece is a speech which Camus delivered shortly after being awarded the Nobel prize, and is the longest; its focus is on the place of the artist in the modern world, the dichotomy of whether to focus on realism or not, and the relevance of art in the twentieth century. These are big topics, and Camus argues the case for art’s importance very strongly.

After all, perhaps the greatness of art lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain, the love of men and the madness of creation, unbearable solitude and the exhausting crowd, rejection and consent.

Defence of Intelligence is a sobering discussion of how France must first make friends with itself after the horrors of the Second World War before it can extend friendship to the rest of the world Finally, Bread and Freedom is a stirring defence of liberty and justice.

We are on the high seas. The artist, like everyone else, must bend to his oar, without dying if possible – in other words, go on living and creating.

Camus is an invigorating commentator, and the essays provided me with much food for thought. Post-War France must have been an unsettled place in which to live, and as the world moved into the 1950s the general state of the world seemed no calmer. Camus was obviously someone who thought deeply about art’s place and relevance in that world, and reading these essays has made me keen to dig out more. I know I have some longer non-fiction pieces, and there is also this which I stumbled upon a while back in the Oxfam; so no excuse not to read Camus!

Penguin Modern 18 – The Vigilante by John Steinbeck

The second PM I read in this batch is quite different from the Camus, although it still deals with the harsher side of life. John Steinbeck is again someone I’ve read a reasonable amount of, although I have a considerably larger number of his books on the shelves which are unread as opposed to read… Most of the ones I *have* spent time with were pre-blog, and I was particularly taken with “Cannery Row”, “Travels With Charley” and “A Russian Journal” – more non-fiction than fiction, actually. I’ve never read his shorter works, though, so was interested to see what the Penguin Modern would bring.

McFadden Publications, Inc.; no photographer credited [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, what I encountered were three very different stories: all hard-hitting tales in their own way, and all very memorable. The title story is a dark one, getting inside the mindset of a member of a lynch mob. It’s painful and uncomfortable reading; Steinbeck doesn’t seem to be setting out to judge, simply to present the horrible thought processes of Mike, the protagonist, and leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. The Snake is equally dark, and I found this particularly hard to handle, dealing as it does (partly) with vivisection. A cold fish of a doctor experiments on the animals in his Cannery Row rooms; however, an encounter with a tall, dark woman who wants to buy a snake unsettles him and her motives are unclear. The final story, The Chrysanthemums, appears initially gentle, dealing with a farming couple and the wife’s encounter with a travelling pedlar. However, the whole meeting unsettles her very existence and the story is just as devastating as the others. These are powerful works and evidence of Steinbeck’s great talents as an author.

*****

Both of these Penguin Moderns were deeply stimulating, and left me wanting to read more of each author’s work – which has to be a good thing. Hopefully, reading these little volumes will continue to send me sailing into uncharted waters, as I do love to discover new and wonderful writing from all over the world!

April plans, high excitement at the Ramblings, new arrivals – and 1977! #iconoclasm

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Reading plans? Ha! Not a thing I’ve been doing over the recent year or so, which has worked well for my reading psyche; but I think I might have to be a tiny bit more organised during April, particularly as this is imminent:

Yes, it’s only a couple of weeks until Simon and I co-host the 1977 Club; and as I’m still afloat (just!) in a sea of review books, I obviously need to get focused so that I can have some 1977 reading in place too. Mind you, complications have set in because of the unexpected arrival of some lovely volumes at the Ramblings – I think the place is definitely turning into some kind of book magnet…

First up, OH surprised me with an unexpected Easter present, which was very lovely of him and it’s a lovely thing:

It’s a very gorgeous, illustrated edition of “Ulysses”, as you can see – the ‘Dublin Illustrated Edition’, no less and the pen and ink drawings inside are very striking indeed; here’s one:

“Ulysses” is on my reading bucket list, and I think OH was prompted by my watching of a documentary on Joyce recently (yes, documentaries again!). This particular edition is a lovely hardback with a decent sized type and so I think this will be readable and handleable. So maybe 2018 will finally be the year of “Ulysses”…

Next up, yesterday also saw the belated arrival of my Mothers’ Day gift from the three Offspring. They asked what I wanted and instead of listing lots of little bits and bobs, I said can I have this please?

Lo and behold! Here it is – the Penguin Moderns boxed set! Such joy! 50 little volumes of wonderfulness in a gorgeous box – I am *so* lucky (and I do have very well-trained children…)

The trouble is, I feel a Project Lurking – that of reading them from 1 to 50 and posting on each volume. Knowing my record with reading projects (Penguin Modern Poets, anyone? yes, I know I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit there) I suspect I would get distracted half way through. But it’s sooooooo tempting…

But yesterday also brought the Most Exciting Arrival in the form of this – “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris” by Prof Richard Clay:

Those of you who are concentrating (pay attention at the back there, please!) may recall me rabbitting on about this book after Christmas, as it’s been impossible to get hold of a copy and I had to resort to getting one of my Offspring to borrow a copy from the university in which they work. I’ve still been fairly desperate to own a copy (as a rapid read over Christmas was *really* not doing it justice), and so I went into overdrive when one of the many alerts I’d set up with online booksellers pinged into my inbox saying it was available at a More Reasonable Price than hitherto – followed by more and more alerts! A quick search revealed that the book appears to have been reprinted because there are lots more out there – and as the last copy I saw online was almost £1,500 (and a used annotated one at that), the price I had to pay for this was payable. And it arrived yesterday and I was unreasonably excited all day. Here it is, on some piles with which it might possibly have connections:

And here it is again, standing smartly on the shelf where it will eventually sit for good, with some related publications of interest:

I have had to make a new space on what you might call the Pending Shelves for some of the incomings and here are the newbies all together:

And do you know what? I’m actually going to take a little bit of credit for the republication of this, because I *did* actually send several nagging emails to the publishers pointing out that it’d be sensible to do a reprint, bearing in mind the vast amounts being charged online for old tatty copies. Looks like they listened! I said in my previous post “I would like to *own* a copy of this one, but that ain’t happening any time soon by the look of things…” – I guess everything comes to she who waits! 🙂

However, I’m afraid those aren’t the only books which have arrived recently at the Ramblings. I might have got carried away with some online offers:

I’ve been really enjoying the “Civilisations” series on BBC2 recently, so when I saw Mary Beard’s tie in book on offer I snapped it up – and I added “Utopia” on to get free shipping. I had a copy of “Utopia” once back in the day, but I either haven’t got it still or just can’t find it – either scenario is plausible given my record of mislaying books. I loved Binet’s “HHhH” and I’m equally intrigued by the idea of “The 7th Function of Language”. I’ve resisted up until now but too many recent reviews made me give in. And the John Muir book has been on my wishlist for *ages* and it was payday and I thought “WTF life is too short” and clicked. “Utopia” is potentially causing me brain strain, as I have a sort of “Utopian Reading List” put together by “The Happy Reader” and the thought of a Utopian reading project is doing my head in. Book addict? Moi? Ahem…

Fortunately I’ve been able to exercise more restraint in the charity shops and only these have come home with me recently (as well as the GAD collection I posted about recently):

The Camus, of course, had to come home – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before. And the Penguin Story is just lovely, an old history of one of my favourite publishers with gorgeous old-fashioned illustrations. The Marina Warner was essential too (did you notice another one of hers lurking in an earlier picture in this post?) I read a lot of Warner back in my 20s and I’m keen to read more.

Ok. Phew. I think that’s it. I’ve just finished reading a review book which I’ll cover in the next few days and which was just marvellous; plus I have some Shiny New Books reviews coming up too, which I will link to. What I actually pick up to read next is another matter. OH suggested I should perhaps pace myself with “Ulysses”, just reading a section each day alongside something else, and I may well try that. Who knows – watch this space… 🙂

Meanwhile, Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate – make use of the lovely break from work, if you have one, by doing plenty of reading! 🙂

What to read for the #1951Club??

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One of the real joys of our reading clubs (where we focus on books from a particular year) is the fact that you get an excuse to rummage among the stacks and find out exactly which books from the year in question you actually own! I’ve been pretty good during previous clubs and have stuck almost completely to books I already owned. Coming to 1951 it seems I have rather a lot of volumes to choose from – and here they are in a lovely big stack! 🙂

This is probably not all the books I have in my collection from the year (there’s an Elizabeth Taylor for a start) but they’re all titles that appeal in one way or another. For a start, there’s plenty of Maigret:

I *could* just read nothing but Maigret all week – and that would be quite a pleasure! But there are other crime titles too:

I’ve read one Durrenmatt title and it was good, if dark; the Christie is that rare thing, one of her titles that I don’t think I’ve read!! And the Tey is one of my favourite crime books ever – but it gave me great grief when I was pulling books off the shelf to photograph! I knew which shelf my Teys *used* to be on, but having had a shuffle I wasn’t sure if they were still there. I looked on the shelf – not there. Searched the rest of the likely places but with no luck. Looked on the original shelf – still no joy. Looked in less likely places but to no avail. Went back to the original shelf and found them tucked up a corner behind some other ones – how do books do that??

If I need a break from crime these two are possibles – I haven’t read Steinbeck or Mitford for ages, so both would be good to pick up.

And then there are the heavier titles:

Of these, I *know* I’ve read the Greene and the Mishima; I *may* have read the Nabokov; and I don’t think I’ve read the Camus. These would probably take a bit more commitment, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place mentally to revisit the Greene – we shall see!

So, plenty of choice from books I already own, though no doubt there will be temptation from all the interesting suggestions people come up with.  Watch this space to see what I *do* read! 🙂

Celebrating the birthday of Camus with the OED!

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camus-1957

Today is the birthday of French Algerian author Albert Camus, a name no doubt familiar to readers of the Ramblings as he is one of my favourites! So I was really happy to be asked to contribute a piece to the Oxford Dictionaries Blog on Camus and his language!

Of course, I don’t read him in his native tongue, but considering two translations by the same person was fascinating and threw up some interesting uses of language. So do go and have a look – the post is here:

Albert Camus: the dazzle of translated words

 

#1947 Club – Revisiting one of the pivotal books in my life

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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!

My old copy of "The Plague" which has been with me for over 30 years...

My old copy of “The Plague” which has been with me for over 30 years…

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….

oran-1940s

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.

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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.

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(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…)

Albert Camus Centenary

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“Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”
― Albert Camus

499px-Albert_Camus,_gagnant_de_prix_Nobel,_portrait_en_buste,_posé_au_bureau,_faisant_face_à_gauche,_cigarette_de_tabagisme
Today is the centenary of the birth of the great French writer, Albert Camus – probably best known for his novel “L’Etranger”. According to Wikipedia:

Albert Camus  (7 November 1913 – 4 January 1960) was a French Nobel Prize winning author, journalist, and philosopher. His views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism. He wrote in his essay “The Rebel” that his whole life was devoted to opposing the philosophy of nihilism while still delving deeply into individual freedom.

I first plucked up the courage to read Camus in my twenties when I discovered French authors with a vengeance. I remember vividly the day I read “The Plague” (my favourite Camus novel), an allegory of occupation that gripped me so much I read the whole volume in a day, and then sent off postcards to all my friends urging them to read the book instantly (this was of course in the prehistoric days before the Internet, mobile phones etc!)

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Camus was the basis for the character Henri Perron in Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Mandarins”, which I only read recently – it’s an excellent book which I wish I’d tackled years ago, and fascinating also for the portrait of Camus it provides.

I love reading Camus for what he says about the human condition. His work is lyrical but often brutal, and I’d recommend him to anyone who loves literature.

Happy birthday, Albert!

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
― Albert Camus

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