Seventy years on and Camus’s The Plague still has the power to make us change our lives
Seventy years on and Camus’s The Plague still has the power disturb and change our ways
By Trevor Grundy
Books should be reviewed when they’re relevant, not just when they’re written. Could any book me more important to read and understand at the moment than Albert Camus’s The Plague?
Witten in 1947, the novel was published in English the following year. George Orwell’s 1984 appeared several months later.
Against the backdrop of rising Populism mainly in Europe, the latter is quoted ad nauseam.
Now we have Coronavirus sweeping the world and I believe that the former is the book most in tune with the moment we are in.
Many literary critics say it is the greatest book ever written about a pandemic.
Sales of the book have tripled in Italy. Penguin has rushed out a reprint of its English translation by Stuart Gilbert.
Ben Macintyre writing in The Times of March 14th, 2020 has his finger on the pulse.
He’s spot on when he says that this is a book that helps us understand the way we cope with a mysterious illness – incurable and implacable.
Albert Camus author of The Plague
Written only two years after the end of the Second World War, the Algerian-born Camus must have had had the virus of Nazism in mind when he wrote what many of his admirers believe was his greatest novel.
Was that the only virus he had in mind? That’s debatable.
The Plague is loosely based on a real life tragedy, the cholera epidemic that erupted in Oran in 1849 following the French colonization of Algeria.
As Macintyre says, many of the characters and themes in The Plague (La Peste) are familiar from today’s crisis.
Initially, only a few begin to understand what’s up when thousands of rats appear on the streets and in the homes of the citizens of Oran.
They first attempt to ignore the problem, hoping (or praying) it will go away.
But unlike in America or Britain, a hero emerges, a doctor called Bernard Rieux who warns that unless action is taken –and immediately – the entire population of the walled city will perish.
Arguments spring-up about how best to control the epidemic. But by the time the authorities make up their confused minds, the emergency measures prove inefficient.
The town is sealed off but even then there are people who refuse to obey safety instructions.
(And as I write, I hear a football being bounced along the street where I live in a seaside town in Kent, close to a long beach normally patronised by thousands of Londoners at the start of the long Eastern break. The number dead in hospital approaches 5,000).
Lockdown tedium has already begun in Britain.
At the start, many believed that the epidemic would soon die out and that they and their families would be spared.
The Jesuit priest Pere Paneloux tells him frightened congregation that plague is a Divine Punishment for their sins. One of the most severe is their attendance at his church only one day every week. He doesn’t say it but the inference is that collection plates need filling seven days a week, not just on Sundays.
Hundreds die. Positions are taken. The journalist Raymond Rambert who in town to write about poor sanitary conditions for Arabs, just wants to get the hell out of the place and be re-united with his wife in Paris.
A man called Joseph Grand wants to write about it and publish a book.
The Spaniard Jean Turrou keeps notes.
Crooks like a man called Cottard profit for a while , cashing in on shortages. Housewives are forced to buy basic commodities from con-men cashing in on out-of-control buying/feeding frenzies.
One of the best critiques I’ve read about this extraordinarily brilliant novel was written by the late Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books.
He sees in The Plague one of the clearest examinations of the diverse ways in which we respond to pandemics (medical or political) ever written.
It was Camus’s most successful novel and written when he was only thirty three years old.
Within a year it was translated into nine languages, with more to come as years went by. It has never been out of print and was seen by so many as a literary classic even before the author’s untimely death in a car accident in January 1964.
In his long and wonderful analysis, Judt says Camus’s public standing guaranteed the novel’s success.
But timing is everything as any writer knows.
The French in 1947 were beginning to forget the recent past, inventing heroes along the way.
Baddies like Marshal Philippe Petain had been tried and imprisoned.
The Goodies led by General de Gaulle were polishing their images and spreading what the American poet Louis Macneice called “the myth of themselves.”
Says Judt: ”Such commentaries are doubly revealing. In the first place they show just how much Camus’s apparently straightforward story was open to misunderstanding. They allegory may have been tied to Vichy France, but the The Plague transcends political labels.
“It was not “fascism” that Camus was aiming at – an easy target, after all, especially in 1947 but dogma, compliance and cowardice in all their intersecting public forms.”
The message, as I see it, is two-fold.
First, the only real vice is ignorance. To which we might add “and those who encourage it.”
Secondly, Albert Camus own words at the end of this most wonderful book say it all – “The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can be dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves: and that perhaps would one day come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city.”
The Plague by Albert Camus first published as La Peste in Paris, 1947. First published by Penguin Books in 1960. Translation by Stuart Gilbert.