The Plague – Albert Camus

They went on doing business, arranged journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.

Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious. A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood. A few weeks before, they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone; the person they were living with held, to some extent, the foreground of their little world. But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices—-in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.

No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.

Albert Camus is an author whose work I have been making my way through starting about three years ago when I read his treatise The Rebel. The Plague is now added to a list that also includes The Stranger and the short story collection The Stranger and the Kingdom.

Oran is a vibrant community until an outbreak of bubonic plague throws the town into disarray, first as people do not understand why their loved ones are dying and then when the city is quarantined to prevent the epidemic from spreading. The Plague addresses how a community confronts such an outbreak, both in the immediate form of an agonizing death and the accompanying psychic trauma. Although it is a story about the community at large, it mostly follows the efforts of the narrator, Doctor Rieux and his band of friends, including the journalist Raymond Rembert and the clerk Joseph Grand, in their efforts to combat the plague and ease human suffering when all else fails. Rembert, a French journalist trapped in the quarantined city, is particularly interesting in this regard, since he is desperate to get back to his wife.

I like this review about the continuing importance of The Plague, for what it says about physical and psychic epidemics in the modern world, but am not prepared to offer a detailed analysis of the book myself. I found it hard to appreciate The Plague as a novel, feeling largely detached from the events as though it was a philosophical allegory instead of a story. This is not without good reason. The Plague is about physical suffering, but it is also an allegory about fascism. Another way of saying this is that I liked The Plague as philosophy, but not as a novel, for which it alternated between scenes of brilliant poignancy and ones that just got in the way. (As a novel, I much preferred The Stranger.) That said, I’m not certain that The Plague would work as philosophy, but the mixture just didn’t quite work for me.

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Next up, I am nearly finished with Fazil Iskander’s Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, a tale about two competing social systems, with some intrepid inhabitants of both being frustrated with what their peers regard as an ideal society.

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