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.

The Jokers, Albert Cossery

“The street was packed with evening strollers enjoying the cooler air at the end of the torrid day. There were the working stiffs, upright and formal; the dignified family men flanked by wives and children; the occasional pair of young newlyweds, who clutched each other’s hands in a grotesque show of commitment. But none of the drinkers at the Globe paid any attention to this mundane procession. They weren’t there to look at humanity in all its mediocrity; they were waiting for a luxuriantly curvaceous woman to show up and arouse their desire. From time to time a metallic squeal, sharp and deafening as a siren, signaled the ambling approach of a tram. The drivers of horse carts, who were so skilled at maneuvering through traffic jams, lashed out at the indolent mob filling the street, impervious to anything but the welcome sea breeze. Heykal tried in vain to locate a single bum, a single happy-go-lucky derelict who had managed to escape the clutches of the police. Not one. Reduced to the contributing members of society–in other words, the depressed and overworked–the city’s streets were becoming strangely sinister. Wherever you went, you were surrounded by public servants. Heykal couldn’t help but remember how the beggar had responded to his invitation to come collect his monthly sum at the house. That a starving beggar would refuse to be seen as an employee: what an insult to posterity, which only recognizes those who make careers of following the rules! History’s full of these little bureaucrats who rise to high positions because of their diligence and perseverance in a life of crime. It was a painful thought: the only glorious men the human race produced were a bunch of miserable officials who cared about nothing but their own advancement and were sometimes driven to massacre thousands of their own just to hold onto their jobs and keep food on the table. And this was who was held up for the respect and admiration of the crowd!”

p.43-4

The regime never changes. Not really. Sometimes it is better, other times worse. The current governor has delusions of grandeur that demand cleaning up the city and relocating the poor and the prostitutes and the beggars to somewhere that can’t be seen, away from the strategic routes, offices, and casinos of the wealthy. The revolutionaries want the governor assassinated and the police want the revolutionaries arrested.

The Jokers think that the fundamental problem is that everyone takes each other too seriously. In fact, the only thing these friends take seriously are their jokes.

Albert Cossery was born in Cairo into a Syrian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox family, trained in a French school and spent most of his life living in Paris, but set all of his novels in Egypt. The Jokers (originally published in French as La violence et la dérision) his 1964 publication is set in a nameless Middle Eastern port city in the heat of summer. The friends Karim, Heykal, Urfy, and Omar have a deep disdain for the governor and the entire establishment for ruining what they enjoy in life as they reject the petty ambitions and material wants of the upper classes. At the same time, they shun the company of revolutionaries who are doomed to failure because, by taking the government seriously, they give it exactly what it wants (and, should the revolution topple the government, they would only become that which they sought to destroy, anyhow). So the friends decide to topple the current regime with laughter.

The Jokers is wickedly funny, pregnant with irony, and perhaps the most indulgent book I have ever read. Their plans give both the revolutionaries and the government fits and amused indifference and mocking nonchalance become heroic virtues. Much like his friend Camus and the philosophy of absurdism, Cossery rejects material gain, but takes the notion one step further to reject the idea the idea that producing anything is worthy of respect–“honest labor” is little more than participation in a system that deadens and kills victims and perpetrators alike. Freedom comes from recognizing society as an illusion, a grand ongoing joke that becomes so dangerous because everyone takes it seriously.

The story is all the more powerful for its simplicity, but Cossery’s praise of indolence can also be disconcerting, particularly, I think, to an American reader. The Protestant DNA of this country and its cult of the producer rejects men like the Jokers as layabouts profiting from the labor of others. Even most Hemingway stories, built around attending bullfights, swimming, drinking in cafes, and fishing, are couched in an interminable need to work. Not so for Cossery. Karim, for instance, makes kites, but because he derives pleasure from it rather than to fund his escapades. Cossery’s Jokers have enough to suit them and refuse to follow the harried footsteps of everyone else. At the same time, though, they do not succumb to sloth. Each of the Jokers is actually exceptionally active and engaged, just with different ambitions as the rest of the world.

One further caveat about The Jokers is also warranted. This is a story about men where adult women are faceless entities, uninteresting to the Jokers except for one exception, a woman who also happens to be one of their mothers. They are interested in younger women who Cossery describes as maintaining a degree of innocence that is lost once they don the accouterments of adulthood. From the little I have read, this is a common critique of Cossery’s work and is a reflection of his personal life. Nonetheless, I didn’t find it distracting for this story in large part because the main characters ooze so much disdain for the entire world that they don’t seem to hold any more for adult women than for adult men. The treatment of women (at least to me) was mostly notable only because the story features an instance of transformation where a young woman crosses the boundary between youth and adulthood. In some ways, the book seemed to imply a generalization that women couldn’t join in the frivolous rebellion inaugurated by the Jokers, but the manner of transformation–one that involves accepting the dress and appearance expected by the petty bureaucrats and playing their games rather than hitting a certain age–suggests that were a woman to likewise reject those trappings she might still fit in with their group. But the story is set in the Middle East and what I just offered is a contrafactual possibility, so it is a moot point, but one worth mentioning.

I loved this book and it has found its way onto my list of top novels. At just about 150 pages, it is a quick read, but funny and a complete story. I could see its indulgence rubbing some people the wrong way, but perhaps those are the people who need to laugh the most.

December 2013 Reading Recap

My progress through Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund has slowed, so I thought to write this post up a bit early. Sometime in January I also plan to revisit my top novels post I did once before.

  • Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis – Reviewed here, Lucky Jim is a comedy of errors. On some level, James Dixon is alienated from teaching at the university because he is surrounded by insane people, but on another he is a college instructor who is wholly unsuited for the position. I had a particularly strong negative reaction to this novel, which is reflected in the review, but the more I reflect on it the funnier the story is and it is likely to appear on my updated list of top novels–even if I still have misgivings about the moral presented about people in academia and what contingent faculty should do with themselves.
  • The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Junichiro Tanizaki – reviewed here, Tanizaki “explains” on the basis of several fictional sources the rumored, but unknown, sexual desires that drove the eponymous Lord of Musashi to become a successful warlord. I enjoyed the book, although I did note that it seemed to be a solid addition to a secret history genre, rather than a great novel in its own right.
  • Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, a novel satirizing news media, public consumption of news, journalism, and foreign correspondents. John Boot, an author, pulls some strings to get a job as a correspondent in Ishmaelia, an African country on the brink of civil war, so that he can escape a persistent women. But the newspaper hires the wrong Boot, William, a homebody whose writing consists of stories about country fauna. William does take the job and goes to Ishmaelia, where he is a fish out of water. Waugh has some wicked insights about what news is and the absurdities of journalism.
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus – Mersault works hard, he is seeing a woman from work who he might marry, and he gets to go swimming. His mother has just died, but other than that his life could be described as good. Mersault might not say so, though. Life is. His pattern of life changes drastically when he shoots an unknown Arab man on the beach.
  • The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway – One of Hemingway’s incomplete posthumous novels that was heavily pruned from the manuscript form (something like 2/3 of manuscript was cut to create the story in its published form). David Bourne and his wife Catherine are on their honeymoon along the Mediterranean coast of France. The couple is in love and, in typical Hemingway fashion, most of their time is spent eat, drinking, and swimming, sleeping, and having sex. The erotic games really begin when Catherine begins to alter her appearance to more resemble her husband and take control of their relationship and then when she brings a new woman into her marriage. There is an emptiness to this story that is more pronounced than usual, probably because the story was incomplete and because it was so thoroughly trimmed. There are still some things to recommend The Garden of Eden–Catherine is a fuller, more powerful female character than most Hemingway created, he creates a powerful sense of place for a beautiful setting, and the story that remains has some rich irony given the background of manuscript.

As noted above, I will finish Narcissus and Goldmund in the next few days, and after that I don’t know what I will read. As of this writing, tomorrow is a new year and the possibilities are endless.