Saturday, 29 January 2022


Continuing my extremely irregular series on Existentialist novels, I somehow had the bright idea that Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’ might be a good way to take my mind off contemporary events…

”It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile – that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time.”

Published in 1947, Camus’ account of the bubonic plague striking the (sort of) French town of Oran is normally taken as a metaphor for the recently concluded War. Which was spanned in the Road To Freedom trilogy written by his (sort of) compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre. (Looked at here, here and here.) And, like Sartre, Camus had been involved in the Resistance.

But this reading is one of those fine-sounding ideas which falls apart on inspection. It seems to come down to one passage:

“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

Which does bear a resemblance to something we know to be about fascism, Brecht’s epilogue to ’The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’:

“The world was almost won by such an ape!
“The nations put him where his kind belong
“But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape
“The womb he crawled from still is going strong”

But there are obvious reasons why Brecht would dress the Nazis up as Chicago gangsters, just as there were for Arthur Miller to relocate McCarthyism into the past. What benefit lies in dressing Nazis up as a disease? Doesn’t it sound, if anything, like a metaphor a Nazi would use? Moreover, Sartre was happy to talk about them directly. Why wouldn’t Camus do the same?

Fascism is political, historically contingent. As Camus knew, it can fall. As we now know, it can rise again. Plague - at least as portrayed here - is a recurring inevitability, part of the fabric of things which you adjust yourself around.

In fact, Sartre presents Nazis but is not especially interested in them. He is not writing historical novels, even if they have a historical setting. Instead, both writers use a destabilising external event (whether plague or war) solely to provoke their characters into reaction. Their interest lies in that reaction, not so much in the cause.

There are, however, important differences between the two. Sartre strives as hard as he can to get inside individual heads, showing events only through their eyes. Whereas Camus has written a character study of a town more than any of its inhabitants, which characters introduced largely so there can be someone there to describe it to us. While Sartre kicks off with his author surrogate Matthias, for his first chapter Camus doesn’t even feature an individual character. And he frequently returns to a wide-angle view of the town. Significantly, two of his cast are outsiders. When we first encounter Tarrou we’re told nothing other than his observations of the townspeople, as if he’s going to be our camera.

Not, Camus is at pains to tell us, there is much to see in Oran. The portrait is more unsparing than flattering. It’s distinguished by “ordinariness” and “banality”, a featureless landscape without even trees to break up the endless white. And its population are equally distinguished by habit. A Jesuit priest sermonises that the plague is due to insufficiently devout behaviour, a theory treated much as you’d expect. But the suggestion the townsfolk had the plague coming in some way or other is persistent, mostly remaining a lurking suggestion but sometimes breaking cover:

“It was as if the earth on which our houses stood was being purged of its secreted humours - thrusting up to the surface of the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins.”

(It’s not my main interest to compare Camus’ fictional plague with our actual one. But this does seem reminiscent of Benjamin Zephaniah’s recent comment about our returning to normal - “normal is what got us here.”)

Further, it’s well known that Camus rejected the commonly applied Existentialist tag, preferring Absurdist. We tend to imagine Absurdist literature as outwardly fantastical, as in Kafka’s transforming beetles, or at least making no attempt to set itself in a plausibly real world, as with Beckett’s tramps. Absurdist becomes inevitably intermingled with absurd in the more colloquial sense. Martin Esslin, in ’Theatre of the Absurd’, defined it as “the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.”

Whereas this is a series of quite plausible events set in a real town. For example, Rambert’s trying to break out of quarantine because he wants to see his girlfriend in Paris, a motive which seems almost too petty to make up. The book also cleaves to a strict chronology, chapters effectively crossing off the months of the calendar, April to February.

But Camus wilfully smears the the edges of this of this realist picture. How are we to parse, for example, Grand’s attempts to write a novel, a hopelessly Sisyphean task in which over endless attempts he only ever writes and re-writes his first sentence? It’s hard to accept this grand folly as realist. Yet it isn’t treated any differently to any of the other events, the text as dispassionate in describing it as the responses of the other characters. Such tastes of the Absurd aren’t common but they are present, a spice sprinkled into the overall grey flavour.

Tarrou and Cottard have their attitudes transformed by the plague, so suddenly in the latter case that I initially thought I was getting characters confused. Cottard gains a new lease of life from being thrown back in the community of men, while Tarrou shifts from observer to participant. And even though the effectiveness of his actions are questioned, this is something which seems close to the novel’s heart. Ed Vulliamy has argued in the Guardian that “the group of men gathered around the narrative represent, it feels, all human response to calamity. Each takes his turn to tell it.”

“Thus week by week the prisoners of plague put up what fight they could. Some 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 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.”

(Not a paragraph you can picture Sartre writing.)

But there’s an ill-fitting piece in this picture, in fact a sizeable one. For nothing similar happens with the main character - Doctor Rieux. Less dramatically heroic than resilient, he trudges solidly from the book’s start to end, with an almost permanently affixed air of focused calm. And he becomes the thread. You soon come to feel that any character could come down with plague and be offed at any point, with the sole exception of Rieux.

His “severance from his wife”, who leaves town just before the plague hits, suggests that his personal connections went with her, leaving him permanently on duty. Quite late in the day there’s a scene where Tarrou opens up to him. But the event is noticeably one-way.

He insists “there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency…. the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.” And he must be this unfailing to match and counter his remorseless opponent.

“The narrator is well aware how regrettable is his inability to record at this point something of a really spectacular order; some heroic feat, or memorable deed like those that thrill us in the chronicles of the past. The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through them the grim days of plague do not stand out like livid flame, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky, but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path… it was a shrewd, unflagging adversary, a skilled organiser, doing his work thoroughly and well.”

In what will seem a segue, let’s turn to Camus’ strange quirk of slipping between quoted and reported speech in dialogue, such as…

“Is it true” asked Character A, “that even though I am speaking to you directly you will respond in reported speech?”

Character B replied that they were indeed responding in reported speech.

He does this often, and often without any apparent rhyme or reason - but the most with Rieux. And he tends to do it most when Rieux is giving out some generalised pleasantry, or being placatory. For example:

”Do you think, Doctor Rieux, that the epidemic will get worse?”

Rieux replied that one could only hope it wouldn’t.

Rather than voicing his own thoughts, it’s a more widely applied version of the Doctor’s bedside manner. Which leaves us with a terse and private character, even from us.

As a quote above shows the Narrator repeatedly establishes their presence on the page. The Blog Post Author found this odd for a novel written after 1790. By this point the conventions of the novel had been well established, and could be taken for granted. Yet both Sartre and Camus, in this sense very much Modernists, accept none of this, and insist on rethinking things from first principles. One of which is the novel’s very existence. Someone must have witnessed these events, after all, for us to be told of them.

There’s a brief early reference to the narrator’s identity being revealed, and another at the end confirming this is Rieux. Which doesn’t exactly count as a spoiler. It’s more like one of those plot twists which has you responding “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to know that”. We may be glad that Camus didn’t go in for whodunnits. But, however eccentric, we may be better off focusing on how fitting this is. It’s less about giving us a diegetic reason for the novel’s existence than the role of that reason in establishing its tone.

….which is evocative and yet dispassionate. Rather than indulging in flourishes it captures images as sharply as defining legal clauses. (For example, the phrase “clubs where large sums change hands on the fall of a card.”) We’re told…

”The narrator has aimed at objectivity. He has made hardly any changes for the sake of artistic effect, except those elementary adjustments needed to preserve his narrative in a more or less coherent form.”

…while we’re also told of Rieux:

“The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in - though he had much liking for his fellow-men - and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.”

Then later:

”This self-imposed reticence cost him little effort. Whenever tempted to add his personal note to the myriad voices of the plague-stricken, he was deterred by the thought that not one of his sufferings but was common to all the others, and that in a world where sorrow is so often lonely this was an advantage. Thus, decidedly, it was up to him to speak for all.”

In short, if Rieux is sometimes quoted through reported speech, the whole novel is a kind of reported speech. But if he often functions simply as a lens through which we might see the town, we get hints as to more…

Though set in occupied Algeria, this seems largely a convenience based on where Camus himself was based. (Though he didn’t live in Oran itself, most likely picked due to a more historic outbreak of plague.) The town needs only to be provincial to Paris, and could be shifted to southern France with little effort. 

However an exchange between Rieux and the journalist Rambert hinges on one word. Rieux asks if a proposed article on living conditions in the Arab quarter could be an “unqualified condemnation”. And when Rambert baulks at “unqualified”, Rieux’s reticence returns and he refuses further co-operation. The implication is that, there being no-one who wants to hear of this, it is pointless to say it.

Yet what is strong writing when considering the character of Rieux is pretty weaksauce as far as the locals go. If Sartre did not always present his minority characters terribly well, the lack of Algerians in a book set in Algeria is a little troubling. You sometimes wonder if the Spanish characters are introduced as a kind of half-way house, of twilight morality but still a slightly more respectable substitute for the natives.

There is a reference to quarantine driving up food prices…

“The result was that the poor were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality amongst our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts.” 

…but who would most of “the poor” have been in occupied Algeria? It’s not hard to guess. But it’s not said aloud.

And while we’re at it, female characters do worse than with Sartre, in number or importance, which wasn’t a high bar to start with. “Self-effacement” is specified as a feminine virtue, one in which the gals here seem to excel. Rambert’s off-page girlfriend does appear briefly at the end, but is given neither a name nor any dialogue. (Though she is Parisian, so she may just be too snooty to talk to the locals.)

Here, then, Camus has Rambert’s fault and has not written an unqualified condemnation. Like Rieux, we shouldn’t fail to notice this. But unlike Rieux, we don’t necessarily need to cut off all co-operation. Within the parameters it sets itself, perhaps as provincial as the town setting, the novel’s a success.

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