Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Albert Camus, The plague ... Why did he write it?

Camus 1957 (Public domain, from the New York-World Telegram
 and Sun Newspaper Telegraph Newspaper Collection)

A lively discussion ensued when 8 Minervans met this week to discuss Albert Camus' The plague. There were those who loved it, those who were surprised by how easy it was to read, and those who wished he'd written something different. If he wanted to write about the Nazi occupation of France, one member cried, why didn't he? With a discussion opener like that, it was on for one and all (more or less).

For those who don't know what the book is about, here is a quick plot. It is set in the town of Oran, on the Algerian coast, in the late 1940s. The town is 'visited' by the plague, and so closes itself off for the duration of the disease. The novel then follows the progress of the disease and how the citizens cope with such a pestilence and the resultant "exile" and "separation". There is a narrator, who is not revealed until the end, but we see the story through the actions and conversations of several characters including Dr Rieux, Tarrou (a "strange" visitor to the town), and Rambert (a visiting journalist). Secondary characters include the Priest Paneloux, a minor government official Grand, and a man with a past Cottard.

That's the basis of the literal story ... but this is a book that can be read on other levels. It can also be seen as an allegory about the French occupation in World War 2 (with a member suggesting that he took this approach because the French may not have been comfortable with a direct exploration of the occupation), or more broadly as a metaphorical story about how to live in an "absurd" world. It is these allegorical/metaphorical levels which engaged some of us, but frustrated others. Regardless though of what we thought was (or should be) the intent of the book, we enjoyed talking about the characters and how they behaved and reacted:

  • we thought about Tarrou's idea that we all have the plague in us. One member suggested that this idea is present in our 21st century consciousness - that is, that we are complicit in some way in the things that happen.
  • we discussed Fr Paneloux and his reactions: first, his fire and brimstone speech that people's sins had brought God's wrath upon them; and then later, in response to the death of an innocent child, his argument that whatever God willed, we should will too, that "the Christian should yield himself wholly to the divine will". 
  • we felt we could understand Rambert's initial determination to escape. After all, it wasn't his town.
  • we admired Dr Rieux getting on with his duty.
  • we wondered about Grand and his seemingly trivial obsession with the first sentence of his novel, but a member suggested that he might be the true hero of the novel, and quoted the narrator:
... if it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a 'hero', the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.
Grand in other words is a decent, ordinary everyman. No intellectualising for him, just a belief in doing the decent thing.

Of course, we discussed Cottard and his seemingly incomprehensibly happy reaction to the plague.

We enjoyed the language. One member commented that you could open the book anywhere and spot a beautifully written phrase. And this brought us to the translations. We all had Penguin editions, some old ones from the 1960s and 70s which used the 1948 Stuart Gilbert translation, and some the recent classic orange and white edition which uses the 2001 Robin Buss translation. We read the last paragraph in each translation and were surprised by the differences. For example, the "happy town" in 1948 becomes "contented" in 2001, the "linen-chests" of 1948 become "clothing", and "years and years" become "dozens of years". It felt very much like the language had been updated for more modern audience, but not being French experts we are not to say!

Finally, one member noted that an article she read described Camus as a "moraliste" but not a "moraliser", and that he had identified the central moral problems of the age. Many of us agreed with that, and felt that Camus was more humanist than existentialist.

I'm afraid, though, that the discussion was so vigorous that I have not recalled all that was said. I would be most happy if Minervans present picked me up in the comments on anything I've missed or, shock horror, anything that I've misrepresented! And, of course, for anyone else interested to chime in.