The Plague

There I was having finished A Coffin for Dimitrios and wondering what to read next and Cleo was reading The Plague with a friend of hers, so I thought well, that’s a 20th century classic, and I’ve only read the Stranger and while I had no interest in reading Camus ever again, that didn’t exactly remove him from my list, so I bought the Plague, started it, and promptly wanted to read anything else.   That’s where Agatha came in.   But strangely, I came back to the Plague and kept coming back to it, so there must be something in it, but forgive me if I can’t tell you what.   It is the portrait of an Algerian town (an actual town where Camus lived), but the plague that takes it over is fictional.  Or perhaps I should say this encounter of plague, which is real, and town, which is real, is fictional.   In many ways I think it’s an excellent portrait of a town during plague, but then there are all these bits I don’t understand.  The central character is Dr. Rieux, a respected and busy physician whose wife leaves in the beginning for a rest cure for her tuberculosis.  Once the plague gets underway, he cannot visit her or even write her, but he soldiers on in a peculiarly emotionless way, although I think we’re meant to understand he loves her and he’s not emotionless, he feels all the things others would, he just doesn’t act on them.   Ever.

I tried to read a few other reviews on this to clarify my ideas, or give me some, but there isn’t much out there and I refuse to read Cliffs Notes at this stage of my life.   But it’s hard to write about this book without spoilers as no one, from the New York Review of Books to NPR has managed to, so I, too, will write full of spoilers, but I’m warning you, if you don’t want to know what happens, just read the book, and no one else beforehand.   It will get spoilery below the pic, which I will insert.    The book shows much that you would think: people acting bravely and cravenly, trying to heal the sick and trying to make an extra buck, people despairing and people spending all their money for tomorrow we die.   The fire and brimstone priest who seems to change his mind.  I was annoyed as heck at the beginning by how long it took anyone to acknowledge this was plague.   When rats come out dying in the streets by dozens, get the heck out of Dodge, but no one did.   They all walked around, how peculiar, the rats are dying.   Then there’s a man named Tarrou who among other things observes an old man who spits on cats every morning.   What am I supposed to make of that?  I think he’s a vile and nasty old man who needs a real hobby, but Tarrou seems to be not just amused, but admiring.  It’s things like that which make no sense to me, and maybe that’s just the parts of human nature which make no sense to me, because I strongly suspect there are old men in the world who every morning spit on a cat and that it’s the center of their lives, giving them a meaning I can’t understand.

camus1948cover

Once again, not the cover of mine.   But I think this is a great cover.

Maybe I can’t understand because what they used to think of as heroism is something different than I think of it.   No one’s more heroic than Rieux, sleeping a few hours a night, tirelessly caring for patients, trying to see that things are done sensibly and fighting this monstrous plague for months without ever giving way.   Rieux’s view of this seems to be that this is just what people should do and is not remotely heroic.   And perhaps that’s how it should be, but it ignores the fact that gazillions of people aren’t, which in my view puts him in the hero category.

The priest is another question mark.  At first he’s all – you deserve this, God is punishing you, and then later he mellows and makes some very significant changes in his view one of which is saying we, not you.   He no longer separates himself from the rest of humanity, which I would say is a great leap forward.   But then he also develops a theory that a priest should not call a doctor.   I guess this is like – is it Christian Scientists?   God will heal you or He won’t, it’s entirely up to him, and you should not muck about in this decision-making process by getting any inoculations or things like that.   Well, I tend to think, and clearly most people are with me on this, that just takes it all a bit too far and you should try to take care of yourself, whether you’re a priest or not.   God can kill you if He likes regardless of inoculations.   But whether or not that’s Camus’ take on the priest, I don’t know.

Now, there are those who take the plague as the Nazis and it certainly can be read that way.   Other people took exception because the Nazis were not a nameless, faceless, unstoppable evil like disease, they all had names and faces, but collectively they are very much like a plague.  In fact, if we someday discover that there’s a germ that makes people evil for a while, I wouldn’t be surprised.   But I think that it’s more that Camus didn’t want to write about the nature of evil and why some people become Nazis and why others don’t.   That’s why he made the evil a plague:  because he wanted to write about the response to Evil, not the nature and causes of it.   And I think he was very successful in this:  I find the Plague a lot more sympathetic as a book, than I remember the Stranger being.   There’s still a lot of alienation.  Separation is a major theme.  But there’s also a bit of camaraderie, a bit of friendship.  There’s not a lot of time for it, but it has its moment.

One of the people Rieux and Tarrou befriend is Grand, an office worker who every night works on his secret project.  He’s been doing this for years.   It emerges that Grand is trying to write a book so great all the publishers will cry “Hats off!’ from the first sentence.   Which is as far as he’s gotten.  Is this comic relief?  It is somewhat funny.   Is it a comment on writing?  On some particular writer or group of writers he’s poking fun at?  Is this how he feels about his own work?   I don’t know and I’m not sure there’s any clue to indicate if it’s one of these, some of these, or something else entirely.  It does give Grand his entire character.   And this I think is a serious weakness in Camus’ writing.   No one’s multi-layered.  Grand is probably the most as he at one point has a breakdown, but gets over it and soldiers on.  Rambert is also a bit more interesting with his initial focus on escape and then a complete change.  But really, none of these people are distinguishable beyond their one characteristic.   Even Rambert changes one characteristic for another.

Except I was forgetting Cottard.   Cottard is definitely more of a character.   The opposite of everyone else, he’s suicidal in the beginning, but then cheers up considerably during the plague.   Apparently because he’s always felt under sentence and now everyone else is in the same boat.   Really pretty reprehensible, but I didn’t find myself condemning Cottard.   Maybe because I didn’t take him seriously?    And what’s up with the guy with the dried peas?  There’s the rub.  I just don’t get Camus.   Again are we looking at comic relief?  The absurdity of man?  Of Man’s situation in the universe?   Life is quite absurd, and that’s the final word?   But surely if that’s all there is what are men like Rieux doing there?    I don’t think Camus equates them, I think Rieux is held up as how we should be.   Tarrou is admirable, Cottard is not.   Life is like that.  Sometimes there are plagues and you fight the plague.  You should fight the plague, even when it seems hopeless and pointless and useless.   And that seems the furthest thing from absurdity I can think of.

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2 thoughts on “The Plague”

  1. Okay, let me see if I can add to your thoughts. Camus was definitely comparing plague and war …… how both can kind of sneak up on you and how people tend to stick their heads in the sand rather than to believe that their comfy lives could change. Sometimes when I was reading the book, and I didn’t understand something in context of the plague, I would just substitute “war” and it would make sense.

    Camus was an absurdist, so he was pushing his philosophy all through the book. Life is meaningless but he goes a step further than the existentialists (I think) in that he thinks that you should still fight and struggle, and within the fight and struggle perhaps you can make your own meaning. You see the priest just give up and die, in comparison to Tarrou who fights for his life. Cottard while suicidal, lived alone with the guilt for what he did in the past, but as soon as the plague hits, the suffering puts him on the same level as everyone else and he finds a weird type of camaraderie, which perks him up. Of course, as soon as everyone begins to get well he is alone again and loses it.

    I’ve only read a little of Camus but he seemed like a man with a philosophy that he didn’t want to believe. Which is very interesting …… I’d love to read more of him.

    May I say, I just loved your review. I love reviews where the reviewer doesn’t quite “get” the book, because the lack of clarity tends to generate very perceptive insights. Great thoughts and, as much as you can “get” Camus, I think you got it! 🙂

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