On ‘The Plague’

Penguin Books has just published a new translation by Robin Buss of La Peste, by Albert Camus, and the text that follows is my introduction, written some months ago. Many readers will be familiar with its fable of the coming of the plague to the North African city of Oran in 194–, and the diverse ways in which the inhabitants respond to its devastating impact on their lives. Today, The Plague takes on fresh significance and a moving immediacy.

Camus’s insistence on placing individual moral responsibility at the heart of all public choices cuts sharply across the comfortable habits of our own age. His definition of heroism—ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency—rings truer than we might once have acknowledged. His depiction of instant ex cathedra judgments—“My brethren, you have deserved it”—will be grimly familiar to us all.

Camus’s unwavering grasp of the difference between good and evil, despite his compassion for the doubters and the compromised, for the motives and mistakes of imperfect humanity, casts unflattering light upon the relativizers and trimmers of our own day. And his controversial use of a biological epidemic to illustrate the dilemmas of moral contagion succeeds in ways the writer could not have imagined. Here in New York, in November 2001, we are better placed than we could ever have wished to feel the lash of the novel’s premonitory final sentence.

The Plague is Albert Camus’s most successful novel. It was published in 1947, when Camus was thirty-three, and was an immediate triumph. Within a year it had been translated into nine languages, with many more to come. It has never been out of print and was established as a classic of world literature even before its author’s untimely death in a car accident in January 1960. More ambitious than L’Etranger, the first novel that made his reputation, and more accessible than his later writings, The Plague is the book by which Camus is known to millions of readers. He might have found this odd—The Rebel, published four years later, was his personal favorite among his books.

The Plague was a long time in the writing, like much of Camus’s best work. He started gathering material for it in January 1941, when he arrived in Oran, the Algerian coastal city where the story is set. He continued working on the manuscript in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mountain village in central France where he went to recuperate from one of his periodic bouts of tuberculosis in the summer of 1942. But Camus was soon swept into the Resistance and it was not until the liberation of France that he was able to return his attention to the book. By then, however, the obscure Algerian novelist had become a national figure: a hero of the intellectual Resistance, editor of Combat (a daily paper born in clandestinity and hugely influential in the postwar years), and an icon to a new generation of French …

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