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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 men and women hungry for ideas and idols.

Camus seemed to fit the role to perfection. Handsome and charming, a charismatic advocate of radical social and political change, he held unparalleled sway over millions of his countrymen. In the words of Raymond Aron, readers of Camus’s editorials had “formed the habit of getting their daily thought from him.” There were other intellectuals in postwar Paris who were destined to play major roles in years to come: Aron himself, Simone de Beauvoir, and of course Jean-Paul Sartre. But Camus was different. Born in Algeria in 1913, he was younger than his Left Bank friends, most of whom were already forty years old when the war ended. He was more “exotic,” coming as he did from distant Algiers rather than from the hothouse milieu of Parisian schools and colleges; and there was something special about him. One contemporary observer caught it well: “I was struck by his face, so human and sensitive. There is in this man such an obvious integrity that it imposes respect almost immediately; quite simply, he is not like other men.”1

Camus’s public standing guaranteed his book’s success. But its timing had something to do with it too. By the time the book appeared the French were beginning to forget the discomforts and compromises of four years of German occupation. Marshal Philippe Pétain, the head of state who initiated and incarnated the policy of collaboration with the victorious Nazis, had been tried and imprisoned. Other collaborating politicians had been executed or else banished from public life. The myth of a glorious national resistance was carefully cultivated by politicians of all colors, from Charles de Gaulle to the Communists; uncomfortable private memories were soothingly overlaid with the airbrushed official version in which France had been liberated from its oppressors by the joint efforts of domestic resisters and Free French troops led from London by De Gaulle.

In this context, Albert Camus’s allegory of the wartime occupation of France reopened a painful chapter in the recent French past, but in an indirect and ostensibly apolitical key. It thus avoided raising partisan hackles, except at the extremes of left and right, and took up sensitive topics without provoking a refusal to listen. Had the novel appeared in 1945 the angry, partisan mood of revenge would have drowned its moderate reflections on justice and responsibility. Had it been delayed until the 1950s its subject matter would probably have been overtaken by new alignments born of the cold war.

Whether The Plague should be read, as it surely was read, as a simple allegory of France’s wartime trauma is a subject to which I shall return. What is beyond doubt is that it was an intensely personal book. Camus put something of himself—his emotions, his memories, and his sense of place—into all his published work; that is one of the ways in which he stood apart from other intellectuals of his generation and it accounts for his universal and lasting appeal. But even by his standards The Plague is strikingly introspective and revealing. Oran, the setting for the novel, was a city he knew well and cordially disliked, in contrast to his much-loved home town of Algiers. He found it boring and materialistic and his memories of it were further shaped by the fact that his tuberculosis took a turn for the worse during his stay there. As a result he was forbidden to swim—one of his greatest pleasures—and was constrained to sit around for weeks on end in the stifling, oppressive heat that provides the backdrop to the story.

This involuntary deprivation of everything that Camus most loved about his Algerian birthplace—the sand, the sea, physical exercise, and the Mediterranean sense of ease and liberty that Camus always contrasted with the gloom and gray of the north—was compounded when he was sent to the French countryside to convalesce. The Massif Central of France is tranquil and bracing, and the remote village where Camus arrived in August 1942 might be thought the ideal setting for a writer. But twelve weeks later, in November 1942, the Allies landed in North Africa. The Germans responded by occupying the whole of southern France (hitherto governed from the spa town of Vichy by Pétain’s puppet government) and Algeria was cut off from the continent. Camus was thenceforth separated not just from his homeland but also from his mother and his wife, and would not see them again until the Germans had been defeated.2

Illness, exile, and separation were thus present in Camus’s life as in his novel, and his reflections upon them form a vital counterpoint to the allegory. Because of his acute firsthand experience, Camus’s descriptions of the plague and of the pain of loneliness are exceptionally vivid and heartfelt. It is indicative of his own depth of feeling that the narrator remarks early in the story that “the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow citizens was exile,” and that “being separated from a loved one…[was] the greatest agony of that long period of exile.”

This in turn provides, for Camus and the reader alike, a link to his earlier novel: for disease, separation, and exile are conditions that come upon us unexpectedly and unbidden. They are an illustration of what Camus meant by the “absurdity” of the human condition and the seemingly chance nature of human undertakings. It is not by accident that one of his main characters, Grand, for no apparent reason, reports a conversation overheard in a tobacco shop concerning “a young company employee who had killed an Arab on a beach.” This, of course, is an allusion to Meurseault’s seminal act of random violence in L’Etranger, and in Camus’s mind it is connected to the ravages of pestilence in The Plague by more than just their common Algerian setting.

But Camus did more than insert into his story vignettes and emotions drawn from his writings and his personal situation. He put himself very directly into the characters of the novel, using three of them in particular to represent and illuminate his distinctive moral perspective. Rambert, the young journalist cut off from his wife in Paris, is initially desperate to escape the quarantined city. His obsession with his personal suffering makes him indifferent to the larger tragedy, from which he feels quite detached—he is not, after all, a citizen of Oran, but was caught there by the vagaries of chance. It is on the very eve of his getaway that he realizes how, despite himself, he has become part of the community and shares its fate; ignoring the risk and in the face of his earlier, selfish needs, he remains in Oran and joins the “health teams.” From a purely private resistance against misfortune he has graduated to the solidarity of a collective resistance against the common scourge.

Camus’s identification with Dr. Rieux echoes his shifting mood in these years. Rieux is a man who, faced with suffering and a common crisis, does what he must and becomes a leader and an example not out of heroic courage or careful reasoning but rather from a sort of necessary optimism. By the late 1940s Camus was exhausted and depressed at the burden of expectations placed on him as a public intellectual: as he confided to his notebooks, “everyone wants the man who is still searching to have reached his conclusions.” From the “existentialist” philosopher (a tag that Camus always disliked) people awaited a polished world view; but Camus had none to offer.3 As he expressed it through Rieux, he was “weary of the world in which he lived”; all he could offer with any certainty was “some feeling for his fellow men and [he was] determined for his part to reject any injustice and any compromise.”

Dr. Rieux does the right thing just because he sees clearly what needs doing. In a third character, Tarrou, Camus invested a more developed exposition of his moral thinking. Tarrou, like Camus, is in his mid-thirties; he left home, by his own account, in disgust at his father’s advocacy of the death penalty—a subject of intense concern to Camus and on which he wrote widely in the postwar years.4 Tarrou has reflected painfully upon his past life and commitments, and his confession to Rieux is at the heart of the novel’s moral message: “I thought I was struggling against the plague. I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men, that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them.”

  1. 1

    Julien Green, Journal, February 20, 1948, quoted in Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: Une Vie (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), pp. 419–420.

  2. 2

    The literary editor Jean Paulhan, meeting Camus in Paris in January 1943, noted how he “suffered” from his inability to return to Algiers, to “his wife and his climate.” Jean Paulhan to Raymond Guérin, January 6, 1943, in Paulhan, Choix de lettres, 1937–1945 (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), p. 298.

  3. 3

    I am not a philosopher and I never claimed to be one.” In “Entretien sur la révolte,” Gazette des lettres, February 15, 1952.

  4. 4

    In his posthumous autobiographical novel Le Premier homme, Camus writes of his own father coming home after watching a public execution and vomiting.

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