Monday, March 17, 2014

The Plague - Albert Camus

Thanks to both Emma of Book Around the Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations for choosing The Plague or La Peste in its original French, by Albert Camus as one of my Bah-Humbook holiday book selections. Though I have read this work several years ago, this is the kind of novel that bears rereading. I am very happy that they picked this work and I am very happy that I read it again.

I loved this book. The plot was riveting, and the ideas bubbled up like soup in a caldron. Camus’s writing style, at least in the translation by Stuart Gilbert that I read, is sparse but so much so that it is original. Though often a grim narrative, I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves ideas and who is intellectually adventurous. 

The story takes place in Oran, then part of French Algeria. As the narrative unfolds, Bubonic Plague breaks out and spreads throughout the city. As the epidemic worsens, the authorities impose emergency measures. As part of the decrees, the city is sealed off and quarantined. Eventually, hundreds begin to die on a daily basis. The citizens of Oran experience enormous suffering and hardship. As it becomes imperative that the sick are cared for, the dead are disposed of and other remedial services are to be performed, many people decide to ban together, at great personal risk, as they attempt to fight the malady. 

The tale is told from the point of view of an initially unknown narrator who is eventually revealed as one of the main characters. Several of the city’s inhabitants figure prominently in the narrative. Dr. Bernard Rieux fights against the plague and is involved with both Oran’s authorities as well as many of the stricken. Jean Tarrou, a man dedicated to fighting human suffering and cruelty, organizes the citizens of Oran to combat the malady. Joseph Grand is a government bureaucrat whose life is initially somewhat aimless, but he rises to the occasion when the time comes for sacrifice in battling the scourge. The mysterious Cottard is initially suicidal, but eventually comes to profit from the epidemic. Many additional characters figure prominently in the story. 

Having read somewhat extensive commentary on both the novel and Camus’s life and philosophy subsequent to my first reading, I believe that the basic themes of the story are relatively transparent. Thus, in another post I want to come at this work from what I believe to be an unorthodox angle. I first must summarize what I think are the basic points of the book as well as express some opinions about Camus views. 

Camus, through various writings, developed a somewhat extensive belief system. Though many classify him as an existentialist, he actually rejected that label. Nonetheless, many compare him and his ideas to existentialist thinkers and their theories. Instead of trying to analyze this book in direct context with existentialist thought systems, I think that one can extract some basic, easy to grasp ideas from this work. Eventually, in what will be my second entry on this novel, I do want to compare the thought system espoused in this book to those of another author. 

Though there is a lot of complexity and nuance here, it seems that Camus was attempting to communicate three basic ideas. First, we live in a universe that is completely arbitrary. Very bad things happen to people with no rhyme or reason. There is no justice, no right, no wrong, no punishment or rewards built into reality. These terrible truths are absurd (okay, the entire “absurd” thing begins to get into existentialist thinking and theories, I just cannot avoid that term when summarizing these ideas).

The arbitrary and nasty nature of the universe is displayed throughout this work. There are many examples. The absolute injustice behind human suffering is brought to a head when a young boy, who everyone recognizes as innocent, experiences an extremely agonizing, terrible and meaningless death. 

Secondly, at the bottom of it all, the thing that we most value in human life is our personal relationships. The greatest source of suffering in this world occurs when these relationships are damaged and broken, be it through death or just by interpersonal distance or turmoil. When the city of Oran is quarantined without warning, family, friends and loved ones are separated for long periods of time. Throughout the book, these separations are examined and shown to result in the greatest hardships and pain. The sufferings caused by these disunions almost seem more severe than the suffering caused by the plague itself.

In one of many passages exploring this issue, the narrator observes the effect of Oran as being cut off the rest of the world,

One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it. Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave-taking— all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, Camus does offer a strong and unequivocal response to an uncaring, unjust and absurd universe that does terrible things to our human connections. Clearly, the most important and meaningful thing that people can do with their lives is to help other people in relieving pain and suffering and to oppose human cruelty. At times, the author seems to portray life as a battle between a capricious world and the acts of altruism by well-intentioned people. At its core, this book is a call to action against suffering and death.

And Tarrou, Rieux, and their friends might give one answer or another, but its conclusion was always the same, their certitude that a fight must be put up, in this way or that, and there must be no bowing down. The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. 

The fight against these ills is portrayed as starkly unsentimental and based on rationality alone. Fighting against human misery is a non-absurd way to react to an absurd universe. The narrator goes on,

And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical. 

There is very little romanticism in this book. To combat human distress is simply the only logical thing to do.

These points seem to me to be the building blocks of the ideas that this novel is built upon. Over the course of the story, Camus plays upon and refines these ideas. There is a lot more than I can cover in my summary. For one thing, I am grossly oversimplifying the thought system presented here. There is also a lot that I have not touched upon, including ruminations upon the flawed nature of human relationships or Christianity in an absurd world, to just name a few.

I am with Camus on many of these issues. His view of the universe, that of a place where arbitrary and terrible things happen to the guilty and innocent alike, I think is accurate. His emphasis on human relationships seems to me obviously true. Finally, making the world better through the alleviation of suffering as the one primary reason for existence seems unarguable. His lack of sentimentality regarding such purpose does seem a bit odd to me and I intend to explore this further in my next post. These ideas are relatively well known, and they have been written and talked about extensively. Thus, I plan to come at Camus’s ideas from a slightly unconventional direction in my next entry on this novel.


Suko said...

Camu seemed to have been concerned greatly with the unpredictability of life, especially in relation to calamity.

Very well expressed summary: "At times, the author seems to portray life as a battle between a capricious world and the acts of altruism by well-intentioned people. At its core, this book is a call to action against suffering and death."

Séamus Duggan said...

Yes, a book that certainly stands up to rereads. Have you read Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year? It's a great book and interesting to read for comparison.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Indeed the unpredictability is key. It is also something that I think about in terms on the way that the Universe works.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seamus - I have not yet read Journal of a Plague Year. I have however heard much about and and would like to get to it sooner rather then later.

Caroline said...

I love this as well. I think it's my favourite Camus.
There's a strong message of humanity, if I remember correctly. It's not as bleak as The stranger or any of his other books.
I'm interested to read more about your analysis of his unsentimentaility.

seraillon said...

Yes, as Séamus notes, a book that stands up to re-reading and certainly one of the first that I'd grab if the library were burning. I wish I'd seen your post before writing about 2666, as it now occurs to me that there's a similar cast of characters in that book who offer up a range of responses to calamity. The Plague contains among my favorite major characters (Rieux) and favorite minor characters (Grand).

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Fascinated by tales of plague and the beliefs people have I'm intrigued by this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline -The only other Camus book that I have read is The Stranger, but I want to read The Fall soon. The unsentimentally for me makes this an odd one, though I understand his Camus's point. I intend to compare Camus's approach with another writer next.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - The thing about the characters is that they really are interesting and will crafted, yet they seem so very different from those created by anyone else.

I must get to 2666 soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Indeed on top of everything else this is a gripping story about plague. It certainly also concerns itself with people's belief systems.

Lucy said...

Really interesting point about the importance of human relationships - this isn't something that I'd typically associate with Camus, but you're completely right. Superb book and an author I must read more of!

James said...

Once again you are reading one of my favorites. My most recent rereading was four years ago. Your analysis is exemplary.
Among other things I found that the novel is written with simple complexity in that the seemingly simple prose reveals through careful analysis complexity that rivals any of Camus' favorite authors (Melville, Dostoyevsky, Kafka).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - I think that one thing about the human relationship issue is that in Universe without an external Deity, it is one of the only things of value that people have.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks.

The basic simpleness of the writing does seem striking. I was not sure how much of that was the translation and how much was Camus. I presume that the translation conveyed the original language.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

I'm really glad we picked a book you enjoyed re-reading.
I have a glowing memory of this novel and your commentary is excellent.
I share his views. I don't think there's a meaning to the string of events that happen to us. Pure chance, nothing about deserving harship for past actions or being rewarded for being a good person.
I like Camus better than Sartre because he seems more human to me. I feel a lot of compassion for humans in his words. It's the case in Caligula too.
I like the solutions he suggests to give some sense to our existence. But too much faith in relationships can be terribly disappointing too.

PS: if you love Camus, you'll probably like Gary. There's the same compassion, the same importance of relationships and the same wariness when it comes to high ideals and dying for ideas.


The Bookworm said...

This sounds like an interesting book revolving around the Plague the effects it had on people. It sounds like Albert Camus showcases how unfair it all was as well as what people did to try and survive.
Fantastic commentary Brian! As always.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Thanks so much.

There are actually a lot of thinkers that I like that actually do not agree with. I both like Camus and tend to agree with much, but not all of what he believes.

I must give Gary a try!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Yes, the thing is Camus labeled the unfairness of it all Absurdity. Camus argued that such Absurdity is at the base of all human existence.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I read this book years ago and remember nothing about it. I appreciate your review and clear description of Camus' beliefs.

I can see how, if one doesn't believe in God, that human suffering can seem arbitrary. But I don't see, if life is meaningless, where a sense of injustice or even a motivation to try to change things come from.

Yet I love Camus' writing. Another book I'm going to have to return to.
Thanks for the review, Brian. Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon -I think that Camus was saying that in caring for and helping others, that we create the meaning in life. I generally agree with him.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Great review, I haven't read Camus but perhaps this would be a good choice.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I think that most people usually begin with The Stranger. However, as I recall that one is very cold and stark. This one is very grim at times but there is also a strong streak of humanism.

Lindsay said...

Wonderful, insightful review Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Lindsay!

More to come on this one.

JaneGS said...

Very interesting post about a book that it has never occurred to me to read, although it sounds like it could be rewarding, albeit tough for read. The bleakness might actually get to me, though.

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Translated books are quite challenging because you never really know how good the original is if you cannot read it as written.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Thanks!

The translation thing bothers me too. In a way I feel like I am not really reading the book. If only I could read fifteen or so languages!

Unknown said...

Despite my belief in God, I often agree with you (and Camus) about the arbitrary nature of the universe. It seems that we're fighting and fighting against entropy, and entropy will always increase in the end, won't it? The key is to live the best life we can while we're here, I guess. :)

I have not read this particular book, but plan to revisit Camus at some point - after reading up a bit on existentialist philosophy. I'll definitely put this on my reading list at that time. Sadly, though, I must keep myself to THIS year's goals for now. Oh, if only I had an infinite time here on earth! The books I would read!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - There really is so much to read!

I agree that one certainly can believe in God but believe that we live in a Universe where for whatever reason there is a lot of randomness!

Of course there is also a lot of order that Camus does not seem to ponder much.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Brian!

Here's my long-overdue comment on this terrific post...sorry about that....

As usual, you've written a great review of this classic! The themes you touch upon are the very ones common to the existentialist movement, so I really don't see why Camus would reject being classified as a member of this movement. This novel shows that he most certainly was!

To be honest, I have only a cursory familiarity with the members of this movement. I do know about Camus, Kafka, and Sartre, but have not immersed myself in their works. I did start reading Kafka's "The Castle" many years ago, only to give up in despair. I simply could not take the narrator's persistent -- and totally futile -- attempts to gain admittance to a castle.

So this is why I haven't read "The Plague". Now that I've read your thoughts on it, I don't want to read it at all! True, the author does raise the interesting point that the only real solution to the cruel absurdity of the universe is for us humans to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering of our fellow humans. However, this novel is still too depressing for me to even attempt reading. I tend to be a pessimist already, and this would just be too much for me to take....

Even without having read any of the existentialists, I have seen for myself just how absurd and cruel this world can be.....people who try to live honest, morally upright lives frequently suffer the greatest tragedies, while those whose only concern is to get the most money and power they possibly can, through ruthless means, have wonderful lives without much suffering.

I have to admit that my faith in God is sometimes shaken.....

The written word is extremely powerful, and I find that it affects me profoundly. So I have to avoid books like this one. If not, I will surely sink into a terrible depression, and I really can't allow that to happen.

Thanks for the fascinating commentary!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for the great comment.

As we have been discussing I totally empathize and understand with some books being just too potentially emotionally damaging for one to read. For me it is just a different set of them.

I barely touched on it but there is a character in the book, Father Paneloux who is clearly a good Christian. Though Camus through his characters makes clear that he does not agree with Father Paneloux's worldview, he is seen as fellow traveler in terms of the fact that his belief system leads him to alleviate the suffering of others. In my option Camus, while disagree ing with it, displays great respect for here while Christianity here.

Maria Behar said...

Interesting point about Camus introducing a Christian character, and treating said character with respect, although his own worldview is different. Not all writers are willing to do such a thing. In fact,in today's literary world, it's "cool" to disparage Christianity. Still, if anyone asks me, "Do you Camus?", I will reply, "No, I don't Camus, and never will!" LOL.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, superb review and I want to thank you for mentioning after I read The Stranger that The Plague was a much better book in terms of understanding Camus' view of life. I so agree and I am going to press on and read The Fall sometime next year. I agree this book needs a reread particularly now and I couldn't help thinking if Camus were alive today how would he process the way we are reacting to the plague here in the US with a good portion of the country refusing to admit there even is a plague going on. Camus was a deeply moral man. I think he'd be shocked and rightfully so.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. It would be interesting if Camus looked at the world today. This is indeed the book that it seems that Camus really expressed his worldview here.

I liked The Fall but not as much as this book or The Stranger.