Checking my master spreadsheet, I have only previously read one book published in this year.That was Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – which I blogged about at my old blog here.
Back to what to read now – there were a few possibles in my TBR from this year:
- Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
- A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
- The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
- The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
- In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes
- The Pearl by John Steinbeck
But I chose…
La Peste – The Plague by Albert Camus
I inherited my copy from my mum, and typically, she’d got it from a library sale – it’s stamped City of London Libraries. The page with all the publishing details was cut out, so I had to do some looking up to discover that this was the original English translation (published in 1948) by Stuart Gilbert.
The novel begins by an unnamed narrator introducing us to the town of Oran, a large French port in Algeria:
The town itself, let us admit, is ugly.
Not quite what I expected. He goes on to describe Oran’s people:
Perhaps the easiest way of making a town’s acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love, and how they die. In our little town … all three are done on much the same lines, with the same feverish yet casual air. The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business’.
Our narrator sounds such a jaded soul, putting down his fellow townspeople like that. Could the plague that arrives with the town’s rats coming out of hiding only to die in the streets passing the pestilence onto the humans a form of divine retribution as Father Paneloux, the town’s Jesuit priest initially proclaims? It takes a while for the plague to take hold, at first it’s just the rats dying in increasing numbers, but then the first human cases occur, but it is still some days before the town’s gates are sealed to place the entire conurbation into quarantine.
The main character in the novel is Dr Bernard Rieux who, as a medical man, becomes one of the leaders in the fight to eradicate the plague from the town. His wife, perhaps luckily, had recently left the town for a cure in a sanatorium. Rieux is not the only resident who is separated from a loved one: a journalist from Paris, Rambert, is desperate to return to his girlfriend and once the town is quarantined he seeks ways to escape. We meet a whole host of other characters including businessman Jean Tarrou who becomes a friend of Rieux, and lowly clerk Grand, who dreams of writing a book but can’t get past making the first sentence as perfect as possible.
There is plenty of philosophy in this novel – from the bar-room type to earnest discussions, and the townsfolk go through all the classic stages from denial to anger to acceptance as life struggles on and the plague isn’t totally killed off by the winter. Being published just after the war, the ghettoisation and policing of Oran resonates strongly – or is is more like Hugo’s manning the barricades in Les Mis? A little of both perhaps.
There is little room for religion after Father Paneloux succumbs to the virus, indeed Rieux is clearly a skeptic, if not an atheist. There is also almost no room for women in this novel. The only woman to speak is Mme Rieux, the doctor’s mother, the others are either absent or of no concern to the narrator, although Rieux is saddened to hear of his wife’s own worsening condition, something he can do nothing about. Being Stoical, he puts it to the back of his mind. Given that this novel is set in 1940s French-Algeria – where are the Algerians? The novel is totally devoid of any Arabian or African references; Oran could be in France if you didn’t know it was an Algerian city.
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this The Plague. I got slightly irritated with the narrator who coyly wouldn’t identify himself, but told us all about what was happening. Everyone seemed to behave too well – compared with other dystopian novels of the period and also more modern novels of pandemics etc, there wasn’t the breakdown of civilisation you might expect, yet the opening of the town’s gates was definitely a Pyrrhic victory recognised by Rieux in a different form of words.
Interesting? Yes, but enjoyable? Less so. (6/10)
Roll on the 1950-something Club – which year will Simon and Karen pick next time?
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Source: Own copy
Albert Camus, The Plague (1947) (Hamish Hamilton, trans Stuart Gilbert,1948) Hardback 285 pages.