THE PLAGUE by Albert Camus

The PlagueThe Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last time I read a Camus book was 17 years ago, and it was a life-changing experience. Ever since then, I have studiously avoided Camus’ writing in case his other novels were similarly affecting.

But with the onset of Covid-19 and so many people in my literary circles reading or re-reading the Plague, plus with it being Camus’ best known and most commercially successful work, I thought this would be a good time to give it a go.

Fortunately, The Plague wasn’t life-changing for me. Merely very good!

The Plague is straightforward but philosophical; stark yet nuanced; distant, but still emotive. And it is utterly prescient for our times, despite being published in 1947. His explanations of human behaviour can absolutely be applies to how people have behaved regarding Covid-19; I wonder if he would be amused or saddened to know that.

Camus writes always with such stark simplicity. I don’t mean simplicity to say that his concepts are low-brow, but more that his statements are concise and accessible, and with hindsight amazingly obvious; you wonder why you never noticed before the things that he is pointing out.

But the secret to that, of course, is that Camus’ understanding of life and other people was extraordinarily good. He had a depth of insight that cut straight to the heart of things, and enabled him to hone in on the “heart” of the matter.

Towards the end, Camus linked the concept of the bubonic plague with a wider human issue, a metaphorical and intellectual plague that society suffers from (which he describes as a kind of lack of empathy, cruelty in-built into the system.)

Note: I’d like to give special mention to Grand, the aspiring author who the doctor befriends. Grand is obsessed with getting his first line perfectly right, so utterly perfect that a publisher will read it and buy the book on the spot. Consequently, he never progresses past the first sentence. I think we have all been there, Grand!

I do not want to write spoilers for this review but I would like to leave some slightly spoilerific quotes at the end, in case you don’t feel like sifting through all of my Goodreads highlights. Some of them are simply magnificent.

SELECTED QUOTES (minor spoilers)

###

“Pestilence is in fact very common, but we find it hard to believe in a pestilence when it descends upon us. There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.”

###

“When war breaks out people say: ‘It won’t last, it’s too stupid.’ And war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always carries doggedly on, as people would notice if they were not always thinking about themselves.”

###

“[T]hey did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from one bad dream to the next, it is people who end”

###

“The people of our town were no more guilty than anyone else, they merely forgot to be modest and thought that everything was still possible for them, which implied that pestilence was impossible. They continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debate? They considered themselves free.”

###

“Figures drifted through his head and he thought that the thirty or so great plagues recorded in history had caused nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought a war, one hardly knows any more what a dead person is. And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination.”

###

“‘Have pity, doctor!’ said Mme Loret, mother of the chambermaid who worked at Tarrou’s hotel. What did that mean? Of course he had pity. But where did that get anyone?”

###

“Every evening mothers would shout like that, in a distraught manner, at the sight of bellies displaying all their signs of death; every evening hands would grasp Rieux’s arms, while useless words, promises and tears poured forth; and every evening the ambulance siren would set off scenes of distress as pointless as any kind of pain. At the end of a long succession of such evenings, each like the next, Rieux could no longer hope for anything except a continuing series of similar scenes, forever repeated. Yes, the plague, like abstraction, was monotonous. Only one thing may have changed, and that was Rieux himself. He felt it that evening, beneath the monument to the Republic, aware only of the hard indifference that was starting to fill him, still looking at the hotel door where Rambert had vanished.

At the end of these harrowing weeks, after all these evenings when the town poured into the streets to wander round them, Rieux realized that he no longer needed to protect himself against pity. When pity is useless one grows tired of it. And the doctor found his only consolation for these exhausting days in this feeling of a heart slowly closing around itself. He knew that it would make his task easier.”

###

“For them the plague was only an unpleasant visitor which would leave one day as it had entered. They were scared but not desperate and the time had yet to come when the plague would seem to them like the very shape of their lives and when they would forget the existence that they had led in the days before.”

###

“‘And this is something that a man like yourself might understand; since the order of the world is governed by death, perhaps it is better for God that we should not believe in Him and struggle with all our strength against death, without raising our eyes to heaven and to His silence.’”

###

I can imagine what this plague must mean to you.’

‘Yes,’ said Rieux. ‘An endless defeat.’

###

“Without memory and without hope, they settled into the present. In truth, everything became present for them. The truth must be told: the plague had taken away from all of them the power of love or even of friendship, for love demands some future, and for us there was only the here and now.”

###

“Thank goodness, at least, that he was tired. If Rieux had been more alert, this smell of death everywhere might have made him sentimental. But there is no room for sentimentality when you have only slept for four hours. You see things as they are, that is to say in the light of justice – ghastly and ridiculous justice.”

###

“‘Nothing in the world should turn you away from what you love. And yet I, too, am turning away, without understanding why.’”

###

“Already at that time he had been thinking about the silence that rose from the beds where he had left men to die. It was always the same pause, the same solemn interval, the same lull that followed a battle, it was the silence of defeat. ”

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