Review of The Plague by Camus (translated by Robin Buss)

Many thousands of copies of this book have sold because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It makes sense to me that people are staying home and reading more, but I don’t quite understand why people are devouring novels about epidemics. Personally, I’d rather read to take my mind off the virus—something with dragons, perhaps. Reading epidemic fiction seems like a short, straight path to hypochondria. But maybe people are reading for reassurance.

Is The Plague a hopeful novel?

Camus melded his research and his own life experiences—transformed but still authentic—to give us the story of a city ravaged by disease in which everyone must choose a side: that of the pestilence or that of its victims. He depicts people rising to the challenge as a matter of course to show us that there is more to admire in our neighbors than to despise. Yet his message is not unambiguously hopeful: pestilences are always lurking, lying in wait for the complacent.

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…. 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 and no one will ever be free as long as there is plague, pestilence and famine. (30)

He’s warning post-war-Europe, he’s warning us, he’s warning generations to come—not so much about the infectiousness of disease but about the infectiousness of evil. I think it’s realistic to point out both humanity’s strengths and its weaknesses; I’d rather be given this nuanced view to chew on than be fed nothing but a steady diet of attention-grabbing doom statistics, or, alternatively, reassuring platitudes and didactic stories of rare heroics.

Is The Plague a relatable novel?

Lockdowns are different in different times and places. The narrator of The Plague doesn’t mention panic-buying of toilet paper, but he does talk about stockpiling. The details are different, but the situation is recognizably the same.

The characters trapped in Oran had only a telegraph. They weren’t even supposed to send letters. We’re generally better off than they are in ways inconceivable to Camus, yet separation from loved ones is often, for us, just as absolute. Zoom can’t help us speak with the dead.

Is The Plague a witty novel?

More than one bit of writing made me smile.

The events of The Stranger (aka The Outsider) happen in the same fictional world. The narrator of The Plague says “[The tobacconist] had spoken about a recent arrest that had caused a stir in Algiers. It involved a young company employee who had killed an Arab on a beach” (43). This reference caught my attention; I’d read Matthew Ward’s translation of The Stranger two years before. I enjoyed The Plague much more; its narrator is a solid, reliable figure, unlike that of The Stranger.

In The Plague, a civil servant named Grand is writing a book with comical slowness. He wants the manuscript to be so perfect that when it reaches the publisher, “he should stand up after reading it and say to his colleagues: ‘Hats off, gentlemen!'” (79). This makes sense as a fantasy for the character that Camus created. However, by an astonishing coincidence, all novels are written by writers. This fantasy could be seen as a fantasy not just of the character, but his creator, too. When Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature at a remarkably young age, I wonder whether anyone said “Hats off, gentlemen!”

Rambert is a visiting journalist who wishes to return to his girlfriend. Believing that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, he appeals to a variety of local authorities, whom he afterwards classifies as Formalists, Fine Words, High and Mighty, Futile, Methodical, Overworked, or Traditionalists according to the the manner of their refusal to grant him the permission he seeks (82). Each type is succinctly described, aptly named, and utterly plausible.

The narrator highlights a certain kind of despicable ignorance: interest in prophecies both religious and secular: “[T]he ones that the public liked best were undoubtedly those which, in apocalyptic language, announced a series of events, any one of which might be the one that the town was currently enduring, their complexity allowing for any interpretation” (171–72).

Is The Plague a philosophical novel?

Ignorance, far from being bliss, is very nearly evil itself: “The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance…. the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything…. there is no true goodness or fine love without the greatest possible degree of clear-sightedness” (100–101).

I immediately thought of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “[T]here always comes a time in history when the person who dares to say that two and two make four is punished by death…. [T]he question is not what reward or punishment awaits the demonstration; it is knowing whether or not two and two do make four” (101). I wondered whether Camus got this example about mathematical truth from Orwell, or perhaps the other way around. This article at the LA Review of Books says that the two were contemporaries but never managed to meet, and that Orwell used the equation earlier, in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”. What’s clear is that these two thinkers wrote on similar themes.

“Certainly, there were such things as good and evil and, broadly speaking, one could easily understand what distinguished them. But it was inside evil that the problem started. For example, there were apparently necessary evils and apparently unnecessary ones. There was Don Juan cast into Hell and there was the death of a child” (173). The priest Paneloux calls on his listeners to rely on their faith rather than their understanding, unnecessary evils being beyond understanding by definition. Perhaps Camus is saying it’s more sensible to let things happen as they will, and fight evil whenever possible, rather than ask why God allows unnecessary evils in the first place.

Various characters carry the philosophical weight of the novel in their speech and action, but none more so than Tarrou, who speaks of the plague as the metaphor it is. “[O]n this earth there are pestilences and there are victims—and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence” (195).

Four Stars

What do the star ratings mean?

My copy of The Plague (shown above) is the Robin Buss translation from Penguin Modern Classics (paperback, ISBN 9780141185132, 256 pages). It includes an afterword by Tony Judt.

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For Discussion

Did you find the novel hopeful, relatable, witty, and/or philosophical? Is it ‘existentialist’? Is it ‘absurd’? Let me know in the comments!

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