Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Plague (1947)

I went back to reread Albert Camus's The Plague about a year before the covid-19 pandemic started and it has turned out to be even more eerily accurate than I suspected, down to small details of bizarre behavior. It's so convincing I had to keep checking Wikipedia to make sure there really had not been a bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940s. Camus based The Plague in part on an outbreak of cholera in Oran in 1849 but—no doubt because we seem to be so forgetful as a species about the way epidemics and pandemics work—people have preferred to read into it things like an allegory of the French resistance to Nazi occupation. I guess that makes sense, certainly given our collective amnesia about epidemiology. It also reminded me of the quiet way the stories in the Martin Beck series of police procedurals go down—nothing to see here, just professionals working on solving a public health problem. In a more general way, its tone of glum plodding realism also seemed like a Jean-Pierre Melville movie. The Plague is restrained and polished, letting the details tell the story, for example that the epidemic virtually starts with a sudden and massive die-off of the city's rat population. The main character is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a physician in his 30s. It feels like a police procedural because another main character is the state, which sets curfews, seals borders, maintains quarantine rules, cares for the sick, disposes of the dead. And an epidemic is much like crime—obeying its own rules and patterns, random, cruel, and lethal. Rieux has a small circle of friends he sees during the epidemic. He is separated from his wife because she is sick herself (not with plague) and has lived in a sanatorium since before the epidemic. Rieux is confined to living in the city, which no one is allowed to leave. The Plague is a great novel, straightforward and moving, compressed and to the point—in the category of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I can see now how accurate it is about the ways these ordinary people resist and deny the reality, on the one hand, and can also rise to the occasion on the other. At the time I reread it, these extraordinary circumstances still seemed exotic. It reminded me more than anything of Camus's novel The Stranger and also the work of Paul Bowles. Now I see better there is nothing flashy or overly cerebral about The Plague. It has a terrible story to tell—the one, in fact, we have struggled through most of this year—and it simply tells it. It has statistical proportion. In a metropolitan area of 200,000, where hundreds are dying every week, any single individual's actual exposure to the experience of the worst still feels limited. As now, people feel isolated and distant from the disease until they are plunged right into it. When we finally see a death (after only very quick snapshots of the grotesque, such as the rats) it's powerful and moving. There's something about The Plague that almost feels sacred. At the very least, it's essential 2020 reading.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.


  1. Thanks for this. The most important book of my life. I, too, reread it recently.

  2. Another detail that sticks with me is the drinking and crowded bars. People come to think, conveniently, that alcohol offers some protection against the plague. Also, in the middle of it how it becomes increasingly hard to imagine life without the plague. That sounds familiar enough right now. The Doctor muses curiously about the impossibility of hope in the face of despair or how to carry on anyway in the face of despair. The fog of war feeling is palpable. On my book pile is Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year.