I have wanted to read Albert Camus’ The Plague for such a long time, and was pleased that I was able to select it for the Algeria stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I have really enjoyed what I have read of Camus’ work in the past, and tried my best to ignore the reviews which mentioned how gory, vivid, and disturbing this novel was, squeamish as I am. Of course, I expected a novel about a plague to have some level of gore within it; how could it not? Several paragraphs were stomach-turning, but actually, the clever storyline and the intelligent writing shone through, and were at no time overshadowed by drama or melodrama.
The Plague is set in a fictional Algerian town named Oran, a French port on the coast, and takes place sometime in the early 1940s. It was first published in 1947, with initial English translation coming out just a year later. Camus immediately sets the scene, making Oran appear vivid, if dull: ‘Really, all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it… Treeless, glamourless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there.’
Dr Rieux, who is introduced at the beginning of the second chapter, is a composed and determined individual, one of those who tries ‘to fight the terror’, remaining in Oran to stop the spread of the plague, and to treat those who are infected. Camus sets the tone, as well as Dr Rieux’s composure and determination, when he writes: ‘A monstrous evil has entered their lives but they will never surrender. They will resist the plague.’
As with Camus’ other work, the pace within The Plague is just right, and I was gripped immediately. There is such a sense of atmosphere throughout, and Camus is always aware of the human aspect. To use a striking example, when the town is put under quarantine, Camus describes the way in which the people who are trapped within the walls all change over time: ‘Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. For instance, some of our fellow-citizens became subject to a furious kind of servitude, which put them at the mercy of the sun and the rain. Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious. A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood. A few weeks before they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone… But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices, in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.’
Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Plague feels entirely fluid. The hopelessness which comes of living under such conditions, particularly for an extended period of time, has been both well wrought and evoked: ‘But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared of all.’ Every element of plague hitting such a populated area seems to have been well thought out; there is consequently a sort of realism to the novel, which makes it feel downright unsettling in places. I was reminded rather of John Wyndham’s work whilst reading the highly thought-provoking The Plague.