Few writers kept their work as close to the subject of death as did Albert Camus, one of the greatest novelists and essayists of the 20th century, who met his own end in a road accident 55 years ago this week, on the Lyon-Paris Route Nationale 6.
Of all Camus’ novels, none described man’s confrontation – and cohabitation – with death so vividly and on such an epic scale as La Peste, translated as The Plague. Most of us read The Plague as teenagers, and we should all read it again. And again: for not only are all humankind’s responses to death represented in it, but now – with the advent of Ebola – the book works on the literal as well as metaphorical level.
Camus’ story is that of a group of men, defined by their gathering around and against the plague. In it we encounter the courage, fear and calculation that we read or hear in every story about West Africa’s efforts to curtail and confront Ebola; through its narrator, Dr Rieux, we can identity with the hundreds of Cuban doctors who went immediately to the plague’s Ground Zero, and those such as the Scottish nurse currently fighting for her life at the Royal Free Hospital in London.
I think Camus intended such a literal – as well as allegorical - reading. It is generally agreed that the pestilence he describes signifies the Third Reich. Writing in 1947, as the world whooped victory and “Never Again”, Camus insisted that the next plague “would rouse up its rats again” for “the bane and enlightenment of men”. But Camus was also aware of the great cholera epidemic in Oran, Algeria – where the novel is set – in 1849, and of others in his native district of Mondovi in the Algerian interior.
But there is another reason we should all re-read La Peste (preferably in French or the English translation by Stuart Gilbert, a work of literature in itself). Like every good metaphorical or allegorical work, it can represent beyond its intentions; including pestilences both moral and metaphorical that have happened after Camus’ own lifetime. The critic John Cruikshank insists that La Peste is also a reflection on “man’s metaphysical dereliction in the world”, in which case the applications are endless, and up to us. So it is worth reflection on this anniversary of his death: what would the plague signify now?
Nowadays, I think, La Peste can tell the story of a different kind of plague: that of a destructive, hyper-materialist, turbo-capitalism; and can do so as well as any applied contemporary commentary. In fact especially so, for this reason: the Absurd. Our society is absurd, and Camus’ novel examines – among many other things, and for all its moralising – our relationship to the absurdity of modern existence. It can describe very well the plague in a society which blares its phantasgmagoria across the poor world so that millions come, aboard tomb ships or across murderous deserts, in search of its empty promises; and which even destroys the constant against which Camus measured human mortality: nature.
Essential to Camus’ existential isolation was the discrepancy between the power and beauty of nature, and the desolation of the human condition. From his earliest days, he loved the sea and deserts, and saw man’s mortality in the light of their indifferent vastness.
The master of the 20th-century absurd, Samuel Beckett, was born seven years before Camus, but was active in the French resistance at the same time. In Beckett’s Happy Days, Winnie meditates that “Sometimes it is all over for the day, all done, all said, all ready for the night, and the day not over, far from over, the night not ready, far from ready”. In this place, as in the wait for Godot, there is no purposeful human agency.
In La Peste, however, absurdity is a source of value, values and even action. The group of men gathered around the narrative represent, it feels, all human response to calamity. Each takes his turn to tell it, although it is the doctor, Rieux – the hidden narrator – who battles the pestilence with his work, medicine, just as Camus tried to battle first injustice, later fascism, with his labour in words.
The difference from Beckett is this: as the hunter for Beckett’s Molloy concludes: “Then I went back to the house and wrote. It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining” – ergo, even the narration is self-negating. But Camus’ characters in La Peste illustrate that, although they know they are powerless against plague, they can bear witness to it, and this is in itself of value. When he accepted the Nobel prize for literature in 1957, Camus’ magnificent speech urged that it was the honour and burden of the writer “to do so much more than write”.
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