Ed Vulliamy writes: Suddenly, it’s back ‑ The Plague. The book, I mean: La Peste, by Albert Camus. The book we read when we were young, or else never got round to reading – kept for a rainy day. But it is the book we needed to be reading and rereading over and over again, as one calamity overlaps another – and now that rainy day has come.
La Peste was published in 1947, in the shadow of Holocaust, into a Europe across which people wandered the ruins, searching for lost loved ones and lost lives. It is set contemporaneously, but fictitiously, in the Algerian town of Oran ‑ now Wahran ‑ during the French colonial epoch and describes the arrival and appalling ravages of deadly plague. (Its author grew up in Belcourt, a suburb of Algiers.)
Camus began working on the book during the German occupation of France, having recently completed his philosophical treatise The Myth of Sisyphus. He wrote in prefaces to later editions of Sisyphus that Franz Kafka obliged us to read his books twice: once to absorb the literal narrative, twice the figurative or allegorical. By that token, La Peste cannot be read less than thrice, for it spoke, and still speaks, on three levels: literal, allegorical and universal. Literal, as vividly experienced by readers now: the story of plague overriding and overrunning a town, its subsequent isolation from the outside world, the ensuing “exile” and infestation of its populace. Allegorical: as a portrayal of fascism, the Third Reich, its malign essence and murderous reach, the occupation of France and resistance to that occupation. Universal: the dual questions of absurdity and evil in our experience of life, world and universe, and our cowering before, or resistance to, both.
La Peste has always been my favourite book, since adolescence, obsessively annotating my Livre de Poche edition – with its cover depicting a maleficent figure surveying the little houses of a coastal desert town ‑ for a series of exams known in Britain at the end of the 1960s as “O levels”, taken aged fifteen. I loved the book, and have done ever since, for that literal, allegorical and universal cogency. I’ve reread it every five years since then, and each time it speaks both perennially, and to some specific circumstance or spirit of the age.
Last time I did so, for the fifty-fifth anniversary of Camus’s death in a car crash on the A6 autoroute near Villeblévin in 1960, was during a trip to Bourgogne, along that same stretch of road, during the outbreak of Ebola in early 2015. I contributed an article to The Guardian newspaper then, urging that “we should all re-read La Peste regularly”, and finding in it not only a description of the then suffering in Nigeria, Gabon and elsewhere, but a parable about “destructive, hyper-materialist, turbo-capitalism” at war with nature, which is always present in Camus as a measurement of, as well as backdrop to, human endeavour. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/jan/05/albert-camus-the-plague-fascist-death-ed-vulliamy The editors gave the piece an unfortunately optimistic strap-line, in the light of today’s political landscape: “The fascist ‘plague’ that inspired the novel may have gone, but 55 years after his death, many other varieties of pestilence keep this book urgently relevant”
Now Camus’ book feels more germane than ever. The third, universal, application never went away, but the first two are back like fists into our faces: we are in the throes of a physical plague, and our societies are again contaminated by that other contagion, fascism. Not traditional fascism, because the left is at it too: what newspapers call “populism”; the virus that Mexican historian Enrique Krauze calls “El pueblo soy yo” – “I am the people” ‑ politics of hate and division embodied in a figurehead who claims to express and embody “the will of the people” as organism.
But let us start with the book’s literal narrative, and the reason for the sudden widespread interest and increase in sales ‑ plague. After all, Camus calls his work a chronique rather than a roman – a chronicle not a novel. He devoured the classics, and these included Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian wars give an account of the Athenian plague of 430 BC, and Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things ‑ to which Camus specifically refers in La Peste ‑ which concludes with a description of Athenians fighting one another for space on the shoreline to incinerate their dead, rather than lose them to the “wine-dark slumberous sea”. Camus knows Daniel Defoe’s account of the London plague, and would have been keenly aware of the cholera epidemic in Oran in 1849. He refers in La Peste to “ravages” in Rome and Pavia; French lore is infused by stories of the plague in Marseilles of 1722. There had been pestilence in Paris in 1920, Casablanca during the early ’40s and the last outbreak in Europe contaminated Ajaccio while Camus was writing his book, in 1945. He was clearly fascinated by actual plague.
Now comes Coronavirus, Covid-19; the plague is back. It had recently returned with Zika; with Cholera in Ethiopa, India, Iraq, Vietnam and Somalia; with Chikungunya across the Americas, Dengue fever in Bolivia and Pakistan; with Meningitis then Ebola in West Africa – but all that was “far away”. Covid-19 is more egalitarian: it does not only punish the poor, it has neither favourites nor mercy, nor discrimination; it’s coming for all of us, and this time the industrialised northern hemisphere carries it south. As Arundhati Roy points out, the United States, with its surfeit of bombs and missiles, is reduced to fighting this “war” with masks made of bin-liners. What Alberti, during the Florentine Renaissance, called “Man, the measure of all things” ‑ with his scientific prowess, “dominion” over nature, and bedazzling technology ‑ faces a terrifying disease it cannot control. Welcome back, Albert Camus.
No wonder people want suddenly to read La Peste. From the opening, it speaks of experience and fear we thought belonged to other places at other times, now describing our own lives. “Our fellow citizens had not the faintest reason to apprehend the incidents which took place in the spring of the year in question,” writes Camus. A concierge insists that “There weren’t no rats here”, as they die around him, heralds of plague. “Our townsfolk were like everybody else,” writes Camus, “wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists; they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure … a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will just pass away … They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
We’ll come later to Camus and nature, but we do notice now that Coronavirus is accompanied by the beauty and promise of spring, in bloom and blossom. Yet while the land comes to life, death stalks the land. As plague claims Oran, “meanwhile, from all the outlying districts, spring was making its progress into the town”.
A report of March 2020 by Harvard Business Review on Europe’s and the Americas’ failure to learn from Italy’s early experience of Covid-19 cites Angelo Borelli, head of the Italian national Protezione Civile, saying: “The virus is faster than our bureaucracy.” https://hbr.org/2020/03/lessons-from-italys-response-to-coronavirus. We’ve watched governments dither, now cover their tracks, Camus having noted that: “Actually, the Municipality had not contemplated doing anything at all; but now a meeting was convened to discuss the situation.” Once the authorities issued orders, too little to late, Dr Bernard Rieux – the book’s hero in every sense ‑ remarks: “‘Orders!’ he said scornfully. ‘When what’s needed is imagination.’” “Officialdom,”, notes Jean Tarrou, a visitor to Oran whose partnership and friendship with Rieux is the book’s most affirming theme, “can never cope with something really catastrophic.”
The first to utter the word “plague” is Dr Rieux, in conversation with a colleague, Dr Castel, who recalls: “one of my colleagues said, ‘It’s unthinkable. Everyone knows it’s ceased to appear in Western Europe.’ Yes, everyone knew that – except the dead men. ‘Come now, Rieux, you know as well as I do what it is’… ‘Yes, Castel,’ he replied. ‘It’s hardly credible. But everything points to it being plague’ … The word ‘plague’ had just been uttered for the first time. And sure enough: “Mr Michel’s eyes were fever-bright and he was breathing wheezily … ‘It’s like fire,’ he whimpered. ‘The bastard’s burning me inside.’” How many people, now dead, have known that over the past weeks? How many relatives were not even at the bedside when it happened? And how many more?
Politicians now find the gall to hail ‘health services’ they have slashed and starved of resources over decades. (The situation is especially ironic in the UK, where the NHS is in no small part dependent on professionals and workers from Europe whom the British majority – and incumbent government ‑ voted de facto to deport. Now, the German army is donating ventilators to Britain, and the prime minister’s life is saved, on his own admission, by a Portuguese nurse.) But the overworked, underpaid medical profession and its nursing and ancillary staffs are society’s undeserved heroines and heroes of the hour now, and Dr Rieux establishes early that any wider discussion boils down to this: “The thing was to do your job as it should be done.” He proposes “a real barrier against the disease, otherwise we might as well do nothing”. Although soon: “Never had Rieux known his profession weigh on him so heavily.”
Rieux, at the level of the book’s literal narrative and immediate impact, is the Universal Doctor, with his support team of those we recognise as the nurses, paramedics, emergency admissions clerks, radiologists, hospital porters, cooks and cleaners. I am reminded of a story in La Repubblica during mid-March about Cinzia Capelli, “bed manager” at Giovanni XXIII hospital in Bergamo, epicentre of the Italian pandemic. “A hundred sick arriving each day,” she said, “and a bed for each. It was like emptying out the sea with a spoon with a hole in it.” https://rep.repubblica.it/pwa/generale/2020/03/27/news/donna_ospedali_-252507656/ At some point, though, the plague overwhelms even the medical professions. “In a fortnight or a month at most,” Tarrou warns Rieux, “you’ll serve no purpose here. Things will have got out of hand.” “I agree,” replies the doctor.
If we react intelligently to this present crisis, we now recognise the condition of which Camus writes. We recognise “that drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares”. That “the plague forced inactivity on them, limiting their movements to the same dull round inside the town … coming back to the same streets … which, in happier days, they had walked with those who now were absent”. “And then we realized that the separation was destined to continue … We had nothing left us but the past.” There was “intolerable leisure”, writes Camus. Lovers could “retrace the course of their love and see where it had fallen short”.
And yet, as we see around us now, Camus notes that of a morning: “you see a kind of dress parade of youths and girls who make you realise the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every calamity”. Likewise, I recall rock and chamber music in besieged Sarajevo, where cosmetics were sought-after goods, second only to cigarettes, on the black market. This week, low morale rose to the sound of a punk band playing a gig through the open windows of a first-floor apartment on London’s Portobello Road, to people lined up two metres apart outside a supermarket. In Italy, where works by Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini are considered folklore, opera arias sung from balconies have become part of the national cultural fabric. We note the absence of “social distancing” in Oran: their cafés and bars remained open; much of the action takes place in restaurants. But: “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, sang Joni Mitchell, and Camus’s character Raymond Rambert ‑ from Paris but stranded in Oran – goes to the railway station though no trains are running, just to see the lines, and conjures up scenes in his mind’s eye of Paris, “the city he’d never known he loved so much”.
Rambert is a journalist who – rather than wanting to stay and report the plague, as Rieux urges him to do ‑ tries to escape back to his new wife in the French capital. And like his railway station yearnings, like the determined flirtations of youth, so with football. There also has to be a laugh sometimes, even during a pandemic, and Camus was a rapacious bon viveur. He was also a football fanatic and played for Racing Universitaire d’Alger in goal (what other position is an existentialist supposed to play?). Obsession with football was something Camus shared with his contemporary, the great Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, which some devotees find an irrelevant – even annoying – banality and ignore, but which to me demonstrates life force in both of them. (How significant that the founder of sterile Anglo-Saxon logical positivism, AJ Ayer – who worked for British intelligence during the war – met and heard out Camus, only to dismiss him as primarily a “professional” footballer – which Camus wasn’t anyway; he was always an amateur player.) And of course football is there, as plague flails Oran. A potentially sticky encounter between Rambert and his smuggling contact slides into boozy relaxation when it emerges that both are players, discussing “the French championship, merits of professional English teams and techniques of passing”. The smuggler, Gonzáles, even makes the figuratively pertinent point that “the most sporting place by far on the football field was that of centre-half. ‘You see, it’s the centre-half that does the placing. That’s the whole art of the game.” Camus returns to the subject even in a harrowing setting: when Gonzáles visits the Oran stadium, converted into an isolation camp, and craves “the once familiar smell of embrocation in the dressing rooms, the stands crowded with people, the coloured shirts of the players, lemons at half-time”.
Rambert is a character of significance. In an important discourse with Rieux, he accuses the doctor of living in a world of “abstractions”, while he pursues what really matters: love. Man is no more than “an idea”, he insists, “once he turns his back on love”. Rieux disagrees – “Man isn’t an idea, Rambert” – and declines to help him escape, but wishes Rambert well, in his navigation of the smuggling underground. But then Rambert turns out to be a prodigal son: by the time he has made arrangements to escape, Rieux and Tarrou have established task forces to fight the plague, and – shamed by conscience, and urged by solidarity ‑ Rambert renounces his own plan, and joins in. Although La Peste contests Christianity, this scriptural theme of penitence runs through the book: a pompous judge called Othon is confined to an isolation camp, but when released, after the death of his son from plague, returns to it as a volunteer worker.
Camus’s characters, like Rambert and Othon, stand for different reactions to the onset of plague. Joseph Grand is an awkward municipal functionary who repairs each night to labour over the opening sentence of a novel. An eccentric called Cottard is rejected by society, for whom plague is occasion to abandon thoughts of suicide, enjoy the tribulation of others, and profit from the black market. A draper counts time by moving dried peas from one pan to another.
Our next character of import is Fr Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, who preaches a fiery sermon: “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserve it.” He sees in plague’s visitation “the seed time that shall prepare the harvest of truth … Now, at last, you know the hour has struck to bend your thoughts to first and last things.” Agnostic Camus debates Paneloux passionately, through Rieux, though the priest is depicted with respect; Paneloux is a follower of St Augustine, and Camus had submitted his university thesis on Augustine. Tarrou, the book’s co-hero, says of the sermon: “I can understand that kind of fervour and find it not displeasing.”
The cast of La Peste is entirely francophone, and French. No Arab features, apart from tours d’horizon of the general populace, let alone speaks. This is odd in a writer from a poor family who grew up living on the streets, beaches and football fields of Algiers, and much of whose early journalism concerned the abuses of colonialism. But this is true across most of Camus’s fiction, although all his novels, apart from La Chute, are set in Algeria, and he has, since the 1990s, been claimed by the Algerian literary scene as indigenous and one of its own. And Camus was never good at women; he rarely tried to depict them, and never in central roles, unlike the master, Émile Zola, whose women are more subtly vivid than his men. But we do have here the figure of Rieux’s mother, with whom the doctor lives, having bade farewell to his wife, who waits out the plague in a sanatorium outside town, suffering an unrelated condition. “Once her household tasks were over, she spent most of her time in her chair. Her hands folded in her lap, she sat there waiting. Rieux wasn’t even sure it was for him she waited.” As though waiting for Godot with greater patience than Vladimir and Estragon, she sits at her favourite spot by a window from which she observes the street at eventide, “her hands still and her eyes attentive”. Mother and son “loved one another in silence”. She exudes strength and compassion; her presence is gentle but firmly reassuring. She shares the death of Rieux’s friend Tarrou with her son, then news of her daughter-in-law’s, Rieux’s wife. In his biography of Camus, Oliver Todd points out resonance here of Camus’ own mother, Catherine Camus, whom he adored, and who would lean over her balcony at home in Algeria, watching the street below. Catherine had, writes Patrick McCarthy in an excellent book on Camus, “remained very Spanish, and Camus absorbed this”. Catherine’s husband – Camus’ father – had been killed on the Marne during the First World War; she raised Albert and his older brother, Lucien, by working in a factory, and later cleaning houses. Mme Rieux and Mme Camus thus seem to stand between the plagues of both wars and the world’s unmaking by them. (I am, as I write, navigating Covid-19 in the basement of my ninety-two-year-old mother’s house, from which she watches the largely empty street through a window.)
As the plague finds full strength – “peaks”, as we say of Coronavirus ‑ Camus’ insight into the collective psyche of a stricken people is astute to the point of being painful to read. “Naturally enough,” he writes, “since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.” At night, Oran is “peopled with sleep-walkers” and “in the morning, they harked back to normal conditions, in other words, the plague”. People take on a “frayed, irritable sensibility that takes offence at trifling oversights and brings tears to their eyes over the loss of a trouser-button”.
There are material resonances too, especially in a hellish central third part of the book, with only one chapter to it. La Peste features the macabre obligation of local authorities to bury the dead in mass graves, initially divided between sexes, until “this last remnant of decorum went by the board, and men and women were flung into the death-pits indiscriminately”. Camus writes also of “a strange procession of passengerless trams swaying against the skyline. The residents of the area soon learnt what was going on … And in the warm darkness of the summer nights, the cars could be heard clanking on their way, laden with flowers and corpses.” At the time of writing, insufficient attention is paid beyond Italy to convoys of military trucks bearing bodies through the streets of Bergamo to mass graves there; the prospect haunts Spain, and prisoners inside Rikers Island jail are standing by for payment of $6 an hour to fill mass graves in New York, of which images have appeared, in the Bronx. That is itself an echo of convoys I watched leaving Ground Zero after al-Qaida’s attacks on the World Trade Center, taking debris, including the remains of 2,602 people, to a landfill in New Jersey called – you couldn’t make it up – Fresh Kills.
We’ll come later to incineration of the dead.
In two passages, the deaths of Othon’s child and of Tarrou, Camus confronts the plague not as abstract, but as bringer of extreme pain. The first in particular is among the most empathetic and least merciful depictions of agonised death ever written; every cry, contortion, the kicking back of every attempt by this little body to live, is there. To Tarrou’s gradually awful death is added the additional cruelty that it is among the last of the plague against which he fought so gallantly, shortly before the pandemic is declared over. There is raw literal description of these agonies, but also a move towards the figurative: extreme pain is, arguably, the thing we fear more than anything. The popularity of apocalyptic movies reflects our wish for the world to end quickly, when we know quite well, if we think about it, that the demise of our species will be long and dolorous. This is in turn a projection of wanting to die quickly and painlessly ourselves – anything rather than endure what is described here. From what we know – newspapers are not eager to report details – Covid-19 does not kill fast; one survivor in the UK spoke of “having glass in my lungs”.
So let’s turn to Camus’s figurative preoccupation, and political themes: fascism and Nazi occupation. Unlike in pure allegory ‑ Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress for example ‑ the symbolism is intermittent, inconsistent throughout the book, so there’s no straining to make the point; the allegory is not chained to narrative, or vice versa. We are both plunged into the reality, and detached from it by qualifications from Camus’s narrator, revealed at the end as, unsurprisingly, Rieux. Also, rather than relate a series of real events or experiences from which to draw philosophical conclusions, Camus creates an imaginary narrative to demonstrate a prior point, citing Defoe in the epigraph: “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.” (It’s from a preface to the allegorical Robinson Crusoe, not Defoe’s account of the London plague.)
To use pestilence as a symbol was hardly Camus’s idea: it is as old as literature and the Bible. In 1978, Susan Sontag wrote eruditely on the idea of “Illness as Metaphor” in a book of that title where she examined the history of writing specifically on “disease as political metaphor”. Burke, she reminds us called the French Revolution “a palsy”. With cruel irony, she focused on deployment of the image of cancer, from which she would herself suffer in time, in political scapegoating: “If Hitler called the Jews the cancer of Europe,” she wrote, “Trotsky called Stalinism the cancer of Marxism, and in China in the last year the Gang of Four have become, among other things, ‘the cancer of China’.”
But while Hitler and Mao used cancer to depict an enemy within the corpus, Camus, through the other side of the lens, depicts plague as the oncoming oppressor. He began taking notes for the book late in 1942 and started writing it in 1944. After the war, Camus allowed legend to propagate a myth that he joined the French resistance from its outset. He did not: living in a village called Le Panelier, near Saint-Étienne, for reasons of health – he suffered badly from tuberculosis – he was clearly aware of a highly effective resistance circle in the nearby town of Chambon, organised by a Huguenot pastor called André Trocmé, finding safe houses and forging papers for Jews in flight from northern (occupied) France. One of the tantalising reasons we can assume Camus was conscious of these efforts arises from research by the critic Robert Zaretsky, who finds that among the resistant Chambonnais was a doctor by the name of – Riou!
Camus only later joined the group around Combat, the resistance journal and activist kernel, under the local direction of a Catholic intellectual, René Leynaud. The combination of Camus’s delay in joining, and religious presence in the resistance gives us insight into agnostic Camus’ fascination with his own characters, Rambert (with his tardy turn to the task forces) and Fr Paneloux. Though he is appalled by the sermon’s notion of punitive plague, he is haunted by it also: “Out in the street, it seemed to Rieux that the night was full of whispers. Somewhere in the black depths above the street lamps, there was a low soughing that brought to his mind that unseen flail threshing incessantly the languid air of which Paneloux had spoken.” Soon, however, Camus had connected with two men active in Combat and closer to his heart, the writer Pascal Pia and Francis Ponge the poet. The Germans became known as “La peste brune” – the brown plague ‑ and it was after a trip to Lyon in 1943 that Camus, by now irrevocably résistant, wrote and published (in Geneva) the prototype for his masterpiece: “Des Exilés de la Peste”.
La Peste the novel is replete with images of occupation and Holocaust. There are details like Cottard’s black market opportunism, and isolation camps where orders are barked down by loudspeakers. Most horrific, in addition to the mass graves, is the “foul-smelling cloud of smoke” which “hung low upon the eastern districts of town”, rising from the incinerated dead, with echoes of ovens at Birkenau. Camus specifies again that this is “a faint, sickly odour coming from the east” which “reminded them they were living under a new order”. By 1947, most people in Europe knew the significance of the term “to the East”, where inmates of transit camps were transported: it was code for Auschwitz. During a snowbound visit to the camp in 2000, a survivor, Thomas Buerghental, told me how, as he lined up for the Death March out of Auschwitz, with Russian guns approaching and the ovens idle, he saw for the first time birds flying over Birkenau, having not previously noticed their absence, avoiding the smoke. And all the while, Camus writes: “the punctual thuds of rubber stamps marking the rhythm of lives and deaths, the files and fires”.
But the allegory cuts deeper, and Tarrou is its blade. Tarrou, like Rambert, is stranded in Oran, and keeps a diary of his time there, noting details more closely observed than obvious. He is a moral refugee from his own father, a prosecutor who urged the death penalty for criminals. Tarrou feels that any association, however distant or indirect, with this judicial killing machine constitutes guilt. In conversation with Rieux, Tarrou confesses that merely by being the son of a prosecutor he feels “ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn”. And: “I realized that we all have the plague.” The epidemic, he tells Rieux, “has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight by your side”. As John Stuart Mill said: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Neutrality, or standing by, is tantamount to complicity by Tarrou’s measure. By Tarrou’s token, there is no less guilt in neutral Switzerland, Spain or Sweden, or collaborationist Vichy, than among the Nazis themselves. In the light of Tarrou’s standards, the co-winner of the 2018 Nobel prize for literature, Olga Tokarczuk, by applauding Peter Handke’s acceptance of the same prize, endorsed Handke’s apologies for genocide in the Balkans, rather than speaking out against them. Both were awarded – and in my view desecrated – the award given to Camus in 1957. Even to turn away from evil is culpable; one must resist in plain sight.
So the idea to recruit task forces of people prepared to risk their own lives by exposure to the plague in order to combat it comes not from Dr Rieux, but Tarrou. Here is the moral as well as physical allegory between the resistant maquisards, Tarrou’s task forces and Rieux’s medicine, and now our doctors, nurses and ancillary workers: men and women “devoted to fighting the disease”, which made them “all the more liable to it”, and who, alongside Rieux, “under sentence of death, shared his bleak enlightenment”.
The levelling and eventual decline in deaths ‑ glimpses of an end to plague ‑ reflect the period that followed Stalingrad and D-Day, the turn of the gyre. Like the Wehrmacht’s, the plague’s “energy was flagging, out of exasperation and exhaustion, it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto”.
But Camus puts a sting in the tail. Crowds celebrating the end of the plague represent those who cheered the liberation of Paris, Armistice Day and the fall of Berlin. “Never Again” was the cry when Camus’s book was published in 1947, resurrected during the 1970s by the anti-fascist movement in which I was active. Camus was under no such illusion: Rieux “knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of final victory. It could only be a record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts.” As he observes the jubilation, Rieux (aka Camus at this point) knows “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests, that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs …” And so it does.
Camus’s allegory is good for all time – “he was writing for the future”, a Catalan editor friend communicates to me just now ‑ and now a fascistic virus is back. Hatred of, and hate-speech against, the other – the Xenos: racism, antisemitism, an exterminatory anti-Indigenous neo-colonialism, Islamophobia and intolerance of sexual identity are rampant across all continents. Since those passing days of internationalist hope spawned by postwar resolve, by the1960s, the building of the European Union and inter-American institutions, culminating in the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall, borders have proliferated and been reinforced. Walls, fences and guard posts cut across the Holy Land; along the US-Mexican border and around the EU against desperate migration, even around its ridiculous former member, Little Britain. This is not confined to the right wing; the left does it too: opposite the foghorns of America’s Trump, Britain’s Johnson, Italy’s Salvini, Hungary’s Orbán, Poland’s Kaczynski and Brazil’s Bolsonaro are pitched their alter idem figures of China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Putin, Mexico’s López Obrador, the double act of Fernández and Kirchner in Argentina, and Britain’s redundant Corbyn. Cut from the same cloth, bleating “the will of the people”, “El pueblo soy yo”, and the pertinence of national fortress-fronters. Those who would transcend those borders are labelled, from left and right alike, “cosmopolitan” – that time-worn but effective insult for the Jews levelled by Hitler and Stalin. Shostakovich was usually Sphinx-like when asked to explain what his work was “about” (usually it was not “about” anything, for all the ventriloquism it has suffered). But in the case of his absurd opera of 1924 The Nose, he made an exception; it concerned, he said, “the appalling tyranny of the majority”. Call it what you like; that plague is back.
And it is, writes Camus, “all the more potent for its mediocrity”. What an apposite definition that is of the populist pestilence of now: its potent banality, its glorification, and thereby manipulation, of stupidity. Hitler and Mussolini could at least make speeches, and their movements had pretensions to intellectual content, markedly Futurism in fascist Italy. But this lot now: vulgar by comparison, there’s nothing to them but cliché, twitter and “potent mediocrity”; it’s their calling card and cause.
Camus makes an intriguing remark: “On the whole, men are more good than bad, but that isn’t the point. They are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue, the most incorrigible vice being that which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.” People who fancy they know everything mobilising ignorance, to advance their causes of hatred – sound familiar? Our time echoes Camus, who in turn echoes Shakespeare: “Tis time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind.”
The advantage of deploying such an intangible symbol as plague to denote fascism is that it could be – was, and is – adaptable to any time and circumstance. The most insidious aspect of the ventriloquism of Shostakovich’s music, and its reduction to critical commentary on the Soviet Union – no less, but no more – in books by Solomon Volkov, Ian Macdonald, Julian Barnes and others, is that it robs it of universality. Camus has, luckily, not been subject to the same fate, not least because some of the most virulent criticisms of him came from Marxists in France, who objected philosophically to La Peste’s rejection of eschatological “progress” and because it can be and was levelled at any tyranny or political sickness, including that of the USSR. La Peste placed Camus on sound ground when Cold War set in, against French communists, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, obliged to defend the indefensible. “No doubt this is why they reproach me,” Camus wrote to Roland Barthes in 1955, “because La Peste can serve any resistance to any kind of tyranny.” This is fundamental: Camus’s allegory is – like Shostakovich’s music – universal, universally applicable, and that is its political currency today.
Conversely, one problem with using pestilence as a symbol for fascism is that it removes human agency from the delivery of evil. The Nazis were human beings, from the leadership to rank and file, as demonstrated by innumerable studies, markedly, in this context, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 11 and the Final Solution in Poland. As critic John Cruickshank observes in his book on Camus, La Peste “covers human wretchedness but ignores human wickedness”. If the book has a fault, it is that there are no villains, shits, or boring and stupid characters in it.
The greatest advantage of an amorphous embodiment of evil, however, comes into its own at that third, crucial, universal existential and philosophical level, to which I now turn.
Philosophically, writes Cruickshank, La Peste comes from Camus’s “desperate metaphysic”, and view of “man’s metaphysical dereliction in the world”, in which case the applications are endless, and up to us.
Essential to Camus’s existential and metaphysical isolation is the abyss between the power and beauty of nature and the desolation of the human condition. From his earliest days, Camus loved the sea and deserts, and regarded human mortality in the light of their indifferent scale. There is no moral place for humankind in nature. The distance of nature’s magnitude and awe is almost a form of torture in Camus’s first major novel, La Mort Heureuse, in which the hero, Mersault, ponders the “inhuman beauty of the April morning”. Only one letter separates Mersault’s name from that of his more unpleasant, complex and ambiguous successor, Meursault, anti-hero of L’Étranger, a man of questions but no answers. Yet even the nihilist Meursault deduces that in killing an Arab on the beach: “I understand that I had destroyed the harmony of the day.” When I wrote about La Peste during Ebola, my urging was to see the plague as representing humanity itself (ironically, perhaps, given Camus’s humanism), at war with nature and destroying it. I drew on Camus’s essay “Le desert”, in which he spoke of “repugnant materialism” in our relationship to nature. Since then, the Paris climate accord, the impact of Greta Thunberg, school climate strikes and uprisings by Extinction Rebellion, would, I hope be signs of vindication, just as denial of climate change by Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro be regarded as forms of plague in that regard.
When it comes to nature, there is an almost neo-pagan pantheism in Camus. At the close of L’Étranger, he writes of the “benign indifference of the universe”. Now, in La Peste, sea and sky are constant correctives, albeit indifferent ones. As plague arrives, “only the sea, murmurous behind the dingy chequerboard of houses, told of the unrest, the precariousness of all things in this world”. Oran is a town laid out in such a way as to turn its back on the sea, writes Camus, and the only point of contact during the book between man and sea, a swim together by Rieux and Tarrou (to be discussed later), is La Peste’s only moment of true liberation, more so than the eventual end of plague and opening of the gates. There is also the sky, “a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning”. As plague tightened its hold: “Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky … They seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices, in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.” There is “a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky”. And when Dr Rieux watches his true friend, Tarrou, die: “The night was cold again, with frosty stars sparkling in a clear, wintry sky.”
Nature is not absurd; what is absurd is our relationship to it, like that of Sisyphus to the rock, which he must haul up the mountainside, again and again. (Camus does not relate the reasons for this punishment, the guile of Sisyphus, trying to hoodwink death and the gods.) In his magnificent speech accepting that Nobel Prize, Camus was lucid on the organisation of his work into three parts, those of the absurd, revolt, and love. He began writing La Peste at what can be seen as the opening of that second, central, panel in the triptych, on the slipstream of The Myth of Sisyphus and its deliberations on absurdity. If Caligula, L’Étranger and Sisyphus can be regarded as the absurd trilogy, La Peste is the first book in which Camus sought to address the implications – rather than a description – of the absurd, and our “revolt” against it. But to absurdity is now added evil; as Todd puts it: “the world no longer seemed absurd, but terrible instead”. However, in the wake of The Myth of Sisyphus, what does the absurdity of the universe, or creation, entail for we humans? At the allegorical/political level, resistance to fascism stakes its rightful claim, but philosophically, on the basis of Camus early work (though not his activist life), absurdity could and should, surely, render any notion of human endeavour ridiculous, encourage ennui and nihilism. But, as Samuel Beckett replied when a Parisian taxi driver asked if he was English: “au contraire”.
It is useful to consider Camus’s deductions from an absurd existence alongside those of his near-contemporary and master of the absurd, Beckett. Beckett was born seven years before Camus, but was active in the French resistance at the same time. In Beckett’s Happy Days, Winnie, buried up to her neck, 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.” Suspended in limbo, as in the wait for Godot, there is no purposeful human agency. 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.” – even the narration is self-negating. The critic Declan Kiberd, in a lecture to the Beckett festival in Enniskillen in 2014, posited the idea of “Beckett setting up camp in the void”, with a terrifying analogy to the no-man’s-land between trenches in World War One. So why did Beckett bother to support the resistance in the sequel war, at risk to himself and his wife, Suzanne, also active?
The answer lies in La Peste. Camus (and his characters), unlike Sartre (and his) never made a claim for consistency. What mattered was honesty, and Camus often questioned his own positions and arguments, in the best classical practice. Camus had cautioned in The Myth of Sisyphus that his observations were “provisoires” (provisional) and had already, in the book, subverted a nihilist response to the absurd. “The body, affection, creation of human nobility will resume their places in this mad world,” he wrote. “At last man will again find there the wine of the absurd and the bread of indifference on which he feeds his greatness … At a certain point on his path the absurd man is tempted.” Tempted by what?
Plague’s absurdity renders the vanities of life absurd: the most melodramatic scene in the book is when a player acting Orpheus for a troupe visiting and stranded in the city collapses and dies from plague just as Eurydice is being torn from him. The audience hastens to an exit, and Rieux and Tarrou look down on its discarded “toys of luxury, so futile now, fans and lace shawls on the red plush seats”.
In an absurd universe, one is free. Yet freedom itself becomes a kind of prison, rather like that experienced in painting of Masaccio’s screaming Eve, expelled from the Garden of Eden, as symbol of the certainty of the edifice of mediaeval Christianity. Or in that sculpture in wood by Donatello of Mary Magdalene, desolate, praying, evidently, to nothing. These daunting masterpieces were done, albeit using Christian imagery, when the Renaissance had torn down God, and proclaimed “Man, the measure of all things”. For most in Florence, that was liberation, but for these artists it entailed something closer to Camus’s crucial observation that “Trapped, Rambert savoured that bitter sense of freedom which comes of total deprivation.”
So what do we do, exiled in the cell of freedom, in an absurd universe? In La Peste, absurdity – the “wine of the absurd” ‑ is a source of value, values and even action. Camus’s characters illustrate that, although they know they are powerless against plague they can bear witness to it, and this is in itself of value. They can also fight it, albeit in vain. There does not have to be a contradiction between the emptiness at the heart of L’Étranger, the absurd universe of The Myth of Sisyphus and the endeavours of La Peste.
Four core scenes in La Peste demonstrate this. The first is a conversation between Rieux and Tarrou towards the end of part two; the second is the child’s death, a third is Rieux and Tarrou going for a swim, and the fourth is Tarrou’s death.
In Tarrou’s first conversationn with Rieux, they discuss Fr Paneloux, and the doctor posits that plague “helps men to rise above themselves”. Tarrou asks if Rieux believes in God. Rieux hesitates: “No – but what does that really mean? I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out.” But Rieux is “on the right road – in fighting creation as he found it”. “So that’s the idea you have of your profession?” asks Tarrou. “More or less,” replies the doctor. He has seen people die, and “could never get hardened to it … That’s all I know.” Tarrou points out that “your victories will never be lasting”, to which Rieux replies: “I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.” “No reason, I agree, only I now can picture what this plague must mean to you.” “Yes,” replies Rieux, “A never-ending defeat.” Then Rieux turns the questions towards Tarrou: “What prompted you to take a hand in this?” “ … My code of morals, perhaps” … “What code, if I may ask?” “Comprehension.”
Neither man has any sense or illusion of success or victory, yet neither seeks to justify what they do by that measurement; what matters is to “comprehend”, and having done so, to fight. The fight is for its own sake; we might call it heroic, but that is not how combatants against the plague viewed themselves. “Tarrou, Rieux and their friends might give one answer or another” as why they resist, “but its conclusion was always the same, their certitude that a fight must be put up … There was nothing admirable about this attitude, it was merely logical.”
At times here Camus creeps towards a classical, Renaissance humanism uncharacteristic of “absurdists”, and for all the earlier mockery of his “humanist” co-citizens. One such moment follows the death of Othon’s child. A “gust of sobs swept through the room, drowning Paneloux’s prayer”, and the priest is humbled by Rieux’s challenge: “That child, anyhow, was innocent, and you know it as well as I do.” Paneloux suggests that Rieux too is “working for man’s salvation”, but: “Rieux tried to smile. ‘Salvation’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high.’” (“Deeply moved” by the child’s agony, Paneloux too joins the task forces, and he too dies of plague.)
In their second long conversation, Tarrou tells Rieux that “It comes to this … what interests me is learning how to become a saint”, although he does not believe in God: “that’s the problem”. Rieux responds that “‘heroism and sanctity don’t appeal to me. What interests me is being a man.” “Yes,” replies Tarrou, “‘we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.” Sainthood is a lesser aspiration than true humanity.
But what about “exile”? Exile, existential and physical, is the anchor in Camus’s life and work that is never set. Quite apart from metaphysical alienation, his life was one of unbelonging (one of the reasons I have always adored, and identified with his way and his writing). He was a French-speaking pied-noir of Spanish and French descent, born and raised in colonial Algeria, with affinity both to his heritage and his country of birth. By the time he began to write La Peste, he had tried to work as a journalist in Paris, towards which he initially felt little in the way of belonging, and was isolated near Saint-Étienne, with his wife and his heart back in Algiers. (When the time came later for Algeria to arise and fight for independence, Camus, living in France, was caught on a high wire, exiled from neither country, but both.) His existential exile is articulated by Tarrou, who says that contestation of the plague – and in his case, the pursuit of a calling that refuses to kill ‑ has “doomed myself to an exile that will never end”.
Here is the solitude of the “desperate metaphysic”, but, conversely, the value of its nemesis in revolt: friendship. This is why the friendship between Tarrou and Rieux is so moving; in it, both find fleeting relief from exile. It is born of struggle alongside one another, but symbolically achieved in the book’s most poetic passage: that swim together in the sea, symbiotic not only with one another, but with the force of nature, the “gently heaving expanse deep-piled velvet, supple and sleek as a creature from the wild”. The “memory of this night would be cherished by them both”, but it is brief; back to the plague they must go, “shoulders to the wheel again”.
The friendship thus forged, Tarrou’s death is unbearable. Tarrou is “consumed by searing, super-human fires” and the “storm lashing over his body into convulsive movement” gives injustice a final say; he pitched himself against his father, then against the plague, only to be among the last it claimed. “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”, as a cheesy but well-titled song in the musical Wicked goes. And apart from his mother – a comfort at once eternal, yet mortal – Tarrou’s death leaves Rieux utterly alone, in not only existential and ontological exile, but personal too. The morning after Tarrou’s death, Rieux receives news that his wife has passed away too, at the sanatorium to which she went before the plague’s outbreak.
The attainment of peace – and the quest for it – cuts like a rip-tide beneath the book. The problem is that for Camus, peace and hope are entwined. Rieux had asked Tarrou if he had “an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘The path of sympathy’.” When Rieux had asked Tarrou: “‘Do you really imagine you know everything about life?’ The answer came through the darkness in the same cool, confident tone. ‘Yes.’” Yet Tarrou had, says Rieux, “lived a life riddled with contradictions, and had never known hope’s solace”, adding: “there can be no peace without hope”. Which is why, after Tarrou’s death, Rieux “had a feeling that no peace was possible for him henceforth”.
As Tarrou dies, “the tears that blinded Rieux’s eyes were tears of impotence”. And those we are doomed to shed, if we join the resistance, because we must accept that what we do is for its own sake, and beyond that, endeavour is in vain. Not only is peace dependent on hope, but hope on efficacy, and La Peste testifies that there is none.
When he accepted the Nobel Prize, Camus stated that it was the honour and burden of the writer “to do so much more than write”. This is the moment, perhaps, to interject that Rieux has always been, for what it’s worth, my own role model and inspiration as a journalist and writer. I am wary of writers who think that they – or “the media” – impact for the good. Try telling us who reported from Bosnia-Herzegovina for three years while the carnage was allowed – encouraged – by “the international community” to continue that we had any “impact”. We had none at all. Or those of us who tried to insist that the road to invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal and based on lies; if we weren’t censored ‑ which I was ‑ we had no effect whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean “don’t write”. What the best of our profession does in a mostly corrupt and immoral business is walk a straight line and stick to the truth, regardless of efficacy. Does Rieux try to save Othon’s child, knowing he will fail? You bet he does. Should we write truth, to no avail? Yes. Rieux tells Rambert that “there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of honesty. It’s an idea that might make people laugh, but the only way to fight against plague is with honesty*.” When asked what that means, he replies: “I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case, I know that it consists in doing my job.” As with medicines and vaccines, so with words – and Camus was in that regard the best doctor of them all.
Once the plague is defeated, and the gates of Oran opened, the populace deservedly celebrates. The railway station is a carnival of embrace, and tears of joyful relief this time, as families and lovers are reunited. Rambert “let his tears flow freely, unknowing if they rose from present joy or from sorrow too long repressed”. But Rieux’s wife is not among the arrivals, so that for reasons personal as well as philosophical, he feels, with regard to the festivities “debarred from sharing in them wholeheartedly”.
As he surveys the felicitous reunions, Rieux contemplates love. The theme of love, in counterpoint to that of duty, has infused the book, and characters respond with laudably complex inconsistency. By abandoning his plan to escape, just as he finally achieved its realisation, Rambert overturned his initial position, the premium on love: “I know that I belong here whether I want it or not,” he tells the doctor. But Rieux then replies by echoing Rambert’s original argument, which he himself had initially rejected: “For nothing in the world is it worth turning one’s back on what one loves,” he affirms, but adds: “Yet that is what I’m doing, though why I do not know.” Later, Rieux reflects that “a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”
So apparently there can, after all, be hope, and thereby peace, for those in true, requited love. Accordingly, Rieux now gives the reunited lovers their due: “Those who, clinging to their little own, had set their hearts solely on returning to the home of their love, had sometimes their reward … And for some time, anyhow, they would be happy. They knew now that if there is one thing one to always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”
But then Rieux immediately subverts his own observation, and in doing so encapsulates the driving theme of the book.
“But for others,” he says, presumably including himself, “who aspired beyond love and above the human individual towards something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer.”
“No answer.” No account or description, even, of what that “something” else we cannot imagine might be. And yet it nags, it makes demands of us. It calls us to action, to join Tarrou’s task forces, to act in vain, even to turn away from love if necessary, albeit reluctantly and after careful consideration. It has no cause; it can understand some religious or political language, but without recourse to God or ideology. It is political to a degree, but impatient with, if not contemptuous of, politics. Moral, certainly, but uneasily so. It has no direction, it has nothing to do with “progress” because in an absurd universe there can be no such thing. It is pointless, but imperative. And those who identify with Albert Camus and his most important creation, Dr Bernard Rieux, know what it is, though we have long abandoned a definition.
All quotations are from Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Plague, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1947 ‑ apart from the passage marked by an asterisk *, where Gilbert translates “l’honnêteté” as “common decency”. I have used “honesty”.