Clarity on the plague -on all plagues upon us! Owen Dudley Edwards reads the words of La Peste, looks at the history, and judges this as medical fiction, which might help our honesty with medical facts.
We can start with the old chestnut ‘these things are so much better in the original’ (much employed in the 1950s by lecturers quoting from a source translated from the Bulgarian).La Peste was promptly translated on publication by James Joyce’s Parisian friend, editor and contemporary Stuart Gilbert, as The Plague (1948). Over 50 years later it was translated by Robin Buss. There may also have been other translations, some perhaps the work of half-starved skeletal tubercular figures acutely resembling Camus himself but left in miserable anonymity by Barrabas-like publishers. But all of them seem to have agreed in translate ‘La’ as ‘The’. Most of us have managed to get that far. But are we right? The French use the definite article differently. As befits the language whose people are the subject of subtler sex jokes by Anglophones, ‘the’ in French is declined in gender (as well as number).
Sex joke, READER’S DIGEST c. 1947:
Q. What would happen if two men and a woman were wrecked on a desert island?
A. It would depend on their nationality.
If they were Spanish, one man wouId kill the other. If they were Italian, the woman would kill one of the men. If they were English, nothing would happen because they hadn’t been introduced. If they were American, nothing would happen because the men would be too busy talking business to join the lady. And if they were French there would be no problem.
‘La Peste’ is French for ‘the plague’ but it is also French for ‘plague’, meaning as a genre, disease, human condition. It can mean whatever Moses demanded God inflict on the Egyptians from the deaths of the firstborn and their beasts, to the disease striking down livestock, the proliferation of frogs and flies, the transformation of water to blood, &c. So in the book the English translation limits the plague to the partly imaginary and partly real one by the 33-year-old Camus set in the Algerian coastal city of Oran in the early 1940s when it sustained a much less severe real plague, other outbreaks of which appeared all over the Mediterranean coasts of Egypt, Algeria and (worst of all) Morocco. Camus formally begins the action in La Peste with the rapidly escalating deaths of rats and ends it on the likelihood of the rats’ return, and in fact the actual plague of 1945 was initiated by infestation of rats bearing ectoparasites.
On the other hand the book is also about plague in human history, and it is clear that Camus in the aftermath of World War 2 learned much about plagues such as the Black Death in 14th-century Europe (and North Africa), the Great Plague of England in 1665, and outbreaks in Algeria from its seizure by the French in 1830. Much time has been wasted by attempts to pitchfork La Peste into Absurdism, Existentialism and the rest of the mumbo-jumbo of literary theory spewed by academics in the tradition of clerics to enlarge themselves and impress the laity. Such terms were justifiable enough for specific cases such as that of Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus’s friend and fellow-Communist (for a time). If Sartre can be justified for use in Camus’ case, the infection was temporary and for La Peste largely irrelevant. La Peste proves its author a historian, anxious to restore honesty especially after living in France in World War 2 when he was pumping out illegal propaganda against the Nazis and their French collaborators. Further critics have found the book symbolic of France in World War 2: no doubt, but this looks at it wrong way round. Both La Peste and Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot (first written in 1948) are what they are because of what the authors saw, did, and feared when the Germans ruled France. Both works were exceptionally perceptive partly because Camus and Beckett were from the periphery, Beckett Protestant Irish, Camus of Breton, Alsatian and Spanish descent born in Algeria: they could be nearer objectivity than most Parisians and feel less need to conceal the shame of French compromises with the Nazi death-merchants. So Godot stars two comrades who can hardly trust one another, who are subjected to violence from unmentionable persons, who behold class systems and their reversal, whose hopes for salvation by a contact are met by promises of arrival never redeemed, where suicide has to be discarded as an absurd surrender. So La Peste tells of heroic deeds in fighting the plague but avoids cults of heroes while describing acts and even routines which were heroic. Its imagination stays within factual limits. It is a great and good book, primarily so as history’s successful invasion and occupation of the novel. As such it asserts Camus’ greatest claim as an artist and polemicist: his yearning to be honest.
The most obvious objection to La Peste is the absence of the omnipresent Berbers/Arabs apart from an early conversational reference. We may assume that native Algerian bodies pass under the reader’s unclassifying gaze while the doctors and hospital authorities try to nurse them and fail to cure them. It may be a western literary convention of the mid-twentieth century: Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (1948), a formidable contributor to Catholic theological reform, is set in west Africa, has no natives of note, and yet seeks honesty. Camus chose an epigraph for La Peste from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719-20), a historian’s action, perhaps with an awareness of a new market, for after VE-day in 1945 English publishers opened newly enthusiastic doors to French authors and translators living and dead, hungering for a resurrected Europe (the same spirit that gave us the Edinburgh Festival). Quoting from Crusoe’s Preface to his third volume, the epigraph stated:
It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is torepresent anything that really exists by that which exists not! —
To that extent Nazi conquest was acknowledged as possible material for comparison with the content of La Peste, asserting that France had been infected and imprisoned by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945, and that so was this Oran born of memory and imagination imprisoned in the same years by the plague developed fictionally from its smaller reality. In the process La Peste had to ignore Oran’s actual ownership contested by the Axis powers aided by local Vichy French versus UK/USA/French, chiefly in 7-9 November 1942 for control of the harbour, with British bombardment of Oran itself ending in the city’s surrender to the Allies. A US Navy victory song ‘Oran! Oran!’ became popular among American sailors. If any readers in 1947 drew analogies with the Nazi-manipulated Vichy French from the emergence of increasing numbers of rats rapidly dying in La Peste, they were welcome to do so.
Women were the other omission from La Peste, complained subsequent critics. Certainly any analogy with Nazi-ruled France broke down on that, since women had probably played a more vital role in French Resistance than men although postwar male assessments may not have realised it. We should remember Conor Cruise O’Brien’s brilliant Camus (1970) which remarks that La Peste really has only three characters: the city, the plague, and the narrator who at the end admits to being the central figure, Dr Bernard Rieux. In 2020 many married and loving couples and families could be ruthlessly sealed off from one another, so that we cannot come to terms with Rieux unless we remember (for which we have little opportunity) that he is cut off from his wife at the beginning and she dies while Oran is still a plague-imprisoned place. The only female figure of major importance visible in the story is Rieux’s mother, almost a visionary figure. Camus’s mother brought him up in Algiers when his father was dead, his first novel L’Etranger (1942) apparently wrestling with guilt feelings about his leaving her and Oran for France and also suggesting homage to the beginning of Joyce’s Ulysses; La Peste for all of the horror of its various bereavements blesses reconciliation and collegiality of son and mother in compassion and care for the dying:
A little before dawn Rieux leaned towards his mother and whispered: ‘You’d better have some rest now, as you’ll have to relieve me at eight. Mind you take your drops before going to bed.’
Mme Rieux rose, folded her knitting, and went to the bedside. Tarrou had had his eyes shut for some time. Sweat had plastered his hair on his stubborn forehead. Mme Rieux sighed, and he opened his eyes. He saw the gentle face bent over him and, athwart the surge of fever, that steadfast smile took form again. But at once the eyes closed. Rieux moved into the chair his mother had just left.
Then they resumed their silent vigil. From time to time Mme Rieux stole a glance at her son and, whenever he caught her doing this, he smiled. Out in the street the usual night-time sounds bridged the long silences. A good many cars were on the road again, though officially this was not yet permitted: they sped past with a long hiss of tyres on the roadway, receded, and returned. Voices, distant calls, silence again, a clatter of horse-hoofs, the squeal of trams rounding a curve, vague murmurs — then once more the quiet breathing of the night.
‘Not too tired?’
At that moment he knew what his mother was thinking, and that she loved him, but he knew, too, that to love someone means relatively little; or, rather, that love is never strong enough to find the words befitting it. Thus he and his mother would always love each other silently. And one day she — or he — would die, without ever, all their lives long, having gone farther than this by way of making their affection known. Thus, too, he had lived at Tarrou’s side and Tarrou had died this evening without their friendship’s having had time to enter fully into the life of either. Tarrou had ‘lost the match’, as he put it. But what had he, Rieux, won?
No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and of being destined one day to remember it. So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match.
This is but one of innumerable passages in which Camus might have been writing about humanity 73 years later, and his limitation to Oran helps us pin-point phenomena of our current plague. He goes far deeper than our permanent preoccupation of witch-hunting. Yes, the administrators — whether politicians, magistrates, officials, whether elected or unelected — are obvious targets for contempt and even pity, wallowing hopelessly in their pontifications while doctors, medical staff and volunteers are literally working themselves to death. But Camus turns a shrewd screw here. One of the most shattering moments in the novel is the exceptionally painful death of the boy Philippe, son of the self-assured and futile magistrate Othon; despite all they have witnessed and nursed, it is a horrific event for doctor and priest as they blindly wonder how a merciful God could let this happen, but they tell Othon that the boy suffered little, realising he is mentally unfit to be told the truth. The march of Covit-19 across the world has left little cause to respect Messrs Donald Trump and Boris Johnson (or their counterparts in Russia and China), yet Camus invites us to pity them as hopelessly incapable of understanding what is happening, not simply because President Trump sprays us with symptoms of his increasing insanity, or Prime Minister Johnson of his schoolboy-level retardation. Our self-hypnosis in monarchical leadership (industrial, financial, economic, political, religious, intellectual) makes these chosen supreme leaders probably the most ignorant people on the planet since every effort has to be made to conceal distasteful news as unbefitting their majesty. (If the king hears his son has drowned he will never smile again.)
Reading or re-reading La Peste in the midst of our own plague makes for one shock of recognition and another of alienation. As Hugh MacDiarmid wrote of the poet John Davidson walking into the sea, God at the wrong end of a telescope. So much about Coronavirus distorts the old and distances the familiar, even remedial instructions carrying their own satire such as ‘social distance’ proving anti-social to an extent that might dismay even the snootiest Victorian hostess armed with her lethal lorgnette. La Peste is the same wholesale death jammed into a tiny substitute for our globe, and the varieties of futility we should face with permanent ideals of community, compassion, and courage. The lit-crit labelling in fact cheapens and dilutes the good we can get from it, for it can help us face our present and future ordeals by teaching what we can learn from studying intensification of what we experience now. To resort to an older label, La Peste deserves recognition as medical fiction and may provide further enlightenment if we think of it alongside its gentler colleagues from Scotland like A.J. Cronin’s Adventures of a Black Bag (1943) and its fellow-begetters of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, or from England like Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Feet (1942), both literary soaps, but with moments of deep human tragedy and wholesale slaughter in Blitz conditions. Conan Doyle may come closer to La Peste’s nerve centres in his medical stories Round the Red Lamp (1894) and his reflections on healing — the Sherlock Holmes type, brilliant austere specialist, dehumanising in his scientific zeal, and the Dr Watson type with far less intellect but much greater success in evangelising the patients’ resistance to death. In La Peste the lay helpers or critics make us see the relative strengths of the outsider conscripted into crusade against suffering and dying. The book first of all deserves to be taken for the masterpiece it is in describing the operation of a plague in an isolated city, but if we pursue allegory, it is in the tradition of Everyman plays and stories when the central figure is both solitary and surrounded, only real himself but perpetually confronted by virtues, vices, skills and accidents: the initial Crusoe quotation is thus the Muse instructing both the narrator and Dr Rieux, ultimately the same but sometimes socially distanced. It has been called the book of a Catholic atheist. Camus seems to have had no Catholic origins but courteously and perceptively interrogates Catholicism through La Peste’s characters notably the Jesuit Father Paneloux who preaches, evolves, ministers, and dies: he seems unlike a typical Jesuit, but Jesuits are seldom like one another. He is harder to know than Georges Bernanos’s priest in Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (1936) or Graham Greene’s whisky-priest in The Power and the Glory (1940), yet may be closer to readers: the Bernanos and Greene priests are tragic heroes and so is Paneloux, but we know they will win and cannot tell whether he does. Yet whatever Paneloux’s success as a Catholic, he triumphs as a Camusard: he takes a high place in the quest for honesty variously distinguishing the main figures of La Peste. And whether religiously or otherwise, Honesty is a brave if perilous companion as we pilgrims journey through our own plagues, medical and otherwise.