It is time to just admit it isn’t it? To stop putting off the reality of this love affair and to throw it into the clear light of day where everyone can see it. Okay. So here it goes: I have a giant crush on Albert Camus and it will not go away.
I am completely seduced by his ideas. By the subtle writing style that caresses layers of meaning and by proxy me. By the anti-cliche scenes swinging their arms without awkwardness (like the old man who spits on the local cats every day). The easy grasp that commands all those separated lovers desperate to claw their way back into the company of whom they desire, but doesn’t patronise them. The Plague is a clinically observed whilst being deeply emotional. It toes the line between intimacy and dispassionateness. Both a hairbreadth close and a mile away. And I was right there watching it all with Dr. Rieux. Waiting to die and watching everybody around me die.
I can’t oversell this point enough: Camus gives me whiplash.
The irony of reading this novel while ill myself was not lost on me. This novel is not a riot of fun and joy. It is a deeply harrowing, melancholy place that will draw out your own misery if you yourself are suffering. But I recommend you read it in whatever state you come in but devote yourself to it. Give it time enough and experience this novel.
The Plague is the story of Bubonic Plague. Plague that arrives suddenly with rats in the town of Oran. The townspeople face a fast and horrifying end in the midst of a quarantine but attempt to continue on with some resemblance of life before the quarantine, while having their own personal battles with the Plague. Some accept their fate as the walking dead, some point blame, some panic, some try to escape and some work ceaselessly against the odds.
Dr. Rieux is our unheroic hero. Rieux walks the fine line of a professional during the epidemic, burying his own emotional exhaustion and hopelessness beneath his desire to fulfil his duty. While great portions of the novel seem detached and observant, there are also sections that act like intimacy in confidence. He is a man doing what must be done, while also being highly emotionally intelligent and empathetic and forcibly optimistic (perhaps so he too will survive).
While the novel follows Rieux it also wanders, taking up great portion of Tarrou’s diary, Rambert’s quest to escape the quarantine, and general observation of the townspeople. As I have already mentioned the Plague uses separated lovers, but it also tackles religious faith, personal redemption, and the horror of unnecessary physical suffering. One of the most potent moments in the Plague is witnessing a child suffering and then the collateral damage from that suffering shaking the faith of a priest.
But equally as significant is the genuine humanity, for example, in Rambert changing his mind and being wracked with guilt by the idea of escaping Oran. This is not a light decision, it comes about from several conversations and in them belongs one of those beautiful and inescapable lines that drives the spirit of the novel: “Man is not an idea, Rambert.”
This novel doesn’t act out a loud heroism or sensationalism, it demonstrates an ordinary courage that is desperate for perseverance despite all of the odds. And that ordinary courage within the Plague is so painfully beautiful, so humble, so matter-of-fact it has floored me at every turn.
“No doubt our love was still there, but quite simply it was unusable, heavy to carry, inert inside us, sterile as crime or condemnation. It was no longer anything except a patience with no future and a stubborn wait.” p. 142
Whether you are reading this novel out of curiosity, or for the allegory of France’s wartime trauma this is not a novel to be taken lightly. It is a heartfelt jolt of reflections as much as it is a narrative. It is not loud in it’s resistance, but it is not unyielding to pestilence. This is such a difficult novel to be objective about and to find faults with, it is a staggering feat, it is a love affair, and it has given me the most terrible hangover. And I want more.
This is real love baby. Real big love that’s thumping around the house with no care for anyone else. So yes, I will read this again and I think that everyone else in this world should read it too because my pal Al, well what can I say? He is one hell of a guy.