Friday, May 22, 2009


I've been meaning to return to Camus for a while.  In college I read and greatly enjoyed "The Stranger," a taut and oddly opaque novel about a senseless murder.  Camus wrote quite a few well-regarded novels and plays, but the other really well-known one is The Plague.  While reading it, I found myself happily slipping back into my university habits of looking for themes, short sections that could be quoted to illustrate a point, and comparisons with other major books.  And, like the best books of English Lit, it was also an interesting and rewarding read.


I no longer need to write five-page essays, so instead, here is my standard grab-bag of the things that most caught my attention.

Grand is possibly the saddest figure of the story.  He's kind of a would-be novelist, a civil servant who has lived a life of fiscal and emotional poverty.  He traces both issues to the problem of finding the right words: if he could only learn how to express himself, not just well, but perfectly, then everything would work out.  He could ask for a raise, he could win back his wife, he could find happiness.  The drama is played out in the act of Grand's writing.  He is working on a book, and has filled hundreds of pages, but these consist of a single opening sentence, infinitely reworked in endless search of the exact right words.

It's hard to read about Grand without thinking of Flaubert, the fellow French author who famously quested for le mot juste.  Grant is no Flaubert, and, discontent with merely writing good words, he chooses instead to write nothing.  I wondered if Camus saw himself as Grand, but this seems unlikely.  Instead, I suspect that he may see Grand as a warning, perhaps some personal tendency towards perfection in himself that he needed to avoid.

On a first reading, I'll hazard a guess that the biggest single theme of the book is that of abstraction.  This word keeps on popping up throughout the novel, starting early on when the doctor Rieux and the journalist Rambert argue over the importance of following quarantine orders (in support of the greatest good) or violating them (in support of personal love).  Rambert angrily denounces the doctor's arguments, and says that "the many" is merely an abstraction, and must of necessity be subservient to the needs of the individual, which is more "real."  The truth, of course, is that the "abstraction" is the accumulation of thousands of particulars.  Rambert feels his case most strongly because it is happening to him, but the cases which are farther away from him are no less real to their owners.  And Reiux knows this - he suffers a case almost identical to that of Rambert, but he is capable of elevation and subsuming his own needs.  Rambert eventually wins this same perspective.

It isn't that abstraction is good, though.  The counter-point comes in the sermons, which at first argue for an indefensible abstraction - the idea that the plague is a punishment for the people it strikes.  This is a generalized way of making sense of the plague, but it absolutely breaks down in the particulars.  The second sermon recognizes this, after the heartbreaking death of a child - who could still claim that this child had sinned against God?  Ultimately, as human beings, we can only respond emotionally to the personal and particular situations that confront us, but the best people can recognize their own limitations and try to act for the good of all.  There's a touching quote near the end of the book along the lines of "We cannot be saints, so we must try to be healers."  In other words, rather than cultivating a powerful and generalized goodness that can save everyone, the highest calling available to most of us is to try and help everyone we can.

The dark side of abstraction takes the form of bureaucracy.  This is almost a dark comic element in the book.  As it's set in the modern world in modern times (specifically 1940's French Algeria), the tragedy of the plague is dealt with with modern means: red tape, committees, media propaganda, public-private partnerships, and endless worrying about political implications.  Again, I can't necessarily say that Camus thinks that there should be no bureaucracy - without any rules, the plague would spread throughout the world - but the cold words of officialdom are so divorced from the reality of people living and dying that they don't seem to exist in the same world.  And yet, people cling to bureaucracy, believing that it gives their lives meaning.  The section of funerals is especially striking, and the narrator at one point states that red tape is precisely what separates man from the animals.  At the peak of the plague, men and women are dumped unceremoniously from a truck into a giant pit in the ground, and bodies are dug up and incinerated in the crematorium: and yet, because a piece of paper is stamped when this happens, their lives have meaning and dignity.  Very curious, and very French.

Oh, and fun fact: there's a casual reference to The Stranger early in the book.  I thought that was fun and classy, a bit like a Hitchcock cameo.


Good literature!  Relatively speaking, I don't read as much of the canon these days as I did at school - I have, and take, much more time for fantasy and well-written contemporary fare - but I think I enjoy those books at least as much as I did then.  It helps to be responsible for my own syllabus, and the more I read the more connections I find and the more rewarding such books become.  Heck, this could turn into a life-long habit.

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