La Peste by Albert Camus – Book Review

I just finished reading La Peste, or The Plague (1947) by French author Albert Camus. It’s been fantastic to read it in tandem with our own real lived pandemic experiences. It’s thought-provoking to compare the book’s events to our current situation. A wide-spread pandemic would otherwise feel like fanciful fiction, however, now we can approach it more seriously than we would otherwise. You can chart the elapsed time against the number of victims. I’m glad that I hadn’t read it until now. I have previously read L’Étranger (The Stranger), the first in the trilogy, which I can highly recommend. His simple language and moody storytelling with themes of exile and loneliness is alluring. Somehow, so many French authors that I’ve gotten my hands on seem to revel in depressing takes, with titles like Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) and La Douleur (Pain). 🙂

In La Peste, Camus captures a crossroads of lived experiences in Oran, Algeria, during the time of épidémie. He skillfully weaves the stories of distinctive witnesses of suffering: the doctor, the priest, the stranded journalist, the patients… Such an event provokes a kaleidoscope of responses and attitudes in different people. There is denial and those who don’t treat it so seriously, with an entity as mysterious and invisible as the plague disease which comes and goes as it pleases. There is the religious explanation. Camus’ focus on lack of freedoms, separation and isolation, especially between loved ones, was interesting to me. ‘The change is not in climate but hearts’. In fact, my partner and I are currently in different states, and may be for some time. As you may be aware, borders between Australian states have been closed for some time now. We’ve actually used the book as a bonding activity – a two person book club.

Some of my favourite quotes: a selection of bits that made me feel something (there are many)

  • “On ne parle pas de rats à table; Philippe: Je vous interdis à l’avenir de prononcer ce mot” // “We do not speak about rats at the table, Phillip. I forbid you in future to pronounce this word.”
  • Quand une guerre éclate, les gens disent : “Ça ne durera pas, c’est trop bête.” Et sans doute une guerre est certainement trop bête, mais cela ne l’empêche pas de durer. // When a war breaks out, people say “this won’t last, it’s too stupid”. And without a doubt a war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting.
  • C’est que rien n’est moins spectaculaire qu’un fléau et, par leur durée même, les grands malheurs sont monotones. Dans le souvenir de ceux qui les ont vécues, les journées terribles de la peste n’apparaissaient pas comme de grandes flammes somptueuses et cruelles, mais plutôt comme un interminable piétinement qui écrasait tout sur son passage.
  • // The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through them, the grim days of plague do not stand out like vivid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky, but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path.

  • l’habitude du désespoir est pire que le désespoir lui-même // the habit of despair is worse than despair itself
  • toute la ville ressemblait à une salle d’attente // the whole town resembled a waiting-room
  • En somme, avec nous, nous qui ne sommes pas encore morts de la peste, il sent bien que sa liberté et sa vie sont tous les jours à la veille d’être détruites. // In short, for those of us who aren’t yet dead from the plague, they feel that their freedom and their life are always a day away from being destroyed
  • la peste apportât à ses meurtres quotidiens la précision et la régularité d’un bon fonctionnaire. // the plague took its daily toll of deaths with the precision and regularity of a good civil servant.

Closing reflections

I especially enjoyed the bathing scene shared by Doctor Rieux and Tarrou, a cherished bonding with all assuaged by the clarity of the encompassing water. Everyone can do with such a much-needed respite (however fleeting) from the constancy of the pandemic and everything it affects. At times, as the reader, I am tired from feeling the same fatigue and sufferings of the city.

QVB tree 2020 – up by August

The book foreshadows a strange holiday season to come for us. The QVB Christmas tree is already up – do they always do it so early or are they in a hurry for the year to be over with? (My first reaction upon seeing it was, ‘It’s ugly, I like it!’). Camus also warns of a slow and gradual recovery, with what has passed remaining in our collective memory even if some may wish to stop talking about it – ‘it’s easier to destroy than build’. Ultimately, the plague teaches people to have gratitude for the joys that we do have in our lives.

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