Seriously dramatic stuff this time out with Albert Camus’ masterpiece the Plague. It’s one of those existential majiggers (although he denied he was such a sort, prefer to be labelled under the absurdity bracket) – you really couldn’t escape it in the 20th century, the philosophy was all over the place. Kind of like the plague used to be.
It was published in 1947 which, in case you’re not up on your recent European history, was right after the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. The plot deals with the town of Oran, which is stunned by the outbreak of bacillus plague. Its inhabitants (led by protagonist Dr. Rieux) contemplate life when a horrible, absurd death is but a step away – it makes for one of the finest works of the 20th century.
Naturally, it’s an allegory for having one’s country taken over by lunatics (along with various other contemplations on life), but the Plague remained a rather prescient piece of writing. Even now, in 2018, you can apply it to your local community, city, country, or planet should you so wish. It’s an exposé of the human condition, you see, but above everything else it’s an incredible book.
The sleepy town of Oran is simply minding its own business when the plague outbreak starts. It kicks off with rats appearing in the streets with blood pouring out of every available orifice. This disturbs local residents, but doesn’t trigger off any concerns about their immediate future. But after a while, the first human gets severely ill and dies. Dr. Rieux is on hand to witness the incident in a quite frightening, if morbidly exhilarating, account of a sudden demise.
From there, Oran descends into a full-blown epidemic. Locals are cordoned off from the outside world and a sense of gleeful desperation kicks in, with some citizens turning to drink, and others going about their duties as normal. But the presence of death is never far away – it’s capricious but unprejudiced. Young or old, male or female, if it gets someone they go through agonising death throes before it all ends.
The Plague is a chilling book, but one that’s also exceptional. We read it for the first time in February 2005 and couldn’t put it down – we’ve since recommended it to many and varied people. It’s a novel that sticks with you for a lifetime, with its key strengths as a story added real weight by Camus’ standing as a leading philosopher of his time.
Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He’d spent his life opposing nihilism, instead focusing on the philosophy of absurdism. His essay the Myth of Sisyphus delved heavily into this and considered why any of us should bother going on in a meaningless Universe – that may sound a bit pessimistic, but Camus was an upbeat sort who promoted a high moral standing and the need to enjoy this one life we have.
Sadly Camus died in Burgundy aged only 46 after a car crash. He’d, ironically, once stated the most meaningless way to die would be in such an accident. This denied us literary addicts a great many more classic novels. He was working on the First Man at the time of his death, but it remained unfinished – the manuscript was thrown out of his vehicle into a puddle of mud. Released posthumously in 1996, his daughter Catherine Camus filled in the gaps. The result is his final work from one of France’s great writers.