Friday, November 23, 2012

Re-reading Camus

I found revisiting The Plague as La peste considerably more difficult than re-reading The Counterfeiters as Les faux-monnayeurs. I sailed through the first seventy pages or so, then bogged down, though more so in the philosophical passages, some of which are quite long, than in the narrative and dialogue sections. When I referred to Stuart Gilbert's translation, which I kept at hand as a crib (though I mostly relied, heavily, on a dictionary), I was surprised to find that, although it reads well as the English-language novel I first encountered it as some thirty-five years ago, it diverges rather radically from the terse style of the original, even more so than Dorothy Bussy's dated but generally faithful rendition of Gide.

It's hard to read La peste today without very quickly noticing the curious fact that although the novel is set in a predominately Arab country (Algeria), there are virtually no Arabs in it. There are also very few women, and the few that do appear are either kept largely offstage (Rieux's wife) or reduced to entirely passive roles (Rieux's mother, who when not doing housework mostly sits silently with her hands folded, and who is probably based on the author's mother). The half-dozen characters of any consequence — Rieux, Tarrou, Rambert, Grand, Cottard, and Paneloux — are thus all males of European descent. To some extent these omissions are understandable, given what Camus set out to do, which was to write not a social novel but a moral and philosophical one in which the introduction of a social dimension might have been a distraction, although it still might be regarded as peculiar that Camus thought that he could only investigate moral and philosophical matters as they were refracted through one kind of lens.

In the end, however, even though Camus was in fact raised in Algeria and the lyrical passages in the book exude the particular ambience of the city of Oran, the novel is no more about Oran than Kafka's "The Great Wall of China" is about China. That La peste is, at least in part, an allegory about the German occupation of France during World War II has been widely noted, but one could be ignorant of that connection, or even ignorant of World War II, and still grasp the author's essential purpose, which was to consider how one might act in the face of a universe that is not made by us and does not operate for our benefit, but which accords us, or at least some of us, the freedom to make moral choices about how we will respond to that indifference.

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