Albert Camus' La Peste [THE PLAGUE] – A Novel for Our Times?
Novels have the dual functions of helping us to make sense of, and to escape from, our world.
Two things that are needed by more people than usual as we struggle with the restrictions of social isolation, the fear of infection and an uncertain future.
Not surprisingly we are seeing a boom in book sales, up by a third, especially tales of epidemics, apocalypse and the end of the world
Leading this boom is La Peste [The Plague] written by Albert Camus in 1947, with UK sales up more than 1,000% and in Japan more sold in March than last 30 years combined!
The British publisher of The Plague, Penguin Classics, says it is struggling to keep up with orders. “We’ve gone from shipping quantities in the low hundreds every month to the mid-thousands,” says Isabel Blake, the senior publicity manager.
In Oran, Algeria in early 1940s a plague is spreading. People are dying. Everyone is ordered to quarantine at home as the local doctor works around the clock to save victims. There are acts of heroism and acts of shame; there are those who think only of themselves, and those who are engaged for the greater good.
Albert Camus describes the long queues in front of food shops, the whole town seeming like a waiting room, passengers turning their backs on one another to avoid infection, days marked less by the date than the number of the dead, the only thing left being statistics with the future disappearing from view, the plague has swallowed up everything and everyone.
The Times has recently declared that ‘La Peste shows how to behave in a pandemic.’
Daily Telegraph has published ‘the Albert Camus guide to surviving a pandemic’.
Albert Camus said the novel could be read on several levels and was also an allegory of the French resistance to the pestilence of Nazism and the German occupation during the second world war.
“The inhabitants, finally freed, would never forget the difficult period that made them face the absurdness of their existence and the precariousness of the human condition,” he wrote. “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
Let is hope that we can collectively ‘rise above ourselves’ and build a more caring, inclusive world.