24 June 2012

The Plague

On command (so to speak) I’m rereading Camus’s The Plague.  The copy I’m using must be almost forty years old. I don’t remember what might have inspired me to read the book then: I know I had already finished The Stranger during my existentialist years as black turtle-necked, disaffected teen-ager writing happily about the theater of the absurd, and I was at the time moving into my political Marxist period. In not a few years I would have put aside my Ionesco and Albee for my Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton; I read Das Kapital, Volume I, and studied socialism with Michael Harrington and evolution with Stephen Jay Gould at the Marxist School on the Upper West Side of New York City. I was walking home on Upper Broadway from just such a class on the night John Lennon was shot and died.  
And I was this morning engaged in the reading, engaged an apt term for the themes of this novel. The plague had beset Oran, and everyone is finding some means to deal with it or to pretend the plague does not exist. Or they succumb to it. Monsieur Grand, the government official and aspiring writer, after a very long day invites Dr. Rieux to his home to share a drink and to see Grand’s work-in-progress. “Shall I read it to you?” he asks. “Of course, ” Rieux responds. And Grand lifts the first page of the manuscript and begins to read: “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of Bois de Boulogne.” Grand stops reading! Rieux remarks that the opening sentence has intrigued him, and he would like Grand to continue. But Grand says, “That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my minds’ eye . . . the rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!” You see, Grand can’t move beyond the first sentence because he it is not writing the book that he desires but to have written it. He has not the book in mind but the praise that the perfect product that he can’t write will rightfully garner when she should write the book. But Grand will never write his book because he will never get it perfectly right.
I know The Plague is about more than Grand’s novel but the issue of Grand’s novel is a part of the world in which The Plague occurs and about which it speaks. In an imperfect world Grand believes that he can create perfection, and that the critics in this imperfect worldwho are themselves imperfectwill have the capacity to recognize perfection! “Just see what I make of [this sentence],” he tells Rieux, “when all this is over.” But what Grand does not realizewill not acceptis that ‘all this’ is never over.  And so Grand’s sentence will never be finished and the book that should follow from that sentence will never be written.
And that, perhaps, is one thing that The Plague is about: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot concerns what to do in this life while we waitand unless we act (They do not move) we are always waitingthen Camus’s The Plague concerns what to do in this life when we live amidst plague.


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