The Plague Revisited – Re-reading Camus in lockdown by Jeremy Page

11 April 2020

Yesterday was Good Friday and also the last day of week three of lockdown. Having resisted temptation for some days – and also because I was working my way through a hefty confessional autobiography masquerading as fiction, now finished – I succumbed to the need to retrieve my copy of The Plague by Albert Camus from its shelf, high above the stairs. That this required me to bring in a ladder from the garden and manoeuvre it through the house seemed somehow to speak to the significance of the act.

I first read The Plague some forty-five years ago when it occupied a place on the French ‘A’ level syllabus. It was, perhaps, the first genuinely serious novel I ever read, and I’d always intended to revisit. On reflection, it seemed strange that it had taken the best part of half a century and the onset of Covid-19 to cause this to happen.

I opened the book yesterday evening and was immediately struck by how familiar the ‘unusual events described in this chronicle’ seemed: both because much of the narrative had stayed with me so closely in the intervening years and because of the parallels with the unexpected visitation of ‘plague’ in 2020. I read the first few chapters and was immediately transported back to the 1970s: a time closer to the imagined events depicted by Camus than to now. This, in itself, was an arresting thought. I was seventeen when I first read Camus ’account of the plague in Oran in 194-. I was a schoolboy, inexperienced in the ways of the world, deeply rooted in my hometown, which (or so it seemed to me then) bore some resemblance to Oran. It wasn’t beyond my teenage imagination to envisage a visitation of plague here. Camus’ novel somehow seemed more ‘real’, less otherwhere than all the children’s books I’d consumed so voraciously. Here was a novel, I came to realise, that might teach me something about how to live in a world abandoned by God (or god).

This morning I got up early, read on. Later, I went out for a newspaper and read an account of the first days of Covid-19 in Wuhan. The echoes of Camus’ novel were striking and unsettling. I’m conscious that I’m limiting my exposure to stories about Covid-19 for fear of being overwhelmed or consumed by them. I read the headlines and occasionally scan the text below. Today I gave up counting how many pages of the newspaper had Covid-related headlines. It was most of them.

In Part Two Camus writes of the consequences of the closing of the town gates for ‘mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one’. The parallels with lockdown are obvious, even if the internet and the many manifestations of social media now allow the separated to have sight of and speak to each other with greater facility. Ironic, though, that the possibility of genuine ‘in person’ communication should now so often be denied just as recognition was dawning that something had perhaps been lost along the way in the rush to embrace online culture and virtual experience.

12 April 2020

Easter Sunday, but an Easter Sunday like no other in my lifetime. I’ve reached chapter 4 in part two of The Plague and it’s hard not to read Camus’ words without a sense that I’m reading our future: ‘At first the fact of being cut off from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace; much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky, already beginning to sizzle in the fires of summer, they had a vague sensation that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events, and in the evening, when the cooler air revived their energy, this feeling of being locked in like criminals prompted them sometimes to foolhardy acts.’ Feelings of foreboding are compounded by a glance at the BBC website, where someone who sounds like a genuine authority on the subject, explains what it will take to put an end to all this. Clearly there is no prospect of any appreciable improvement in the situation any time soon.

We are gaining on Camus’ narrative.

The churches are empty today. At least no one here has to endure the proselytizing of Father Paneloux. It would be good to think you would need to travel to the fringes of mainstream religion to hear victims blamed for the visitation that killed them. It seems unlikely that the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury will seek to identify Covid-19 as an act of God. We should be grateful for this at least.

13 April 2020

Easter Monday. Yesterday I listened to an old Decca recording of Richard Bebb reading Dylan Thomas: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. This morning I have read the extended philosophical exchange between Dr Rieux and Tarrou in part two, chapter 7. Rieux asks Tarrou: ‘Do you know that there are some who refuse to die? Have you ever heard a woman scream ‘Never!’ with her last gasp? … I’ve never managed to get used to seeing people die.’ Camus seems to equate the plague with the Absurd. It is precisely because the Absurd embodies all that is irrational, that, in a godless universe, we are duty bound to fight it, however futile our efforts may prove. Duty bound to ‘not go gentle into that good night’.

So many of the small acts of heroism described by Camus are echoed in today’s media accounts: those accounts I know mostly only from their headlines. And all the while some things carry on as normal. Joseph Grand continues his efforts to perfect the first sentence of the masterwork he will surely never complete: the one that will cause publishers when they see it to cry ‘Hat’s off!’; or perhaps not. Another small act of resistance against the Absurd.

14 April 2020

I’m struck by how absent women are from Camus’ novel. Rieux’s wife is away in a sanatorium in the mountains. Rambert’s partner is in France. Rieux’s mother is a shadowy figure, often seemingly absent when Rieux meets with others at the home he shares with her. Tarrou, Grand, Cottard – all appear to lead lives in which no female presence intrudes. What to make of this? Women, as I recall, were not insignificant in Camus’ own life. I can’t account for it, and certainly there’s a stark contrast with these days of Covid-19 where women’s contributions on the front line are legion, the stuff of everyday news reports. Perhaps this is a weakness of the novel. Very occasionally I have the sense that I am reading a conversation between two positions (or ideas) rather than two people. Perhaps Camus was more comfortable giving expression to the conversations he was having with himself in the voices of male characters than female characters?

16 April 2020

The word ‘quarantine’ leapt off the page when I was reading The Plague today. I realised this was because the word has been largely absent from the discourse of Covid-19. The talk has been of ‘self-isolation’, a collocation unfamiliar to most of us before the crisis, along with ‘social distancing’, and while self-isolation and quarantine are not technically the same thing, they share the objective of keeping the infected apart from the uninfected (or the not yet infected). Is it fanciful to imagine the word ‘quarantine’ has been discreetly avoided? This seems unlikely in circumstances where we are confronted by seemingly more terrifying words like ‘pandemic’ on a daily basis. Perhaps the notion of quarantine speaks to an even darker fear?

18 April 2020

I was struck by these lines: ‘Though working constantly at high pressure, the doctors and their helpers were now forced to contemplate still greater efforts. All they had to do was to carry on automatically, so to speak, the all-but-superhuman task.’ We emerge from our homes at 8.00 every Thursday evening and clap and bang pans for the NHS, and from time to time someone somewhere remarks on the disparity between what we owe so many of these people and what we pay them. When all this is over, I wonder how many of the people applauding frontline NHS workers so warmly will reflect on this disparity and seek to hold our government to account. A government whose members have so often and so consistently demonstrated so little respect or regard for the very people the nation now depends on. Is it too optimistic to hope that, after the ravages wrought by Covid-19, some recalibration of the notion of ‘value’ might be possible? I hope not. I fear so.

I’m approaching the end of Camus’ novel. In my reading I’ve reached the exit strategy which, in the UK of April 2020, is still some way away: ‘This state of subdued yet active ferment prevailed until 25 January, when the weekly total showed so striking a decline that, after consulting the Medical Board, the authorities announced that the epidemic could be regarded as definitely stemmed. True, the communiqué went on to say that, acting with a prudence of which the population would certainly approve, the Prefect had decided that the gates of the town were to remain closed for two weeks more, and the prophylactic measures to remain in force for another month.’ Camus describes the apparent turnaround in the fortunes of the inhabitants of Oran, as signs begin to emerge that the worst ravages of the plague have been seen off, with great delicacy. As ever, his concern is to demonstrate the human consequences of the plague. In their different ways Tarrou and Rieux emerge as all the more heroic for their refusal to judge their fellow human beings. Despite their different motivations, these two men are united in their determination to use whatever resources they have to defend their fellow citizens from the bacillus – to resist the Absurd. This, Camus seems to me to be saying, is the only ethical response in a godless universe. Resistance, not acquiescence.

20 April 2020

Yesterday I finished my re-reading of Camus’ novel. If it hasn’t had a more profound effect on me second time round this is only because my first reading has stayed with me so vividly all my adult life. When I first opened this book I was seventeen. I had only recently had cause to consider the possibility that there might be no god, that humanity might lack an all-powerful saviour. I also had very little awareness of any religion beyond Christianity, and even this was limited to the Anglican account. Forty-five years on, and with most of my working life behind me, my response to the heroism of Rieux and Tarrou is largely unaltered. It was interesting to note that, somewhere in the final chapters when Tarrou proposes to Rieux that they swim in the sea as testament to their friendship and mutual respect, I remembered that this would happen ahead of reading the account of it. In some recess of my memory this curiously moving passage had lingered for the best part of half a century: ‘They dressed and started back. Neither had said a word, but they were conscious of being perfectly at one, and that the memory of this night would be cherished by them both. When they caught sight of the plague watchman, Rieux guessed that Tarrou, like himself, was thinking that the disease had given them a respite, and this was good, but now they must set their shoulders to the wheel again.’

This passage becomes all the more poignant when Tarrou finally succumbs to the plague: ‘… when the end came, the tears that blinded Rieux’s eyes were tears of impotence; and he did not see Tarrou roll over, face to the wall, and die with a short, hollow groan as if somewhere within him an essential chord had snapped…’.

25 April 2020

What strikes me now about The Plague is the work’s high moral seriousness. Camus used the metaphor of plague to explore what it means to be human in a universe where there is no redemption to be had from God. While the heroic acts of Rieux and Tarrou are the most obvious examples in the novel, Camus also foregrounds the less obvious contributions of individuals like Grand and Rambert, who quietly go about their business, doing what they can to mitigate suffering.

Covid-19, too, has its heroes of both varieties. The frontline workers who risk their own health and wellbeing in the service of others. And all those others who quietly get on with the business of doing whatever they can. Resistance takes many forms. Camus, perhaps, understood this better than most.


I read Stuart Gilbert’s 1948 Penguin Modern Classics translation of La Peste. The original text was not available to me in lockdown.