We’ve all had the experience of rereading a book after many years and discovering a different book from the one we remember. The knock-out stunner has become a simplistic dud, or the ho-hum classic has been transformed into a profound statement touching our deepest hopes or fears. What’s actually changed, of course, are the times, and the reader’s experience.
It just happened to me again, rereading Albert Camus’ The Plague after 40-odd years.
Back then, Camus was most famous for The Stranger. I read The Plague after he won the Nobel Prize (1957), and shortly before he was killed in a auto accident (1960) at age 47. The book had come out just after World War II, when devastated Europe was still full of refugees and holocaust survivors, stuck in border camps or wandering, in search of lost loved ones. The U.S.A. was comparatively unscathed. Moreover, we were the good guys, the Marshall Plan saviors of foreign friends and ex-enemies. We weren’t about to call ourselves war criminals for dropping atom bombs on Japan, but we already had a healthy peace movement against ever doing it again. When I read The Plague, we were beginning to come up out of the McCarthy witch hunts, having avoided fatal persecutions. The Cold War dragged on, but we were prosperous, and had not yet heard of a place called Vietnam.
Living in that climate (and still under age 30), I saw The Plague as an allegory of World War II, an indictment of previous wars, and a protest against any future war, which, we feared, would surely turn atomic.
I took note of the various characters and their symbolic roles: Dr. Rieux, the narrator and soft-spoken healer; Father Paneloux, the priest who gives the usual sermon explaining the epidemic as God’s punishment for unspecified sins, then loses his faith; the visiting journalist, Lambert, outraged, trying to escape when the town is quarantined; and the one happy citizen as the death count rises, Cottard, a criminal on the run, who delights in seeing everyone else feeling just as he does in normal times—scared, suspicious of everyone, isolated, grieving, cornered, hopeless.
In that first reading, what had I made of the newcomer to town, the enigmatic, self-exiled Jean Tarrou?
Jean who? I had completely forgotten Tarrou. Even though Dr. Rieux bases much of his narrative on notes from Tarrou’s journal. Even though Tarrou and Rieux become friends and co-workers in plague relief. Even though, near the end of the novel, the two men have a conversation in which, from Tarrou, comes the uncompromisingly moral voice of Camus spelling out his disturbing challenge to us. Had I forgotten Tarrou because the times and my age made me unable or unwilling to take in his words?
Let me quote just a few bits of Tarrou’s statement to Rieux (not enough to spoil the book if you haven’t read it.) “When I was young I lived with the idea of my innocence.” He describes his sudden realization of institutionalized evil in the world—a plague he is determined to devote his life to fighting. Only after many years had passed, he says, he lost his illusions about his innocence and about the true effects of his actions. “I came to understand that I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which paradoxically enough, I’d believed with all my soul that I was fighting it . . . I have realized that we all have the plague . . . I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it . . . each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. We must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him . . . it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be. The good man is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. “
I’m older, feeling less “innocent” in my intentions or actions, and living in different times. Above all I am living in what seems to be a very different U.S.A. Perhaps I’m simply able to take in more of what Camus is telling me.
Read The Plague. I’m not saying it’ll give you any comfort. Read it anyway.