Common decency and ‘new conditions of life’: the Albert Camus guide to surviving a pandemic 

One French existentialist novel eerily predicted the current crisis – and the way people act when a pandemic hits

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The writer Albert Camus, watching the empty Parisian streets with a cigarette and a draft
The writer Albert Camus, watching the empty Parisian streets with a cigarette and a draft Credit: Loomis Dean/LIFE

What to read in this new reality of social-distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine? For many of us, taking in the news has become an exercise in frantic scrolling, an effort to sift something tangible from the overwhelming noise. Our worlds have simultaneously expanded and shrunk, taking in dizzying amounts of information from every corner of the globe even though we’re stuck at home. For this reason, books – more than ever – offer the possibility of mental solace.

For some, the answer to the question lies in big projects, like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, or taking on one of literature’s large loose baggy monsters; the novelist Yiyun Li, for example, is offering a virtual book club in which you can read War and Peace with her. For others, fiction might offer a more straightforward escape: a return, say, to the familiar pages of a favourite author or genre.

Escape, though, is not what everybody wants. Sales of the 1981 thriller The Eyes of Darkness have spiked, as Dean Koontz’s story about a lab-made killer virus called “Wuhan-400” excites conspiracy theorists. Ling Ma’s Severance, published last year, is a witty satire that imagines a world in the dystopian aftermath of “Shen Fever”, an airborne fungal infection originating in Shenzhen. It is experiencing a boom in sales. 

So are Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Stephen King’s The Stand, which at the time of writing were both out of stock on Amazon. Meanwhile, Lawrence Wright’s impending novel about an imaginary virus, The End of October, may be the only book to benefit from being launched while coronavirus spreads.

Then there is The Plague. Albert Camus’s 1947 novel is selling in extraordinary numbers around the world. Set in the 1940s in Oran, Algeria, which was then under French colonial control, it tells the story of how the town’s citizens struggle to cope with a devastating bubonic plague. As one might expect of a serious French novel that intersperses philosophical dialogues with descriptions of pestilent rats and pus-filled buboes, it hadn’t hitherto threatened the bestseller lists.

Things have changed. In the UK, with the book sold out almost everywhere, Penguin are reportedly rushing a new edition to press. The Japanese publisher of the novel has taken similar measures, while in Korea, Italy and France, sales are surging, and it has become a bestseller in both hard and digital forms.

Sales of a number of pandemic-related books have climbed dramatically during the crisis Credit: Romeo Gacad/AFP

The same is true in the United States. I wanted to reread the book ahead of writing this, but couldn’t find my old copy. I tried the Harvard Bookstore: no copies, either new or used. I called up a couple of other bookshops in the area. No joy. I checked Amazon and they were out as well. Who are all these people stockpiling mid-century existential fiction? It looked like I had better odds on finding toilet paper. (Fortunately, one of the campus libraries had a copy; I bagged it an hour before they closed indefinitely.)

Camus began writing The Plague during the Second World War. A relapse of the tuberculosis from which he had suffered in his youth forced him to leave Algeria and seek the altitude of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a town in central France. His work on the novel had to be suspended as he joined the Resistance, and it wasn’t until after the war that he returned to it.

The experience of living in wartime France, separated from his wife, Francine, who was living in Oran, was central to the novel, which treats the onset of plague as an allegory for the occupation of France (Nazism was known as “la peste brune”). Yet it isn’t an allegory in the neat way that, say, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Yes, Camus’s novel is about living under fascism, but it’s also about what happens to people under conditions of extremity more generally – of the compromises they make, and how they justify them. Camus didn’t want the plague to be a mere device, and he researched epidemics of cholera and bubonic plague ahead of writing the book.

The action begins with a doctor, Bernard Rieux, leaving his surgery only to feel “something soft under his foot” – a dead rat. Soon rats are emerging from sewers and cellars by the hundred, and dying spectacularly in the streets. In these early chapters, the resonances with our own crisis are jarring. There’s the bureaucratic hesitancy, the lack of adequate medicine and facilities, the instinctive resistance to the enormity of the thing, the inability to see the scale of suffering implied by statistics. The Prefect of the town gets jittery at the mere mention of the P-word.

The Plague remains one of Camus's most enduring novels Credit: AFP

And even when people start getting sick and dying, they can’t comprehend what is coming. “They went on doing business, arranged for journeys and formed views,” Camus writes. “How should they have given thought to anything like plague which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

Only when the gates of the town are shut do the citizens of Oran realise that they need to adapt to their “new conditions of life”, one in which anxiety hums beneath long stretches of “intolerable leisure”. As summer sets in, the heat grows intense. The death rate increases sharply, the silence of the night interrupted only by groans, screams and the clanging of ambulances. Soon, victims are being held in quarantine from their families; next, they’re buried in mass graves. The town teeters on the edge of collapse.

Camus’s characters respond to the deteriorating situation in different ways. Rambert, a journalist from a Paris newspaper, is trapped in the town and becomes fixated on finding a way out, preoccupied with the idea of getting back to his wife in mainland France. The doctor Rieux, by contrast, wades into battle with the plague, even as he fears his wife is dying in a sanatorium outside the town.

At one stage Rambert insists that he must escape: that he can’t give up his love, his happiness, that he can’t play the hero. “There is no question of heroism in all this,” Rieux replies. “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.”

There’s nothing dogmatic about Rieux – in fact, he clearly sympathises with Rambert’s desire to break out – but his example compels others to join him, forming sanitary squads to do what they can in the fight with the plague. Even the priest, Paneloux, who early in the novel delivers a sermon telling the congregants that they deserve what has been visited upon them, develops a solidarity with Rieux: a solidarity built out of suffering.

As such, Camus’s novel is one of tolerance and sympathy. It doesn’t judge its characters’ weaknesses, but it does make plain that when we face something unambiguously evil – be it plague or Nazism – it’s necessary to fight against it to preserve our humanity. And yet, even so, the plague brings out arsonists, profiteers and smugglers. Camus carefully avoids sentimentality.

Whatever those buying it in droves might wish, The Plague is no self-help guide to life with coronavirus. It makes its modest case for decency, but it doesn’t pretend that that won’t come at a cost. Rieux is left scarred by doubt and suffering. If anything, Camus’s novel is a warning to steel ourselves for the long, grim road ahead. 

“The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence,” he writes, “and by reason of their very duration, great misfortunes are monotonous.”