READING CAMUS' THE PLAGUE IN THE MIDST OF A PANDEMIC
London Lockdown—things to do.
Firstly you must find your copy of The Plague by great French writer Albert Camus.
Of course you know the fabulous Penguin edition survived the last relocation and is in your current premises somewhere. Of course you can clearly remember the moment you packed it into the wretched cardboard box and decided it was valuable and would survive.
Others did not make this selection process. Others were disposed of. Like the old programs from football games, like the old instruction leaflets, like the books you were gifted by people you didn’t like, that went into the big bag to go out, out to be taken to landfill or out to be burnt.
But not the hyper topical The Plague by the almighty Camus who played football (soccer my American friends) and said “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football” and reminds one instantly of how sport and literature are forever friends. Like John Irving and his wrestling and Mailer and boxing and even now of the totally marvelous The Long Halftime walk of Billy Lynn by Ben Fountain—don’t watch the movie.
But the copy of The Plague is here somewhere. It is not the same original copy that you read back in the summer heat when those late teenage years were sustained by a thirst for art and understanding and you consumed so much, so quickly. Back then you read Hesse and Satre and Kerouac and Updike and Greene and Lawrence, piling them all in on long summer days and then you could look her in the eyes and say do you read Joyce or Thomas Hardy?
You know Thomas Hardy, those books of a disappearing England, where you say Tess or Jude as shorthand for epics across a green and harsh land. Or spill rapidly into her world an enquiry about F Scott Fitzgerald and swish past The Great Gatsby and see if she is getting a seductive vibe by chancing an enquiry “Have you read “The Beautiful and Damned”?
Back then you had first read The Plague and can recall the outline but not the detail and where is it now? Now you want to read it back and see how he saw it then and is it like it is now when fear stalks the streets and men behave like animals inflamed with the need to access certain magical goods.
Here they wanted toilet roll. Yes, the proud and brave British ended up squabbling over toilet roll as the pre plague panic spread. A shameful episode—never to be forgotten. Worse than the fall of Singapore if you know about such things.
In the Camus book it starts with the rats. Yes I remember—a rat and the Doctor and the fear.
I am searching under the bed and in the wardrobe. I am searching in the shed. I look behind the TV and in the cupboard with all the “bits” in it.
It is nowhere to be found.
There are bookshelves. I look on the book shelf.
I have Steinbeck. East of Eden—the dark masterpiece.
Oh no. Next to it a slim volume.
The Plague by Albert Camus.
I shall read it now.
And I sink into a hot bath. The water is clean and I am hoping it will lift off any virus. Will Covid19 just float away, rise off my flesh. Can you ever be clean and secure and they all say “stay safe” but the virus is everywhere and like the fear leaves the aftertaste.
A taste that you don’t forget after The Cider House Rules, like the opening scenes that Eggers wrote of his cancer struck mother in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Now we are spreaders or super spreaders or a potential daily addition to the toll. The number that shows on the graph. Will you help flatten the curve?
Camus writes of the separation, of lovers lives disjointed and the hopeless dreams of escape. There is none. If it was For Whom the Bell Tolls it would be way back then and we could have wars in a foreign land not something that might be drifting around, maybe that bubble there, on the surface of my bath.