Self-Healed Physician

An interview with Laura Marris

There are moments like the scene when Rieux and Tarrou go for a swim that have such a lyrical beauty, where I feel like Camus is walking the edge between something being so powerful and crystal clear and simple. But if you're not careful, that can fall flat. I'm trying to find an English that keeps that feeling powerful and monumental, but still grounded in the world in a way that the simplicity of the imagery remains without tipping over into something that's oversimplified.

OR: What did The Plague mean for both the French and English reading publics in the years after its publication? How that has changed over time? What was it like to translate this book about the spread of a terrible disease as a terrible disease was spreading around you?

Marris: The context in France is quite a bit different from the American context because of the slight delay for the translation to come out. The translation of The Stranger was coming out in the U.S. as World War II was ending. That was what made it particularly weird. The French version of The Plague came out in France right as World War II was ending. So that made a lot more sense in terms of the reception and it being a book of that moment.

I would really recommend Alice Kaplan's book on this question, Looking for The Stranger. She really goes into all the details of how that book got published and how it led up to Camus working on The Plague and what different books they were.

I have an editor friend who said that this is a book that's crashed into our lives at this moment. I think that feels very true, especially because it's a strange two-way street of metaphor here. You read in the news about a politician talking about the invisible enemy — using this language of war. Whereas during an actual war, when Camus was writing, he used the language of disease.

You can see that this parallel is still alive, but I think the human aspects of the novel got a little bit overlooked in the immediate postwar context and how it's been taught since then. I think allegory can be tricky. It can be all-consuming. A lot of times I get questions about how certain details fit into the allegory. I think the answer is that they don't, because Camus didn't want to write an airtight allegory. He was really trying to also describe how it felt in the human moment.

Also, he was really trying to write about illness. He'd had tuberculosis since he was 17. His whole philosophy of the absurd — the fact that we die and there's nothing we can do about it — really comes out of his own experience with illness. We now have a chance to look at the book through that lens and draw comfort from it in a way that we weren't before.

One of my favorite weird moments in the book is the old man who leans out of his balcony and spits on cats. That's his favorite part of his day. So we know that things are getting bad when all the cats disappear and the little old man is devastated. Our little routines — the strange ones that we wouldn't necessarily tell everybody about — have also been disrupted. I think Camus has a real wisdom about that and a real wisdom about what that kind of uncertainty and those kinds of absences in our life might feel like.