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Laura Marris on Camus and The Plague

Octavian Report: Can you talk a bit about what The Plague is and the themes that predominate in it?

Laura Marris: The Plague is a novel that Albert Camus wrote during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. It takes place in the Algerian city of Oran. In Oran, a mysterious disease pops up that starts killing off the rats and then slowly it spreads to humans and the city is quarantined, and the people who live in the city have to figure out how to come together as a community to fight this disease and how they personally, and as a group, navigate their resistance to this disease.

For a long time, it was taught as an allegory of the resistance to Nazism during World War II. But of course, when it came out in 1946, that World War II context was on everyone’s mind. I think when we read it in the context of the coronavirus crisis, the disease in the book becomes a little bit less allegorical. It’s definitely not a book that I expected to be translating during a time like this.

OR: What drives Camus to write The Plague and where does it fit in the larger context of his literary work?

Marris: The Stranger came out in 1942, and many of us probably read The Stranger in high school or in college, but that book has much more a negative image of society. The main character of that book has a very flat affect, and The Plague is the opposite of that. The Plague was all about Camus’ ideas of community and resistance and immunity of the herd to an actual disease and also the way that we could develop a kind of cultural immunity to darker forces (like the rise of fascism).

So when The Stranger came out first in English, people were a little bit confused because by then Camus had become famous for being this writer and in the Resistance in France. They were expecting a resistance novel with The Stranger, but they had to wait a little bit longer to get it with The Plague. When Blanche Knopf, one of the founders of Knopf, acquired The Stranger, she said “Oh, I have to buy The Stranger in order to get The Plague.”

Little did she know that The Stranger would sell millions of copies. So, The Stranger was retranslated first. There haven’t been as many versions of The Plague, and the Stewart Gilbert version of The Plague that most people read is very, very focused on the World War II context (which is definitely an important part of the book). But Camus was also ill when he was writing The Plague. He had tuberculosis and was so ill that when he was writing it he was sent to a sanitarium in France. He was separated from his wife to go there. There are some things in the novel that are pretty personal to him as well.

OR: How specifically political do you think it was intended to be by Camus as he was working on it?

Marris: I think it was certainly intended to be political. I think Camus really wanted to write this book as a novel. When The Plague had just come out in France, he actually came to the U.S. and gave a speech called “The Human Crisis” at Columbia. In that speech, you can get the political context that was on his mind as he was finishing The Plague.

In that speech he talks about how it would be easy to say that because Hitler is dead, the snake is dead, the venom is gone. But, he says, really the venom is not gone. These traces of war and hatred are in all these people and we have to work on that. We have to combat that. That, for me, ties very much into the ending of The Plague where he talks about how the virus lives on in paperwork, and it lives on in dressers, and it lives on in all these everyday pieces of life. That’s Camus’ definition of what it means to be politically engaged and to be resisting. It’s not a heroic thing. It’s more like: if we come back to this again and again, and if we have these ways of remembering, then maybe in the future we’ll be inoculated against particular types of hate as they raise their heads.

OR: Why set it in Algeria?

Marris: There’s a funny reason why he set the book in Oran, and then there’s a more serious one. The funny one is that that’s where his in-laws lived: Oran. Camus didn’t like his in-laws very much. They weren’t very nice to him. So he visited the plague on their city.

The other one is the same reason that he writes the date in the beginning of the book as 194-blank. I think he wanted a place where he could write about things that were happening in his own life and happening in France while keeping a bit of a distance from that. I don’t think Camus wanted this to be the kind of book where people are saying, “Okay, but actually that general entered the city of Paris at this time, not this time.” He wanted a pretext to be able to tell some of these stories.

I think also he was thinking about Oran because that’s where his wife was. In the novel, the doctor’s wife is sent away out of the city to a sanitarium to get well; in Camus’ own life, his wife was in Oran and he was sent out of the city to get well. If you read his notebooks, which are great, you can see he almost called the novel The Separated. So that was a very big part of it for him.

OR: What is it like to translate Camus? What are the unique difficulties of rendering his prose into English?

Marris: Some of the hardest passages actually tie back to the separated lovers. Camus there will really stretch his sentences. He’ll expand them. You can almost feel the breathlessness of those lovers; in those moments, they’re just waiting for news of the people that they care about. Camus makes the sentence structure reflect that waiting. You don’t think that those sentences could possibly go on any longer, but they do. That’s a challenge in English. French sentences can take more phrases and clauses than English sentences can. I don’t want to shorten them, obviously. I’m working on ways to make those feel elegant and to capture that stylistic effect of feeling the waiting in the sentences without it becoming overbearing or cartoonish.

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.