4. On the second version of The Plague, 1942-1944

The influence of exile, separation, and occupation, on the plague symbol

1.

The first major turning point in the composition of The Plague came in late 1942. In August, Camus and Francine left Algeria to visit regional France, staying at the small hamlet of Le Panelier, near Chambon-sur-Lignon, about 40 miles from Saint-Etienne. In October, Francine returned to Oran, to resume her teaching, while the plan was for Camus to follow soon after. He already had a steamer booked to return to Algeria. But then, on November 7, the Allied forces landed in North Africa, and on November 11 the Germans in France responded by closing the French borders, extinguishing the free-zone. Camus was now exiled from Algeria in France, separated from his wife and her family in Oran, as well as from his own family in Algiers.

‘Caught like rats!’ he confided to his notebook that day.

Only after this moment did Camus begin seriously to consider how the war could be refracted through the symbol of the plague, and thereby incorporated into his work-in-progress. His notebook contains a list of references from the Old Testament of the Bible, where each verse conflates ‘pestilence’ with ‘the sword’, plague and war. He published a brief text in early 1943 describing his initial feelings of exile, “Les Exilés dans la peste”, in which the Germans are rats and Nazism is plague. These correspondences are only inferred in the text, however, and in this way the text survived the Nazi censors. A lesson Camus had learned from the excision of the Kafka section from Sisyphus: ideologues lack imagination, and so they struggle with metaphor, reading such images literally. Even here, however, these correspondences are not so narrowly settled in Camus’ imagination. A short time earlier, on the day of the Allied landing, it was the non-Germans, such as himself, which he had described as rats. The image of the plague is shown here to be oppressive, while only a year or two earlier he wrote about the plague as being liberating, an adventure. The point is not that Camus was now choosing one meaning over another, but he was retaining both, and opening up the image to its general ambiguity.

It is during this period 1942-1944 of the Nazi occupation and increased resistance activity in France that is often taken to be the central experience informing The Plague. That Camus began writing the novel – and had already completed an initial draft and outlined its general direction – prior to this period, complicates this view somewhat. A further complication is that Camus’ experience of the resistance during this period was actually more limited, and initially more peripheral, than most general readers of Camus have been led to believe. Camus himself was not a member of an active cell during this period, nor was he involved in any major resistance activities. The most he did was to have published the first of four “Letters to a German Friend” in a clandestine journal in July 1943. The second letter, written in December 1943, when he moved to Paris, was published early the following year. He was, however, aware of resistance activities, and he associated with several figures who were so involved. It so happened that Le Panelier was a hotbed of resistance activities, particularly with hiding Jews, and smuggling them out of France, away from the Nazi and Vichy forces that were rounding up and interning Jews across the country. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Camus first associated with members of the resistance in the region: he initially considered using the same channels as these Jewish refugees, for himself to be smuggled into Algeria via Spain, to be reunited with his wife and family. One of these resistors was André Chouraquia, a biblical scholar, who helped Camus pull together the Bible quotes regarding plague and war. 

Camus finally moved to Paris in late 1943, but only in 1944 did he become involved in editing and working on the Combat underground newspaper. It is difficult to pin-point precisely when this involvement began – one of the necessities of clandestine activity is to try to not leave much trace evidence – but the earliest accepted piece of writing probably by Camus (albeit unsigned) in Combat is in March 1944, six months before the liberation of Paris. It is for these reasons that after the war Camus always downplayed his association with the resistance – not out of false humility, but out of honesty – and whenever he did speak it was to deflect from himself and to put the focus on others who were more deeply involved, were involved for a longer period, and who paid a greater personal price for doing so: ‘if we are still here,’ he later wrote, in a eulogy for a friend killed for his resistance activities, ‘this is because we did not do enough.’

More importantly, however, in The Plague, in the sections which refer to the closest referent to the resistance in the novel – the unofficial, though officially sanctioned, public health squads organised by the character, Tarrou – the narrator also downplays their role: ‘This is why our public health squads, which came together thanks to Tarrou, must be judged with objective satisfaction. This is why the narrator doesn’t represent himself as the overly eloquent champion of a drive and a heroism that he regards as only modestly important.’  

Significantly, this is from the same section of the novel and is the immediate context for the discussion which sets up the concluding remarks of the narrator: ‘Men are good more than they are evil, and honestly, that’s beside the point...’  

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2.  

None of this is to discredit reading the novel in relation to the resistance to the Nazi occupation. It is simply to dislodge this reading from its default centrality, while also opening the novel up for other themes to emerge. One of the more interesting themes which emerged for Camus in writing The Plague during these war years, and which preoccupied him more than any other during this middle period, was separation. At one point he toyed with titling the novel: “Journal of the Separation”.

‘What seems to me to characterize that period best is separation,’ he wrote in his notebook in 1943:

All were separated from the rest of the world, from those they loved and from their routine. And in that withdrawal they were obliged, those who could, to meditate, and the others to live the life of hunted animals. In short, there was no alternative.

For Camus personally, there was the experience of separation from his country, Algeria, and from his wife, his mother, their families and friends. He was isolated in regional France. He had few contacts there, some new professional acquaintances – via his publisher, Gallimard – but no family. During this period, revising his earlier drafts, Camus began questioning the suitability of the character, Stephen, the classics teacher. He replaced this character with a new character, a journalist, from outside Oran, who becomes exiled when the town gates closed. This figure – later named Rambert – separated from the woman he loves, does everything, both officially and illegally, to try to escape the town, in order to be reunited with her. This state of separation characterises other figures in the novel: Rieux, for example, is separated from his wife, as she is outside the town gates when they are closed – an inversion of Rambert’s situation. But other figures – such as Grand and Tarrou – are also living in a state of separation, but due to reasons that predate the plague: Grand from the woman he loves, Tarrou from his parents, particularly his father.

In the new drafts of the novel this theme of separation becomes pervasive, the dominant structuring aspect of the narrative, replacing the Melvillian plague archive. Those who became sick were isolated, and each family member separated from the rest, children from parents, couples from each other. Isolation camps were created and guarded, men and women kept in separate camps. Separation was extended also to include death: people died alone, and as funerals became practically impossible – there being too many deaths to service individual funerals, and living relatives and friends unable to attend anyway, as they were themselves most probably under enforced isolation – those who died were buried, anonymously and quickly, in mass graves. All the while, the plague continued to spread and the death count grew higher. It was at this moment in the drafting process that Camus noted to himself, having pushed this theme to this logical endpoint: ‘So that separation becomes general. All are forced into solitude. In this way make the theme of separation the big theme of the novel’ (emphasis in original). 

For Camus, there was a critical edge to this theme of separation, through which he could put into perspective the everyday world prior to the onset of plague, within the novel, and the everyday world of the reader, outside the novel, the better to judge the weaknesses of its foundations. In his notebooks, Camus contrasted life before the plague with the state of plague itself, which became also a state of some clarity: ‘In the center of an incomprehensible world they had patiently constructed a universe of their own, very human, in which affection and habit shared their days. And now probably it was not enough to be separated from the world itself; the plague still had to separate them from their modest daily creations.’

What this critical perspective reveals, this detachment that the state of separation forces upon individuals, is to what degree the interactions between human beings is predicated upon ‘customary feeling’, in which ‘an element of contingency, a play of circumstances’ enters blindly into most human relationships. But these patterns of behaviour don’t survive the plague, and instead, new patterns are formed. And these behaviours and thoughts require conscious attention, an act of will and imagination, and a constant effort, to create and to maintain. Such vigilance is, of course, difficult to sustain. What interested Camus was not just the way some people struggled to sustain these new patterns of behaviour – which is basically a description of the motivation of each of the main characters in the novel, each in their own way – but to describe also the ways people denied their social warrant and attempted instead to escape their separations, as best they could, under the circumstances, to return to the illusion of ‘normality’, to hold together their ‘modest daily creations’, or else to retreat into hope or despair.

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3.  

What Camus establishes in this context of separation and exile is his rebellious aesthetic, which he sets up against an otherwise consolatory notion of art. ‘Art disputes reality,’ he later wrote in The Rebel, ‘but it does not hide from it.’ For example, Camus noted how there was an ‘excessive use’ of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the literature coming out of the war: ‘Because never have so many lovers been separated.’ He understood the impulse to find solace in this story, because he understood first-hand the basic, human experience behind it. But he also thought its use was excessive where it was deployed to not only deny the reality of the separation, but to also ignore that in this prior reality most lovers had only stayed together out of habit rather than genuine love, a habit that serviced oneself rather than the other person. It was such habits that were not strong enough to survive a relatively brief period of separation.

In The Plague, Camus uses this story to satirise the consolatory approach to art, which services the self rather than opens one up to a reality shared with other people. There was a visiting opera company, trapped in the town when the gates had been ordered closed, who performed daily Gluck’s 18th century opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, always to packed audiences. Then, one night, the performer playing Orpheus collapsed on stage, from plague. It is a moment when classical opera becomes an Artaudian theatre of cruelty: the illusion of art broken by reality. In the novel, two characters who are, each in their own way, immune to such consolations, are present in the theatre the night Orpheus collapses. They watch as the audience, at first concerned with maintaining their decorum, their illusions, slowly begins to file out, before breaking into a panic and pushing past one another in order to escape the stricken theatre. ‘Cottard and Tarrou, who had simply stood up, remained alone facing one image of what life was then: the plague on the stage in the form of a collapsed thespian and, in the hall, a total extravagance that had become useless, in the form of forgotten fans and lacework trailing across the red of the seats.’

Next week we will outline the experience of Camus composing the third version of the novel, during the period 1944-1946, following liberation, and the fundamentally important but often overlooked influence of the post-liberation purge on the ethical structure of the novel.

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While you’re on Substack, check out Angela Meyer’s newsletter, Meyer Literary. A good place to start may be this post about the books that got her through 2020 (yes, The Plague is there).

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