The Plague (Albert Camus)

Blame it on my book club. I had every intention of reading this. . . some day, especially after my principal said he thought it would be a good book to teach. Given current events, I was not going to turn to it anytime soon. But my club, which chooses books by theme, decided to pivot from books about Ireland to books about plagues. Recently, we discussed (on Zoom, of course), Philip Roth’s Nemesis and next up is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. What can I say? We’re a cheery group.

The plot follows a pattern that is now familiar to most, and not just readers of Nemesis. A serious illness emerges, people are unsure, doctors want to do one things, public officials another, numbers go up, panic and misinformation spread – you know the rest.

Given when Camus wrote it, it’s not surprising that there are some World War II undertones here, more in the images Camus creates than in any deliberate or expository dialogue. Surprisingly, given my other experiences with Camus’ works, I was drawn to the characters here, from the man who is revising and revising and revising the first (and only) sentence of his novel to the asthma patient who counts peas to the judge, who is very much changed by the death of his son, a turning point in the novel.

It is after that turning point that the book returns to what is more familiar Camus ground for me. There is a discussion of the true nature of the plague and man’s real purpose. Because Camus has brought us to this point so effectively, the conversations are integral to the plot, not just a philosophical discussion disguised as a story. Also, Camus wisely does not forget his characters and their respective fates are incredibly moving. I had tears both for the characters and for our world.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

Do I recommend that you read it right now? Probably not.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.

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