Friday, February 01, 2008
The selection for the Nonbelieving Literati was The Plague by Albert Camus. I really wanted to like this book. I mean, come on. What better selection of literature could there be than a Nobel-winning book? But, I found it kind of dull.
I kept expecting something more to happen. I suppose that's been a theme with these selections. This time I didn't set myself up expecting an atheistic world-view, I just expected more from the story.
I couldn't identify with the time period, or maybe the culture. They had cars, and yet they still had city gates that could close people in? Rats were dying in droves and yet no one thought there might be a contagion? The doctor didn't try to stop people that wanted to break quarantine? The biggest threat to decorum was burying men and women in the same mass grave? Maybe it's the hyper-sensitivity of our time to bio-terrorism, but all of these things seemed unbelievable to me.
I never really bonded with the characters. They seemed nice enough people, I suppose, but they were too reticent. I never really felt like I knew them as people, just as characters. Perhaps it's that I dislike the style of the author. He would begin a scenes with a conversation, and then as if it's too laborious, sum up the conversation by telling the reader instead of continuing the conversation in scene.
For example, my favorite scene in the book is when Tarrou comes to Rieux's house to talk about Paneloux's sermon. The scene is defined pretty well, but abruptly cuts off in places.
"My question's this," said Tarrou. "Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don't believe in God? I suspect your answer may help mine."Then the conversation picks up again. It's jarring and could be accomplished much better by the conversation flowing naturally. It's almost as though the narrator wants to break into first person, but keeps himself in check with some effort.
His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he'd already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God. And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself on Providence completely. Anyhow, in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road -- in fighting against creation as he found it. p. 126 - 127
Despite those objections there are times when the prose is startlingly beautiful. Towards the end as the plague winds down and the people quarantined inside the city are reunited with their loves, Camus writes,
If only he could put the clock back and be once more the man who, at the outbreak of the epidemic, had had only one thought and one desire: to escape and return to the woman he loved! But that, he knew, was out of the question now; he had changed too greatly. The plague had forced on him a detachment which, try as he might, he couldn't think away, and which like a formless fear haunted his mind. Almost he thought the plague had ended too abruptly, he hadn't had time to pull himself together. Happiness was bearing down on him full speed, the event outrunning expectation. Rambert understood that all would be restored to him in a flash, and joy break on him like a flame with which there is no dallying. p. 294 - 295I felt like I was missing something. When I read that it was likely a metaphor for the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, more of the story clicked into place. A human, mortal enemy seemed to fit better than nature itself, though in that enemy some of the impact in the implied theme that there is no control over one's life is lost.
In the end the book made me think, not about the characters or the story, but more about the themes that the author was conveying and that was what made it worth the read.