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How Albert Camus’s The Plague became the defining book of the coronavirus crisis

Camus’s novel, first published in 1947, has become a global sensation. It is, it seems, the novel for now.

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Sometimes we turn to novels to make sense of our world, and sometimes to escape it. Yet in hard times, we often ask them to do both at once: to make sense of our world, all the better to escape it.

The boom in book sales that has accompanied the global spread of coronavirus reflects, at least in part, this dual yearning. Amid all the new books bought and read, fiction has seen the greatest rise, and some genres more than others: specifically, those stories that relate to our present moment – tales of epidemics, apocalypses and the end of the world.

One book has established itself as the undisputed pick of the pandemic-lit. Since late January, The Plague by Albert Camus – first published in 1947 – has become a global sensation; it is, it seems, the novel for now. In recent weeks, UK sales of the English translation have been up more than 1,000 per cent. In Japan, more copies sold in March than in the past 31 years combined, and at least one bookshop had to ration copies to one per person: people were panic-buying The Plague. Publishers – never ones to let a good crisis go to waste – have rushed out reprints.

Set in Oran, Algeria, during the early 1940s, Camus’s novel tells the story of a town beset by an epidemic and locked off from the world, and describes how a handful of its (all European) residents respond. Published in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Plague – or La Peste – has typically been read as an allegory for fascism. But now the story strikes us in a more literal light: the infectious disease no longer represents the Nazi occupation of France, as it did for many of its first readers, but simply another infectious disease – Covid-19. And we are all, the chorus goes, residents of Camus’s Oran.

The book’s renewed popularity has prompted excited commentary. “La Peste shows how to behave in a pandemic,” a recent article in the Times declared. The Daily Telegraph published “the Albert Camus guide to surviving a pandemic”. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Camus’s ‘Plague’ foretold coronavirus”, while the New York Times treated us to “Camus on the Coronavirus” (it was actually Alain de Botton on Camus). In the London Review of Books, the novel received a 5,000-word cover essay by Jacqueline Rose.

But nowhere has the novel’s resurgence been more exalted than in France, where it has sometimes seemed as if La Peste itself is a vaccine. Reading the book is not a recommendation, but an order: “You must reread The Plague,” wrote the author Salomon Malka in Le Figaro, France’s leading conservative daily, which also published a separate editorial dedicated to “why we are rereading The Plague” (in France, one only ever “rereads” Camus).

In Nouvel Obs, the journalist Elisabeth Philippe described Camus’s novel as “the Bible of our tormented times” and hailed Camus as “the oracle of coronavirus”: “He really did predict everything, step by step.” In Le Point, Kamel Daoud, the Algerian author of The Meursault Investigation (a pseudo-sequel to Camus’s first novel, The Outsider), compared the book to a “survival manual for the spirit”. His article was accompanied by a cartoon illustration of Daoud wearing the book over his mouth, pinned behind his ears, like a face mask.

Can The Plague protect us during a pandemic? During the Spanish Civil War, volunteer fighters found that a book had to be at least 350 pages to stop a bullet. The Plague may be only 279 pages in its original French but, as the world wages “war” against an “invisible enemy”, there is a similar sense that something within its pages will keep us safe, or at least sane. Perhaps, in the absence of an actual vaccine, prescriptions of The Plague aren’t far away.

But no cure for a virus can be perfect. While Camus’s novel is a masterpiece, speaking to our pandemic moment in uncanny ways, its pertinence may lie as much in its shortcomings as in its prescience.

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When more and more infected rats start dying in Oran’s street, and as the first human cases emerge, the virus in The Plague encounters the same complacency as the coronavirus did in many countries: the conviction that nothing so anachronistic could ever happen here. “It’s impossible it should be the plague,” one character says early on, “everyone knows it has vanished from the West.”

But then the evidence of an epidemic becomes incontrovertible and – as with our lives in lockdown – the people of Oran are closed off from the world. Even though the town’s cafés, restaurants and theatres remain open, Camus’s account of these “new conditions of life” is resonant. His characters share our sense of isolation and exile; they struggle with the simultaneous feelings of togetherness, separation and mutual suspicion, hope and resignation. They are exhausted by the “neverendingness” of it all. “After all,” Camus writes, “there was no reason why the disease should not last more than six months, perhaps a year, or even longer.”

Camus describes “the long queues…in front of food shops” – “the whole town seemed like a waiting room” – and the way, on public transport, “all the passengers, as far as possible, turn their backs on one another, to avoid infection”. Soon, days are marked less by their date as by the number of dead – “the only thing we’ve got left is statistics”, one resident laments – and the future disappears from view. “The plague had swallowed up everything and everyone,” Camus writes.

Camus’s observations are astute, but not prophetic: their resonance reflects his awareness that epidemics and pandemics often play out in similar ways across time. He immersed himself in history books about the plague before writing his novel, and his account is so convincing that, in “What is an epidemic? Aids in historical perspective”, an influential article published in 1989, the social historian Charles Rosenberg used the plot of The Plague to lay out the “archetypal pattern” of epidemics.

But a lot more went into Camus’s novel than historical research; it was a deeply personal story. The Plague was written between 1941 and 1947, a period that included not only the trauma of France’s Nazi occupation but also Camus’s struggles with illness, as he suffered from a relapse of tuberculosis in 1942. Both these experiences – endured as one – suffuse the story, and gave Camus a profound insight into how the pathologies of illness and war often intersect.

Just as today we try to make sense of coronavirus through the metaphor of war – waging battles against a disease, rallying against a common foe – Camus sought to understand war through the metaphor of a virus. Camus draws this connection early on. “There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars,” he writes, “yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.”

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Camus – born in Algeria in 1913, the child of working-class European settlers – was first diagnosed with tuberculosis at 17. For someone who had already lost his father during the First World War, before he ever knew him, it served as another early lesson in the fragility of life – a universal condition he would later call “the absurd”. Camus survived his first bout of tuberculosis, but the disease remained with him and, as he took to writing with newfound urgency, death – and its random inevitability – became one of the defining themes in his work.

In 1942, Camus published The Outsider, the story of a man effectively sentenced to death for refusing to exaggerate his feelings (rather than for his initial crime of killing an unnamed Arab on a beach), and The Myth of Sisyphus, an extended essay on the meaninglessness of life. At the time, he was living in Oran, prevented from fighting in the war by his tuberculosis. But when Camus coughed blood again that year, he was sent to a sanatorium in the highlands of southern France. A few months later, Allied forces landed in North Africa and suddenly – like Rambert, the French journalist in The Plague who ends up trapped in Oran, but in reverse – Camus was cut off from both his homeland and his wife.

Camus’s sense of exile ripples through The Plague. With a third of the world’s population under lockdown, it also may be this theme that rings truest today. “Mothers and children, wives, husbands and lovers, who had imagined a few days earlier that they were embarking on a temporary separation… found themselves abruptly and irremediably divided,” he writes. Characters in The Plague cope with the inadequacy of technology, and find whatever consolation they can, trying to remember that “there’s always someone more captive than I am”.

Yet like the heroes in The Plague who bravely fight the virus – Rambert, Doctor Rieux and his friend Tarrou – Camus wanted more than consolation. Living amid a catastrophe of even greater proportions, with reports of Nazi concentration camps coming to light, Camus moved in 1943 to occupied Paris, put his book aside and began working for Combat, the underground newspaper of the Resistance. “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends,” Doctor Rieux declares, in a similar vein. “For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”

By the time Paris was liberated in August 1944, Camus was an icon in France – aged 30, wise beyond his years, a famous author, the editor-in-chief of Combat, and with another bestseller on the way. The Plague, published four years later, immediately became the fable of its tormented times – perhaps of all tormented times. Yet while its success elevated Camus to new heights, in its flaws, the novel also set the ground for a fall.

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Why did Camus set his story in Oran? That is the question that, more than any other, continues to haunt the novel. Yes, Oran had endured several plagues in its history, and Algeria, under French control since 1830, was both Camus’s home and the setting for much of his fiction: a dependable backdrop of sun, sea and ennui. But the absence of any Arab characters in his novel, combined with the failure to note that Algeria was under colonial control, sits uneasily, especially given the novel’s subject: in the guise of a plague, Camus effectively staged a fictional occupation in a country already under a real one.

Apart from a single, fleeting reference to how Arabs live in poverty in Algeria, they are invisible. Camus’s fellow Europeans play all the parts, both heroes and victims. At the time Camus was writing, nine tenths of Oran’s population were Arab. They would inevitably be among the plague’s greatest casualties, yet in the end it is Camus’s pen, not the plague, that ensures that the Arabs of Algeria have been erased.

This adds another, unintended layer of tragedy to The Plague. Upon publication in France, Camus rebutted the criticism that a plague was a poor metaphor for the Nazi occupation, one that absolved the horror of its human agency. Camus said he wanted an abstract metaphor to represent not only Nazism but terror, “whatever face it wears”. But if the plague is to represent political violence in general, colonialism included, then we confront a stark conclusion: the band of resisters who fight the plague so bravely are, as European settlers in Algeria, carriers of the “plague” themselves.

And yet the absence of Arabs in the novel does not diminish its status as a guide to our pandemic – if anything, it adds to it. Camus’s blindness was the symptom of a colonial malaise that runs throughout his fiction, but it also foreshadowed our own conceited response to the crisis. Amid a haughty universalism that said: “We’re all in this together” and “the virus does not discriminate”, the suffering of some became, like the Arabs in Oran, invisible.

In a world as unequal as ours, the virus does discriminate, and policies to address it don’t play out evenly. The World Health Organisation has warned that the rush to redirect health resources towards the coronavirus could send the number of Aids-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa soaring by half a million. The dramatic spike in domestic abuse globally reminds us that lockdown is not a uniform affliction; sometimes the trauma is being trapped with a partner – not, as in Camus’s case, being kept apart.

Camus was aware of the injustices of capitalist inequality: growing up in poverty, he experienced them first hand. He also saw, earlier than most French intellectuals, that colonial subjects in Algeria were fellow sufferers. But racism, sexism and imperialism were often lost in his universalism. “Everyone has it inside himself, this plague, because no one in the world, no one, is immune,” Rieux’s friend, Tarrou, warns towards the end of the novel. It may be so, but nor does everyone suffer from the plague in the same way.

When The Plague was first published, it was an instant hit, selling 100,000 copies in France within the year at a time when books were a luxury. Yet the early critical reception was mixed. Not only was a plague deemed an exonerating metaphor for Nazism, but some readers also saw in Camus’s story (as they would in his subsequent writings) a certain soppiness that was overly sentimental, even apolitical. This mawkish quality is embodied by Rieux’s line, often quoted today, that “the only way to fight the plague is with decency”.

The first criticism missed the mark: the way in which people have related to Camus’s novel affirms his choice not to “specify a single terror, the better to strike them all”. But the second charge – against Camus’s moralism – was more effective, and gathered force in the fraught atmosphere of postwar France.

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As the question of Algeria’s independence dominated national discussion in the 1950s, Camus refused to take a side. His call for a peaceful, democratic compromise – allowing French settlers and Arabs to coexist – seemed as anachronistic as any plague. He cited his opposition to violence to justify his opposition to Algeria’s militant National Liberation Front, and maintained that this colony, where he was born and his mother still lived, was as much his home as any Arab’s.

Once the very image of radicalism, Camus was recast as an oddly conservative figure. He was accused of preferring the comforts of a clean conscience to the messy terrain of political conflict. “Perhaps the Republic of Beautiful Souls should have appointed you as its Chief Prosecutor,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote to Camus, when the pair – once friends – fell out. To many, his Nobel Prize for literature – awarded to him in 1957 – was another sign of decline that sealed his status as a doyen of the elite, rather than a “man in revolt”.

Yet a more tragic, and absurd, end awaited Camus. On 4 January 1960 he died in a car crash on the road to Paris, after his editor had offered him a last-minute lift. He had a train ticket for the same journey in his pocket, and a copy of his unfinished, third-person autobiography in the car. He was 46.

Since then, Albert Camus has regained his aura of cool: as the young philosopher, cigarette pursed between his lips, staring down the absurdity of life and refusing to romanticise what he sees. His shoulders are hunched, his gaze fixed. He’s a man who – as the critic Susan Sontag said – “you want to know”.

“Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death,” Camus wrote in his final novel, The Fall. Today, as populist threats once again loom and an infectious disease runs amok, The Plague’s present popularity would come as little consolation to Camus. But as someone who knew that such plagues never truly go away, nor would it come as a surprise.

This article appears in the 29 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak