The Beginning of the Plague

I was intending to write two or three more essays about etymological families, and I will get back to these soon, but I got sidetracked by Albert Camus’ great novel, La PesteThe Plague. I’ve read it a few times, and it always catches hold of me. I love Camus’ elegant style, and the story he tells is captivating under any circumstances, but even more as we are still in a sort of plague in our time. So I thought I might write a little about the first few pages of this wonderful novel. Mostly I’m interested in Camus’ style and composition, but I will make a few remarks about translation as well.

I first read The Plague in Stuart Gilbert’s English translation, which is generally excellent, but at some point I picked up a copy in French. My French isn’t great, but Camus is such a good writer that I found I could follow most of it, with help from a dictionary and from Gilbert’s translation. In this essay, English passages are from Gilbert’s translation, except for a few of my own, placed in angle brackets. Sometimes Gilbert changes the order of the words. Sometimes a change can’t be avoided, because the French word order just won’t work in English, but there are passages where Gilbert could have and should have kept closer to the original.

“The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194–, at Oran. Everyone agreed that, considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the Prefect of a French ‘Department’.” “The unusual events” in French is “Les curieux événements”. Camus tells us that the events are “unusual” or “curieux”, but he doesn’t say what they were; he leaves the reader with a small puzzle. The phrases “considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there” translate “ils n’y étaient pas à leur place, sortant un peu de l’ordinaire”. Gilbert has changed the order here; I wonder why he didn’t follow Camus’ order: <they were out of place there, deviating a little from the ordinary>. The phrase “somewhat extraordinary” seems almost an oxymoron, more so than “sortant un peu de l’ordinaire”, which could be translated <deviating a little from the ordinary>.

The most important feature of this first paragraph, I would say, is its tone, but tone is hard to characterize. I would say that the tone is somewhat distanced and dispassionate. The events were only “curieux”; they were out of place because they were a little unusual—as if you might expect the unusual in Paris, but not in Oran.

Many novels begin with an initial sentence which establishes the time and place of the story. Here are three examples of many. The first is from Henry James’ The American: “On a brilliant day in May, in the year 1868, a gentleman was reclining at his ease on the great circular divan which at that period occupied the centre of the Salon Carré, in the Museum of the Louvre.” The second is from Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock: “One afternoon late in October in the year 1697, Euclide Auclair, the philosopher apothecary of Quebec, stood on the top of Cap Diament gazing down the broad, empty river far beneath him.” And the third is from Thomas Pynchon’s V: “Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia.” Camus’ opening sentence is obviously like these, but unlike them in two ways. First, all three of these passages name a character, but the reader of La Peste will have to wait until the first sentence of the second chapter to meet Dr. Rieux. Second, Camus leaves the year of the story incomplete. Camus wants to tie his story to a place and a time, but he wants to avoid a definite historical reference, a reference that could be checked. It may be relevant that, so far as I can discover, there was no plague in Oran in the 1940s. There was, however, a War, WWII, at least for the first several years of this period. Camus never refers to the War (though one of his characters has fought in the Spanish Civil War, just a few years earlier). Is WWII not supposed to enter the mind of the reader? Or is the reader supposed to have the War in mind throughout? An absence can speak loudly.

In the next paragraph Camus describes the ordinariness and the ugliness of Oran—a city without pigeons, trees, or gardens. He goes through the seasons, which, he says, are mostly apparent in the sky: the quality of the air tells you that it’s spring, along with the baskets of flowers for sale; summer bakes the town bone-dry; autumn brings deluges of mud; and only the winter brings pleasant weather. This description of the progress of the seasons prefigures the course of the novel, which tracks the progress of the plague from April of one year to February of the next, with frequent reference to the weather. We see here Camus’ attention to the careful organization of his narrative.

A convenient way of knowing a city, the narrator tells us, is to ask “how the people in it work, how they love, and how they die”—“comment on y travaille, comment on y aime et comment on y meurt”—an elegant tricolon in parallel construction. In Oran, the narrator explains, all of these are done together, with the same frenetic and casual manner—“tout cela se fait ensemble, du même air frénétique et absent”.

Each of the three items in the list—how the citizens work, love, and die—is then described at some length. “Nos concitoyens travaillent beaucoup, mais toujours pour s’enrichir” (<our fellow citizens work a lot, but always to get rich>)—followed by ten sentences; “Il n’est pas necessaire, en consequence, de préciser la façon don’t on s’aime chez nous” (<it is consequently not necessary to detail how they love in our city>)—followed by four sentences; “ce qui est plus original dans notre ville est la difficulté qu’on peut y trouver à mourir” (<what is more exceptional in our city is the difficulty one can find in dying>)—followed by seven sentences.

Camus is using here a rhetorical figure called “dinumeratio”, in which a topic is divided into parts and then each part is elaborated: A B C… A+ B+ C+…. Lee A Sonino gives the following example of dinumeratio in her Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric—she has taken this from Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence, first published in 1577 (my bolding): “There be three things which men do greatly covet, and earnestly follow, riches, pleasures and honours; riches are the nurses of sin and iniquity, pleasures are the daughters of dishonesty, and guides which lead to misery; honours are mothers and nurses of worldly pomp and vanity”.

Some figures are primarily sensuous in their effect; dinumeratio, however, is analytical and intellectual. One might expect that this figure would occur mostly in non-fictional or argumentative texts, but then I have seen several instances in fiction. Here is one from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley (Chapter 4, pp. 35-36):

            “Mr. Yorke, in the first place, was without the organ of veneration—a great want, and which throws a man wrong on every point where veneration is required. Secondly, he was without the organ of comparison—a deficiency which strips a man of sympathy; and thirdly, he had too little of the organs of benevolence and ideality, which took the glory and softness from his nature, and for him diminished those divine qualities throughout the universe.

            “The want of veneration made him intolerant to those above him…. [a paragraph of three long sentences].

            “The weakness of his powers of comparison made him inconsistent…. [a paragraph of six long sentences].

            “The want of general benevolence made him very impatient of imbecility…. [a paragraph of two sentences].” (The word “imbecility” here, by the way, means “weakness” rather than “stupidity”.)

Later in La Peste there is another passage which is nearly a dinumeratio. I have also found an example in the ancient Latin novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius, five (!) in the ancient Greek novel Clitophon and Leucippe by Achilles Tatius, as well as one in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers and some similar constructions in Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and in the thriller Never Go Back by Lee Child. Now that I have my eye out for this figure I’m sure I will find more. The figure shows the narrator’s mind at work, carefully arranging prose in an orderly structure.

All of the examples of dinumeratio that I’ve quoted happen to have three items, arranged in tricolon. The tricolon in Camus’ dinumeratio is particularly elegant: “comment on y travaille, comment on y aime et comment on y meurt”. The second section of the figure, the elaboration of the parts, is also a tricolon, in a sense, because it has three sections to match the initial division into three parts, but Camus has not made these three sections parallel.

The first chapter of the novel has four more examples of tricolon; here are two of them in successive sentences (with my markers in the brackets): “Et notre population [1] franche, [2] sympathetique et [3] active a toujours provoqué chez le voyageur une estime raisonable. Cette cité [1] sans pittoresque, [2] sans vegetation et [3] sans âme finit part sembler reponsante,  on s’y dort enfin” (“And our frank-spoken, amiable, and industrious citizens have always inspired a reasonable esteem in visitors. Treeless, glamourless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there.”) Tricolon is one of the most common of the figures, but somehow its frequency seems not to weaken its effect. Each instance has to be interpreted in its own context, but very often a tricolon adds a kind of pleasing rhythm, both in the sound of the words and also in the structure of the ideas. Often the triad gives the sense that a topic has been completely covered—as in “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.

Now that Camus’ narrator has described the normal pattern of work, love, and death in Oran, he can return to his narrative proper: “Such being the normal life of Oran, it will be easily understood that our fellow-citizens had not the faintest reason to apprehend the incidents which took place in the spring of the year in question and were (as we subsequently realized) premonitory signs of the grave events we are to chronicle”. Here Camus is using a form called ring composition, which takes the form A … A. Rings can be as small as a sentence and as large as a whole novel; the key is that an element from the beginning is repeated at the end, to create a kind of narrative sandwich. Ring composition is often used to mark the beginning and the end of a narrative segment, such as a digression. Here the first A section of the ring is the first sentence—“Les curieux événements…”—the middle section is the description of Oran under normal circumstances, and the second A section is the return to the narrative stream—“la série des graves événements. The ring is clearly marked by the repetition of the word “événements”, but the variation in the accompanying adjective is fraught with significance: at first the events were “curieux”, now they are “graves”.

Camus is almost ready to get his story going, but first he has to establish his narrator’s goals and his credentials. The chronicler, he says, should be objective: he should say “This happened”, when he knows that that is what happened. This narrator’s claim to reliability rests, he says, on his own experience, the experience recounted to him by others, and texts which fell into his hands (“son témoignage d’abord, celui des autres ensuite […], et, en dernier lieu, les textes qui finirent par tomber entre ses mains”—another tricolon). The identity of the narrator, he says, will be revealed in due time—due time will turn out to be the beginning of the last chapter of the novel, though there are plenty of hints along the way. The position of Camus’ narrator—half in the story and half outside—allows him to maintain a kind of distance and objectivity that would not be available if he were saying “I” throughout.

Thus he ends the first chapter—and the second begins “Le matin du 16 avril, le docteur Bernard Rieux sortit de son cabinet et buta sur un rat mort, au milieu du palier”—<On the morning of 16 April, Dr Bernard Rieux left his office and bumped into a dead rat, in the middle of the landing>. This sentence flows very cleanly from the first sentence of the novel: “Les curieux événements qui font le sujet de cette chronique se sont produits en 194., à Oran. […] Le matin du 16 avril, le docteur Bernard Rieux sortit de son cabinet et buta sur un rat mort, au milieu du palier”. The first sentence of the second chapter follows naturally from the first sentence of the first chapter. The intervening material is simply a digression. It’s as if Camus simply divided these two sentences and sandwiched the digression in between. Then in the first sentence of the second chapter the reader, like Dr. Rieux, bumps into the cause of the unusual and grave events—the dead rat, the carrier of the plague.

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