When the first images of the dying were beamed into our homes or on computers and cell phones in early 2020, we were still uncertain about the severity of what would become the COVID-19 global pandemic. In fact, at the time we weren’t even sure if we were dealing with a pandemic at all. The images of the dying, alone in hospital beds, some on respirators, others waiting in an endlessly long queue for respirators, were shocking. How did we end up so unprepared, so caught off guard? The first images of the dead, especially in Bergamo, Italy, a kind of ground zero on the European continent, were unbelievable for those of us living in first-world nations, particularly the United States; after all, that could never happen here. When the virus did reach our shores and began to infect us on every level, taking life after life, decimating entire families, keeping the dying in a state of nearly total abandonment, we could not have predicted that by November 2021 there would be over 5 million dead globally.
As people retreated into their homes under orders of “shelter in place,” many turned to Netflix and other streaming services, along with jigsaw puzzles and board games, to occupy the time. Books, both in print and digital, once again regained a certain popularity – they became a way to connect with others as we were holed up, prisoners in our own homes. Albert Camus’ The Plague once again became a much talked about book, one that captured the fear and isolation of what had become dubbed as the “new normal.” A new context for life was emerging, and once again we turned to literature to help us make some sense of what was happening.
It is impossible to read The Plague now without thinking of COVID-19 and its globally catastrophic and ongoing wreckage. With Laura Marris’ new translation, we have a text for the twenty-first century. I hesitate to write “for a new generation,” as accurate as that may be, because even those of us who’ve read Stuart Gilbert’s translation can find new meaning, new life, in Marris’ extraordinary translation.
Like with other translations, the story has come across fully intact. The Plague still gives us scenes of dying rats and glimpses of the pestilence to come. Doctor Rieux is also not much different from how he appears in other translations. The isolation that soon grips the city of Oran slowly comes into focus as the reader is lead along by the chronicle of an as yet unknown narrator. Of course, Camus’ cast of characters is also there. What has changed is the context in which we read the text. With Gilbert’s translation the reader knew without a doubt that the plague stood for Nazi occupation and the threat it carried on a global scale. Gilbert’s translation is very much of its time, which in no means is a reduction of his skill as a translator. Instead, Gilbert gives us a text that carries over the themes that came to dominate the twentieth century: totalitarianism, two world wars (three, if we count the Cold War), and the ushering in of the atomic age.
Marris’ translation is lush and beautifully executed. Her sense of the poetic within what could otherwise be a novel long out of print, brings us back from the abyss of hopelessness. What struck me particularly about Marris’ translation is her ability to breathe new life into the text without sacrificing the spirit of the original. There is perhaps no better line in the novel that speaks to our current politicization of the plague and its protective protocols than this: “From that moment on, it’s fair to say that the plague concerned us all” (69). Here is Camus’ original : “A partir de ce moment, il est possible da dire qua la peste fut notre affaire à tous’’ (57). And we may be doomed to forever recall those who died alone, cut off and isolated from loved ones: “The sick died far from their families, and the old rituals had been forbidden, so much so that those who died in the evening spent the night all alone, and those who died in the daytime were buried without delay” (184).
Camus’ writing has never been stylistically complex. His style is derived from the American scene, from writers such as Hemingway, Dos Passos, and especially James M. Cain. Marris’ translation brings out Camus’ more poetic side. This is apparent at the start of the novel. Marris’ translation hovers over the city of Oran, like a drone filming the topographical landscape. While Gilbert’s earlier translation describes Oran in much the same way as Marris, there is something flat in Gilbert’s translation when compared to that of Marris whose translation takes flight and successfully brings the reader along on this drone eye’s view. “The city itself is undeniably ugly. Through the outward calm, it can take some time to notice what sets this commercial city apart from so many others along every latitude” (3).
There is nothing extraordinary about Oran, which is described thus: “At first glance, Oran is, in fact, an ordinary town and nothing more than a French Prefecture on the Algerian coast” (3). The coming plague manifests itself in various ways in various people, leaving the city of Oran physically untouched yet irrevocably changed. Camus’ attention to the ancient Greeks is a key factor in understanding this: for the Athenians, the city of Athens wasn’t the polis, it was the Athenians themselves who carried the spirit of the city within them. Marris’ translation, while not neglecting the other parts of the story, restores the profound sense of place we find in Camus’ French. The reader would do well to remember that the person writing this is Camus the Algerian, not Camus the Parisian intellectual. Later, Marris’ translation reads, “In a city built like a snail shell on its plateau, just barely open to the sea, a bleak torpor reigned” (34).
Camus’ own brand of the heroic is wrapped within ordinary people acting heroically when confronted with extraordinary conditions. Doctor Rieux is a medical doctor who refuses to give up, even when confronted with impossibly hopeless odds and being separated from his wife. Doctor Rieux, a man of science, is acting like Sophocles’ Oedipus, as a savior to his own city before he was revealed as the cause of a new scourge. Like an ancient plague, we know that in the wrong hands, and with much abuse, science can be manipulated to dangerous ends.
As strongly as Marris’ translation restores a sense of place, the novel’s main themes of exile and separation are not neglected. The plague cuts off human contact, thereby over time dwindling what it means to be human. We are, after all, social animals, and without contact and interaction, we cease to be as human as we were prior to being separated and cut off. “From the moment the plague had closed the gates of the city, they had lived solely within their separation, they had been cut off from the human warmth that makes you forget everything else” (320).
Something must be said about the end of the novel, especially as we attempt in our own time to come to terms with a relentless plague of our own. Where Camus’ The Stranger ends with cries of hatred “I could only hope that there would be many, many spectators on the day of my execution and that they would greet me with cries of hatred” (129), The Plague ends on hope and celebration.
Amid the shouts that redoubled their force and their span, reverberating for a long time at the foot of the terrace as multicolored bursts rose more frequently into the sky, Doctor Rieux decided to undertake the tale that concludes here, so he wouldn’t be one of those who keeps silent, so he could bear witness on behalf of those plagued people, to leave at least some memory of the injustice and the violence done to them, and to write simply about what can be learned in the middle of scourges, that there is more to admire in humans than there is to scorn. (emphasis mine) (331)
The Camus who wrote The Plague is an evolved version of the Camus who wrote The Stranger. Too much had happened and his life as a writer of conscience, or as a moralist, as Tony Judt and more recently Robert Emmet Meagher have argued, was coming increasingly into focus. Still, the Camus who wrote The Plague and The Rebel was a man who believed in humanity and in the human ability to live despite the absurdity of existence. The plague is only one aspect, one indication of that absurdity.
Laura Marris’ translation of The Plague brings the book into the twenty-first century with a vengeance, reminding us of the relevancy of Albert Camus as an engaged writer, despite Jean-Paul Sartre’s argument to the contrary. In fact, I would argue that it is Camus whose writing we are now looking to for answers, and not that of Sartre’s. In many ways, through her new translation of The Plague, Marris has also restored that Camus to the world.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated by Laura Marris, Knopf, 2021.
Andrew Martino is Dean of the Glenda Chatham & Robert G. Clarke Honors College at Salisbury University where he is also professor of English. He has published on Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Luigi Pirandello, among others. He is a regular reviewer for World Literature Today, and is currently finishing a manuscript on Paul Bowles.
Camus, Albert. La Peste. Gallimard, 1947.
——-. The Outsider. Translated by Sandra Smith. Penguin Classics, 2012.
——-. The Plague. Translated by Laura Marri