The Plague
Albert Camus, 1947
translation: Robin Buss, 2001

A while back my district decided to align our school year with the earlier school year of neighboring districts, meaning that we would start in mid-August and wrap up in the first week of June.  That meant that, as we moved from the late calendar to the early one, one summer would be cut uncommonly short.  As luck would have it, this is the short summer.  I’m spending it re-reading a bunch of books and deciding whether to assign them to my classes.  First on the list: The Plague, which seemed like a natural choice in a school year conducted under at least partial quarantine as a pestilence has descended upon the land.  I’d had to read it for English class back in my own high school days, so I knew it was in the pool of standard texts for this level.  But now that I’ve re-read it (though that’s kind of misleading, since the previous time I read it, I was fourteen and got nothing out of it), I’m on the fence.  At first I thought it was a clear no, since most of the elements of literature I will have been teaching my students about are missing.  The plot is minimal: a plague breaks out; the city is locked down; a doctor and some volunteer health workers attend to patients for about 200 pages; the plague abates.  Not too many captivating twists and turns there.  The characters are thin, and while occasionally the narrator focuses on one of them for a handful of pages, for the most part he is more concerned with the people of the quarantined city as a collective, giving us a detached observer’s view of their habits and attitudes.  I could already hear the kids complaining of boredom, and to be frank I found it pretty dull myself.  But the point of The Plague isn’t to thrill the reader with gripping storytelling.  It’s a philosophical novel.  Now, I’ve taken plenty of philosophy classes over the years, and I’ve heard several professors complain about the same thing, e.g.:

[professor sits down in an airplane seat.  Chitchat with the guy in the next seat ensues.  Then:]

neighbor:  So, what do you do?

professor:  I’m a philosophy professor.

neighbor:  Wow! So, what’s your philosophy?

professor: Oh, I work on speech act theory. Right now I’m headed to a conference to deliver a paper on whether narrative is composed of word-fits-world assertives or double-direction declarations.

neighbor:  . . .

neighbor: So, what’s your philosophy?

That is, in academia philosophy is largely about exploring abstruse questions of mental categorization, rather than about promulgating theories about “what it’s all about” and how to live your life.  But The Plague is packed full of the sort of philosophical statements that the guy on the plane could sink his teeth into.  To choose a few at random:  “The general good consists of the happiness of each.”  “Man is capable of great actions. But if he is not capable of great feeling, then he doesn’t interest me.”  “All that a man can win in the game of plague and life is knowledge and memory.”  I can imagine holding discussions or even debates on some of these statements, and I’m sure that quite a few students would really get into it!  …Leaving the rest to complain that they’re bored.  The question is whether any of the other books I’m considering would not leave this group complaining that they’re bored.  Time to read some more and find out.

Oh, one more thing: another reason I was interested in returning to The Plague is that I read that there was a new-ish translation, and I remembered that the translation I read in high school was pretty stiff.  It took a lot of doing to get hold of a copy: it turned out that the new translation was only available in the Commonwealth, and no site would let me buy an ebook version because I’m located in the United States.  Paperback versions could be had for as little as ten bucks or so… but then the shipping was $35.  I finally managed to get hold of an affordable copy from the U.K. via a textbook distributor of all things.  And after all that, it turns out that the new translation is also pretty stiff.  I compared the two to decide which one felt like it was written in more natural English and the verdict alternated sentence by sentence.  But I also compared them to the original French and it does look like the new one follows the source text more closely.  How stiff the original prose is I’ll have to leave to the francophones.

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