Novella a Day in May #18

The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry (2010, trans. Sian Reynolds 2013) 92 pages

The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry is a monologue delivered by a librarian to a reader who she discovers has been locked in the library overnight, when she opens up in the morning. The librarian is middle-aged and frustrated about a plethora of things, including her job:

“Being a librarian isn’t an especially high-level job I can tell you. Pretty close to being in a factory. I’m a cultural assembly line worker.”

She is committed to librarianship however, and throughout the novella her love of books emerges, as does her appreciation of the Dewey decimal system:

“they didn’t just classify by author, they sometimes put books on the shelf by size, or date of acquisition. Now I think of it, the confusion it must have caused. Glad I didn’t live then, I couldn’t have put up with that kind of anarchy.”

The reader remains a silent interlocutor as the librarian spills out all her feelings. Although she claims she has given up on love, you get the sense this isn’t quite true:

 “One of my favourite authors, you’ve already gathered that, is Guy de Maupassant. Now there’s a man for you. Just imagine, he wrote two hundred and ninety short stories and seven novels in ten years. And then on Sundays, he went rowing on the Seine. A real force of nature, eh? He must have had terrific biceps and been fantastically intelligent.”

There are also her unrequited feelings for a regular library reader:

“With that lovely neck of his. It would disappoint me if a man as clever as Martin were to be in love. But you have to be prepared for anything.”

The librarian is a funny and acerbic narrator:

“That’s another reason I don’t go travelling. Napoleon’s always been there first. I can’t stand it.”

She is slightly self-deceiving but she is also wise, sad, honest and above all, entertaining. I enjoyed my short time in her company, mostly because The Library of Unrequited Love is actually about a love that is always fulfilled, over and over: the love of books.

“Book and reader, if they meet up at the right moment in a person’s life, it can make sparks fly, set you alight, change your life.”

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Novella a Day in May #5

Cliffs – Olivier Adam (2005, trans. Sue Rose, 2009) 147 pages

Set over the course of a single night, Cliffs shows the enduring damage caused to the child – now a grown man – of a parent who dies by suicide.

The narrator is sitting on a balcony on the Normandy coast in the middle of the night, gazing at the cliffs where his mother died, while his partner and child lie sleeping in the room behind him. As he sits and smokes, he reflects on his life with his abusive father and his traumatised brother:

“We weren’t supposed to breathe move speak feel. We weren’t supposed to need anything, pocket money or comfort or affection or smiles or advice, we weren’t supposed to expect anything except the slaps, smacks or wallops he dealt out”

Later he meets other damaged souls, drawn together by a mutual recognition:

 “We’ve grown up in fear of our fathers, the troubled silence of our mothers, the empty space formed by abstract, imaginary places, without edge or centre.”

Cliffs isn’t a depressing book; it is a story of survival, of endurance even when we are irrevocably damaged by experience.

 “This way of life didn’t cure me of anything, it was merely possible when I couldn’t cope with any other kind of life, particularly the one I’d just left behind. It was a life of silence, space and absence, of maintaining an acute presence within objects, the shifting play of light, the still motion of water, the perfumes, the texture of the air. It was a life in which I finally found a niche, quiet but peaceful, a body filled with air and fog, a mind completely given over to the noise of the sea and the wind, the company of birds.”

Cliffs is beautifully written, but the beauty in no way detracts from the raw hurt experienced by narrator. It is an intense read, haunting and memorable.

“To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand in the cold.” (Aristotle)

Temperatures have dropped in the UK and I’m writing this after coming in from a surprise snow flurry, while Scotland’s had proper snow, so I think now it’s December & officially winter. My choices this week are suitably wintry in theme, but they’re not a big tome to curl up with on a winter’s day. I’m going through a prolonged novella phase at the moment and these are excellent examples of how much can be achieved in a short space.  They’re small, but powerful.

Firstly, A Life’s Music by Andre Makine (2001, trans. Geoffrey Strachan) which comes in at 106 pages. The narrator is stuck in a snowbound railway station awaiting the Moscow train:

“Suddenly everything is illuminated by a truth that has no need of words: this night lost in a void of snow; a good hundred travellers huddled here; each seems as if he were breathing gently upon the fragile spark of his own life; this station with its vanished platforms; and these notes stealing in like moments from an utterly different life.”

The notes come from a piano being played by an elderly gentleman, tears streaming down his face. When they finally board the train, he tells the narrator his story, and why the music makes him cry. It is a tale of war and persecution, and of shifting identities in order to survive:

“As a result of this fear, and the assiduity with which he copied the actions of others during those first few weeks, he did not feel as if he were engaged in combat. And when he was finally able to relax the constantly taut string within him, he found himself in the sin of a veteran soldier”

Makine is interested in human endurance, in cruelty, in love and in moments of transcendence. He is brilliant at using small moments to illuminate big themes.

“To his surprise he felt himself growing increasingly separate from the wind, the earth, the cold, into which he had almost merged. But more surprising still was this simple bliss: the warm line where the woman’s body touched his own at night. Just this line, a gentle, living frontier, more substantial than any other truth in the world.”

A Life’s Music is a haunting tale written by a master. Makine proves that you don’t need to write at length to create something substantial. Stunning.

Secondly, A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (2012 trans. Sam Taylor 2013) which is only 138 pages long. The premise of A Meal in Winter is incredibly simple, and the themes it explores incredibly complex. Three German soldiers find a Jewish man when they are on patrol in Poland. They do not share a common language with the young man and they take him prisoner with ease . They then retreat to an abandoned cottage to cook their meagre rations on a freezing winter’s day before taking him back to their barracks to be shot.

“everything would be better once it was warmer. Smoking and eating in front of the stove! What could be better? We would smoke while we waited for the bread to thaw and for the cornmeal to cook.”

The focus on essential human need for food, warmth and shelter is a master stroke by Mingarelli. The men are human first, soldiers second. Will they recognise their common humanity with their terrified prisoner and what will it mean if they do?

Mingarelli is excellent at building characters, scenes and atmosphere in a few words, and the desperate situation for all concerned is brilliantly evoked, within a harsh, freezing landscape:

“Sky and earth had blurred into one, and there was no comfort to be found in either. While I packed the snow into our mugs, I wondered again how it was possible that we had once seen so many sunflowers here, and not so long ago either. The landscape had been so full of them, so completely covered, that it seemed their oil must have been flowing like a river somewhere.”

A Meal in Winter is a powerful and moving novella that does not offer simple answers; it has really stayed with me.

To end, I know it’s a  wee bit early for Christmas tunes, but I’ve chosen it because of the excellent snowy outfits. Remember kids: real fur is cruel, and spandex leggings are not suitable winter attire.

“Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister?” (Alice Walker)

October is Black History Month in the UK, so here is a little contribution, two wonderful novels by black women that I want to gush about 😊

Firstly, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (2015), a remarkably accomplished debut novel, set in the years during & immediately after the Biafran civil war.

Ijeoma loses her beloved father in the war:

“Uzo. It was the kind of name I’d have liked to fold up and hold in the palm of my hand, if names could be folded and held that way. So that if I were ever lost, all I’d have to do would be to open up my palm and allow the name, like a torchlight, to show me the way.”

Her mother struggles to cope with her grief and so Ijeoma is sent away, and it is then that she meets Amina. The young women’s mutual attraction is problematic within their highly religious society (not only are they gay, but Ijeoma is a Christian Igbo while Amina is a Muslim Hausa), and so their secret romance is always tempered with the knowledge that they could be torn apart at any moment:

“When our lips finally met, she kissed me hungrily, as if she’d been waiting for this all along. I breathed in the scent of her, deeply, as if to take in an excess of it, as if to build a reserve for that one day when she would be gone.”

Ijeoma’s sexuality forces her to question much that forms the foundation of her life in Nigeria, not least the religion she has been brought up to and educated within.

“Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable.”

Being gay is a dangerous thing for Ijeoma and the threat is very real; at one point a club she is in is raided. The women hide in a bunker left over from the war, but one who doesn’t make it is brutally murdered. Okparanta captures the fallout from the war and the ongoing violence faced by gay Nigerians in a dramatic but never sensationalist way. Under these pressures, Ijeoma tries to lead a conventional life but it unsurprisingly leads to true misery for all those involved:

“I acknowledge to myself that sometimes I am a snail. I move myself by gliding. I contract my muscles and produce a slime of tears. Sometimes you see the tears and sometimes you don’t. It is my tears that allow me to glide. I glide slowly. But, slowly, I glide. It is a while before I am gone.”

Under the Udala Trees is very much rooted in a particular country at a particular time, but it has something to say as well that is beyond the specific. It is most definitely about the continued criminalisation of gay people in Nigeria, and it is also about how all of us have to question the beliefs and structures we are raised within, and find our own way to be free:

“That tethering way in which the familiar manages to grab ahold of us and pin us down.”

This is an accomplished first novel, and Okparanta is a wise writer. She creates beautiful prose, compelling characters and a well-paced story, and she has important things to say about the world and those of us in it.

“Sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.”

I’m excited to see what she does next.

Secondly, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972, trans. Barbara Bray 2015), and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I wanted to read this after seeing Claire’s wonderful review at Word by Word (over a year ago – I get there in the end…) My copy is the New York Review of Books edition, which I recommend for a sensitive, enthusiastic introduction by Jamaica Kincaid.

Narrated by Telumee, it tells the story of her life on the island of Guadeloupe, and the women she is descended from. The opening paragraph is just beautiful:

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane-swept, mosquito-ridden island.  But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing in my garden, just like any other old woman of my age, til death comes and takes me as I dream. Me and all my joy.”

Part One tells the story of her mother Victory, and her grandmother, Queen With No Name, who raises Telumee. Her great-grandmother was a freed slave and her descendants have lives which are hard and with more than their fair share of grief, but also with moments of love and joy.  After her father is stabbed, Telumee’s mother is swamped in grief, until she falls in love again. She doesn’t want her young daughter living with them, and so Telumee goes to live with Queen Without Name:

“Grandmother was past the age for bending over the white man’s earth binding canes, weeding and hoeing, withstanding the wind, and pickling her body in the sun as she had done all her life. It was her turn to be an elder; the level of her life had fallen; it was now a thin trickle flowing slowly among the rocks, just a little stirring every day, a little effort and a little reward.”

Telumee grows up in the loving home of her grandmother but Queen Without Name cannot protect her from making a disastrous marriage. Telumee survives though, and The Bridge of Beyond is a tale of overcoming adversity, of finding strength within yourself that you didn’t know you had, and of drawing on the strength of other women to help you endure.

“Through all her last days Grandmother was whistling up a wind for me, to fill my sails so that I could resume my voyage.”

Schwarz-Bart is a beautiful writer who captures an individual voice compassionately without descending into cliché. I’ll definitely be looking to read more of her work.

 

“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” (Javier Pascual Salcedo)

Last week I looked at politics with a big P; this week I thought I’d look at politics with a small p, the civil servants and bureaucrats that keep the machine turning. Hence one novel about a postman and one about a clerk, and two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault (2005, trans. Liedewy Hawke, 2008) which I first heard about over at Naomi’s blog Consumed by Ink – do check out her review! This novella (108 pages) is a wee gem. It tells the story of Bilodo, the titular mail deliverer, who loves his job.

“He wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with anyone in the world, Except perhaps with another postman.”

He spends his days delivering mail and practising calligraphy, and his nights steaming open the (increasingly rare) personal letters which he subsequently delivers the next day. He is a loner who enjoys the drama of life at a step removed:

“Love in every grammatical form and every possible tone, dished up in every imaginable shape: passionate letters or courteous ones, sometimes suggestive and sometimes chaste, either calm or dramatic, occasionally violent, often lyrical, and especially moving when the feelings were expressed in simple terms, and never quite as touching as  when the emotions hid between the lines, burning away almost invisibly behind a screen of innocuous words.”

Eventually though, he comes to obsess about one correspondence only, that between Segolene, a teacher in Guadalupe, and Gaston, a Canadian poet, which takes place through an exchange of haikus. Gradually Bilodo’s life becomes narrower and narrower as he is convinced he is in love with Segolene:

“Bilodo dreamt, and wished for nothing else; he wanted only to continue on like this, to keep savouring the dazzling dreams and ecstatic visions Segolene’s words conjured up for him. His only desire was that the pleasant status quo might endure, that nothing would disturb his quiet bliss.”

Needless to say, the status quo does not endure. Rather Bilodo’s life starts to rapidly unravel and reconstruct in a way that challenges who he is and his sense of self. I can’t say too much more for fear of spoilers in such a short book, but it is a beautifully written tale that has stayed with me.  Miraculously, Bilodo seems sad and misguided rather than creepy and disturbing.  The haikus are a great touch and a surprising source of comedy as Bilodo tries his hand and fails miserably. It’s most certainly a peculiar tale, melancholy yet playful, and with a truly surprising ending.

Secondly, All the Names by Nobel Prize- winning author Jose Saramago (1997, trans. Margaret Jull Costa, 1999). Superficially at least, this has many similarities with The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. A male loner becomes obsessed with a woman he has never met, and his life is increasingly consumed in the quest for knowledge of her, whilst remaining removed from the woman herself. But All the Names has a very different feel to it, almost fabulist and bordering on the surreal.

Senhor Jose works in the Central Registry for Births, Marriages and Deaths. He thinks of himself as elderly although he’s only in his 50s, and is a reliable, unobstrusive worker.

“the Registry contains a record of everything and everyone, thanks to the persistent efforts of an unbroken line of great registrars, all that is most sublime and most trivial about public office has been brought together, the qualities that make the civil servant a creature apart, both usufructuary and dependent on the physical and mental space defined by the reach of his pen nib.”

However, Senhor Jose secretly flouts the Registry’s rules, by compiling records of celebrities, tracking the events in their lives and using the Registry’s documents to do so. In such a regimented place where everyone follows numerous rules, customs and protocols, the increased use of file documents is noted. At this point though, Senhor Jose accidently takes the file card of a perfectly ordinary woman, and subsequently becomes obsessed with piecing together her life without arousing the suspicions of his monolith employer.

“One of the many mysteries in life in the Central Registry, which really would be worth investigating if the matter of Senhor Jose and the unknown woman had not absorbed all our attention, was how the staff, despite the traffic jams affecting the city, always managed to arrive at work in the same order, first the clerks, regardless of length of service, then the deputy who opened the door, then the senior clerks, in order of precedence, then the oldest deputy, and finally, the Registrar, who arrives when he has to arrive and does not have to answer to anyone. Anyway, the fact stands recorded.”

As Senhor Jose pieces together the woman’s history, Saramago is able to explore enormous themes around life, death, purpose, memorial, memory, the state and individual free will. He does so with such wit and humanity that it is never a heavy going, but rather a careful balance of compassion and absurdity which makes for an unsettling, though-provoking read.

“There was almost an absolute silence, you could scarcely hear the noise made by the few cars still out and about in the city. What you could hear most clearly was a muffled sound that rose and fell, like a distant bellows, but Senhor Jose was used to that, it was the Central Registry breathing.”

To end, I know Pete Burns is singing about vinyl not paper, but there are surprisingly few pop songs about administrative record-keeping:

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” (Maya Angelou)

This week’s post is about novels which build on the untold stories of other novels. This was prompted by last week’s post where I looked at the The Plague by Albert Camus. I mentioned that there were essentially no women in the book but I neglected to say that there is another significant group missing from this Algeria-set tale: Arabs. In The Plague, Camus makes reference to events depicted in The Outsider (L’Etranger):

 “Grand had personally witnessed an odd scene that took place at the tobacconist’s. An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case that had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach”

The Arab killed by Meursault in The Outsider is nameless. In The Meursault Investigation (2014, tr. John Cullen, 2015) Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has given him a name and expanded the events of The Outsider to show the fallout from the murder on the victim’s family.

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“Well, the original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to make
people forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust – an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.”

Told by Harun, the victim’s brother, to a silent interlocutor in a bar, the story brings home the emotional fallout of a person – famous yet anonymous – being killed:

“My brother Musa was capable of parting the sea, and yet he died in insignificance, like a common bit player, on a beach that today has disappeared”

Yet it also questions why, in this touchstone of twentieth-century literature, those in the story and the readers of it do not interrogate what is depicted more:

“the court preferred judging a man who didn’t weep over his mother’s death to judging a man who killed an Arab”

The Meursault Investigation, despite its slim size (142 pages in my edition) is a hugely ambitious work. Obviously it is in conversation with The Outsider (from the outset with the opening line “Mama’s still alive today”, echoing Camus’s opener of “Mother died today”) but it is using this a starting point to explore issues around colonialism, post-colonialism, language (Daoud writes in French, not Arabic):

 “I’m going to take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language. The murderer’s words and expressions are my unclaimed goods. Besides, the country’s littered with words that don’t belong to anyone anymore. You see them on the facades of old stores, in yellowing books, on people’s faces, or transformed by the strange creole decolonisation produces.”

 Big themes, but Daoud explores them with a lightness of touch and a dry humour which stops it becoming unbearably heavy. Like Camus, he raises questions without offering trite answers. A worthy companion to the classic which inspired it.

 “I’m philosophising? Yes, yes I am. Your hero had a good understanding of that sort of thing; whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher, the only one he ought to ask. All the rest is chit chat. However, I’m only a man sitting in a bar. It’s the end of the day, the stars are coming out one by one, and the night has already given the sky a positively exhilarating depth.”

Both the books I’ve picked this week are quite serious, so let’s pause and spend some time with a drunk raconteur slightly less coherent than Harun:

Secondly, March by Geraldine Brooks (2006) the story of the missing father in Little Women, which won the Pulitzer. Prize-winning novels can be a mixed bag, and leave me feeling more than a little peevish*, wondering if the judges and I have even read the same book. Not in this instance, as March is both beautifully written and very readable.  But firstly, I need to get something off my chest. This is my edition:

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That Richard and Judy Book Club sticker is permanent. PERMANENT. O monstrous disfigurement! Removable stickers are bad enough: they’re not really removable, they leave a sticky mess and no matter how much I scrub, even if the sticky bit goes, there’s always a weird, oleaginous*disc-shaped mark left on the cover. They never tell me anything I want to know – in this case, that I’m reading something recommended by Richard and Judy. Why, publishers? WHY? No-one wants this! NO-ONE.

*deep breath*

 Back to March, which gives voice to the absent father in Little Women, and the year he spends away from home fighting in the American Civil War. A man of strong convictions who sees his family’s poverty as part of a wider cause and follows a vegan diet meaning all his little women have to do the same, he begins the war with ideals challenged but intact:

“If war can ever be said to be just, then this war is so; it is action for a moral cause, with the most rigorous of intellectual underpinnings. And yet everywhere I turn, I see injustice done in the waging of it.”

Brooks does not pull her punches on these injustices; at times March was harsh reading. March reflects on his life and how he has come to be involved in the fighting, which includes a violent awakening to the horrors of slavery. Unsurprisingly, the horrors continue during the conflict and March has to take difficult decisions that challenge his beliefs not only in social justice and moral causes, but in who he is as a man. At the same time, the portrait of Marmee is extended and complicated beyond the source novel. She is angry:

“I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with.”

Although Brooks doesn’t dwell on this, there is also the suggestion that Marmee is racist. Despite participating in the underground railway and supporting emancipation, when she arrives in Washington to see her husband and encounters free black people, she wonders: “are there no end to these people?” A bold move by Brooks, but one that results in flawed, complex characters who are wholly believable.

March is a sad book, but not depressing. Ultimately it is about endurance, against the odds, and how we hold together even when feeling utterly broken. Like Little Women, it is also about family, whether they are physically with us or not:

 “One day I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was…that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was he was meant to do”

To end, what my own family sadly lacks is a catchy theme tune:

* Following last week’s post comments: today’s blog post was brought to you by the words peevish and oleaginous, thanks to Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest  🙂

“The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.” (Humphrey Bogart)

This post is my contribution to the 1947 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book, do check out their blogs and join in!

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Firstly, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes, which I was inspired to pick up after reading Jacqui’s excellent review. Dix Steele is a war veteran who has recently moved to LA. He runs into one of his army buddies, Brub, who updates Dix on his career choice since the army:

“He came sharply into focus. The word had been a cold spear deliberately thrust into his brain. He heard his voice speak the cold, hard word. ‘Policeman?’ But they didn’t notice anything. They thought him surprised, as he was, more than surprised, startled and shocked.”

Why the problem with Brub being a policeman? Brub is investigating a strangler who is terrorising the young women of the city. Dix is intrigued by this and carefully questions his friend on the investigation, gleaning as much information as he dare. The third-person narration is from Dix’s point of view and we are privy to his disturbing thoughts, including his attitude to the strangler’s latest victim:

“The only exciting thing that had ever happened to her was to be raped and murdered. Even then she’d only been subbing for someone else.”

It emerges then, that Dix is a deeply disturbed human being.  He is filled with anger, and feels alienated from the rich society of LA (although he is staying in a stylish apartment loaned from a friend, whose car, clothes and accounts he has also appropriated) and from the marital happiness he sees between Brub and his wife, although he is dating a beautiful actress, Laurel Gray:

“To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

In a Lonely Place works well as thriller, it is tightly written and the narrative tension is maintained. However, like Highsmith’s Ripley novels, it also works extremely well as a character study of a complex human being. Dix is not likeable, but at the same time he is damaged and lonely, unable to see a way out of his desperation.

“He was there for a long time. Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn at sea. Lost in a lonely place. And the red knots tightened in his brain.”

I thought I knew the story as I had studied the 1950 film at university, but in fact the film is very different. It is a wonderful film noir, and because of the significant plot changes, it doesn’t matter which you experience first. I recommend both the book and the film of In a Lonely Place:

Secondly The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus, which I read in the English translation by Stuart Gilbert (1948). Set in the Algerian coastal city of Oran, it is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. The story begins with the rats of the city gruesomely dying in abundance.

“It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humours – thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core”

Yuck,yuck,yuck. Told by a narrator who doesn’t identify himself (there are no women in this tale) until the end, The Plague recounts the experience of Dr Rieux who works treating the victims; Grand, who works on his novel but never gets beyond constantly re-writing the first line; Cottard, who is suicidal before the plague but reinvigorated by the outbreak; Rambert who was only visiting Oran for work but now finds himself trapped, and a handful of other citizens. The Plague is told in a deceptively simple style, and captures the oppressive atmosphere of a town trapped in quarantine, where you might die at any moment:

“Thus, in a middle course between these heights and depths, they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.”

Amongst this desperation there is also surprising humour (Camus was associated with absurdism):

“One of the cafes had the brilliant idea of putting up a slogan: ‘The best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine’, which confirmed an already prevalent opinion that alcohol is a safeguard against infectious disease.”

And with regard to the officials of the town:

“That, in fact, was what struck one most – the excellence of their intentions. But as regards plague their competence was practically nil.”

Yet of course this was written by one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, and so there is more to this tale than the plague in Oran. It has been read as an allegory for French resistance to Nazism but it is wider than any one reading.

“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.”

While they don’t give in, the reactions to the plague by the characters are various but also oddly subdued – there is very little panic or revolt. The desperation is quiet but Camus shows the tragedy of this as life goes on under the shadow of an indiscriminate threat: “the habit of despair is worse than despair itself”.

The Plague is a remarkable novel, straightforward yet complex, that would lend itself to repeated re-readings, and which is both bleak yet hopeful. Thus when Camus writes:

 “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it”

He is pointing out the common humanity which unites as well as the plague of existence.

I don’t want to end a blog post with the phrase ‘plague of existence’ so instead I’ll end it with the phrase chuckles of stardust.

… and a song written in 1947 (this performance from 1962) which suggests it’s all OK really: