Quarantine Club: Part Three of The Plague

Comments

1

I agree, gloom and doom, but...

This chapter, more than others, had me questioning a certain key element of the novel. We are in Algeria, in the 1940s, and I am imagining the setting. Camus was “Algerian,” but in reality he was “pied-noir” (black feet) or of French descent, a colonist. He was likely at least culturally Catholic in a predominantly Muslim Algeria (97+% Muslim today). And yet when reading the first two chapters I kept visualizing the story in a European Mediterranean setting, not a North African/Magreb setting. My bad there, and now I am reading it with an eye toward an African setting.

And so there are several elements in chapter three that made me a little wary. Camus references what could be described as Muslim tradition – burying the dead separated by gender as a consideration – but doesn’t really talk about other considerations. Muslims must, for example, be buried within a day of when they die. Cremation is haram (forbidden) in Islam, yet becomes a policy in Oran. There’s no discussion of Islamic ritual washing of the dead (although it has been identified these days as a means of spreading C19 in Indonesia, for example, along with attending prayers). Presumably in this North African colonial town the majority of its residents, and the majority of its dead (and of course in the poorer areas) are Algerian Muslims. And yet, there is no outcry reported by the author of practices offensive to Muslims? And Camus plays his colonialist card when he writes that “it was a great improvement on the death-carts driven by Negroes.” Obviously the use of the term “negro” is a reflection of the times (Baldwin used it too, e.g.), but its emphasis on the differentiation of racial category is what is important. Ambulances are much better than when Blacks wheeled carts picking up the dead. The author isn’t black, but he’s in Algeria (although it’s also worth noting that Magreb Africans have lighter skin, generally, than sub-Saharan Africans and sometimes differentiate themselves because of this). The names in the novel are all Francophone. Sure, some Algerians used French names, but where are the African-Muslim names? These characters simply do not exist in the 1940s Algeria of Camus, apparently. Thus, when Camus writes of “fellow citizens” he must mean only his French counterparts – Algerians were subjects, not citizens, except for Algerian Jews (although they had their citizenship revoked under the Vichy regime). I’m curious what the term was in the original French (it’s in the second-to-last paragraph in part three, on page 184 in my English edition). And of course it raises the question why a European novel was set in Algeria in the first place.

Furthermore, in Algeria in the 1940s nationalists had already emerged, yet so far there is no discussion of this. I keep thinking of the Algeria of the Battle of Algiers, but that kind of tension is (so far?) missing. I haven’t read the novel before, so perhaps I am jumping the gun because I don’t know what happens next. But I would have imagined that this would be at least an element in a coastal Algerian town in the 1940s. Camus seems to have written Africa and Islam mostly out of the novel. When writing of funerals on p 174, for example, it’s a Catholic priest giving rites.

So while I continue to be interested in the elements of the novel that mirror our experiences – the importance of “essential services,” the differentiating between the experiences of those with means and those without, vigilantes targeting those they think may be infected (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/29/us/maine-coronavirus-quarantine-tree.html) – it’s also become a piece of colonial literature that reflects a colonialist perspective, which is too bad.

Some good turns of phrase, however: “the long sleep” and “hell-for-leather” – which made me think of Judas Priest. I'll leave those instead of a scariest sentence.

Why did Camus leave out the main characters? I think taking a sort of bird's-eye view of the situation is a way to show the scale of the calamity. Again, the comparisons with our experiences -- defining essential services, vigilantes, etc. -- seem foreboding.

In real life, being able to tell people my wife is pregnant, albeit via facetime and whatsapp, has been a joy. Of course we have known for several weeks but were waiting for a genetic test and an ultrasound. We are super happy despite the circumstances. And being able to tell family and friends seems to have provided them a bright spot too.

2

Hi Christopher,
A) Indeed, Part III was difficult to read. It may well have been titled "Death & After". I believe Camus wanted to jar the reader and that's why he left out the main characters' dialogue. The narrative is suspended intentionally with this bleak chapter. The descriptions are most ghastly.

B) Thankfully, I saw a rainbow yesterday in real life. Whew!

C) I think this the scariest sentance "The corpses were tipped pell-mell into the pits and had hardly settled into place when spadefuls of quicklime began to sear their faces and the earth covered them indistinctly, in holes dug steadily deeper as time went on."

Intense.

3

@1 -- "being able to tell people my wife is pregnant, albeit via facetime and whatsapp, has been a joy" --> wow, THAT is happy-making. Congratulations to you and your family. Thank you for sharing that with us. Thanks also for all these observations and warinesses you articulate so well, some of which had not occurred to me.

4

A) Part 3 is the movie montage segment of this book! It’s quick and gruesome and communicates the severity so efficiently. It does feel like a bird’s-eye view, as though we’re hovering or being pulled through the town, just observing. I love the aesthetics of this part - the heat, and the “foul smelling cloud of smoke,” and the ambulances ringing through the outer neighborhoods. It’s all so grotesque and uncomfortable. Makes me want to take a shower.

B) I received this gorgeous coupon book from writer and illustrator, Tamara Shopsin called “Offline Activities,” full of just that - ideas for ways to spend time offline: https://theiceplant.cc/product/offline-activities/

C) “...the sound of a huge concourse of people marking time, a never ending, sifting drone...filled the town from end to end, and evening after evening gave its truest, mournfulest expression to the blind endurance that had ousted love from all our hearts.” The existential terror is real. Yikes.

5

@3 Thanks Christopher!

6

@1 -- You are quite right. In Camus' best-known novel, 'The Stranger', the man Meursault kills is referred to only as 'The Arab.' He has no individuality, no reality, no life aside from Meursault's ability to take his life. I realize that this is a reflection of the existential anomie of the novel, but to 21st-century eyes -- some 21st-century eyes, anyway -- it's jarring.
Which is why I highly recommend, if you haven't read it already, 'The Meursault Investigation,' a novel published a couple of years back by the gifted Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. In response to 'The Stranger,' Daoud centers his novel on 'the Arab' -- his life, his experience, his mind. In a way, 'The Meursault Investigation' is to 'The Stranger' what 'The Wide Sargasso Sea' was to 'Jane Eyre.' Yet brilliant in its own right.

Christopher, I totally resonated to the mea culpa you began with. I've been doing the same: going from a kind of isn't-it-cool-that-we're-reading-this-now to oh-no-my-god-read-anything-but-this-right-now! But you're right: this is where we are, and mindless fantasy doesn't satisfy.
So to your questions:
A. The first half of Part Three made me think of the section in Roberto Bolano's '2066' which consists entirely of police reports of the murders of countless women, and the weirdly 'objective' language of the reports somehow conveys the horror with extraordinary effectiveness. In fact 'objectivity' is the word Camus uses here: "... so as not to play false to the facts, and, still more, so as not to play false to himself, the narrator has aimed at objectivity." Well, not exactly. There's the acuteness of sentences like the one where the distinction between men "and, for example, dogs" is that "men's deaths are checked and entered up" in a register. (Count that as my response to Question C too.)
But question B, oh yes: The joy of watching via Facetime (her mother holding the phone) as a two-year-old in frilly dress and white shoes splashed her way through every muddy puddle she could find on a walk through Volunteer Park.
@1, by you too in the not-too-distant future!

7

@6 Thanks -- I read the Stranger between high school and university, and I don't think I would have picked up on that as well. But I will definitely check out the Mersault Investigation -- and I'll probably have to reread the Stranger as well. I guess I've got time.

And thanks again!

8

@1 & 6,
Good observations. You know your Camus. One thing I found fascinating is in Part I, there is an actual reference to Meursault's trial. A reactionary political woman cries out a defense of his actions and rails against the Arabic population as well.

The Algeria of the mid-1940s was a very different place and era than today. France after liberation in 1944 like Britain had "won" the war but was very weak. Yet each wanted to keep their Empires. So to me, reading Camus who although Left-of-Center still shows his Franco-centric inclination and displays Algeria as a colony with it's heavy prejudices and restrictions of the locals. At times, one would would never know the events occurred in Africa not Europe. No, that's not a defense of Camus but he was definitely a product of his time.

Still, he was a damn good writer especially, of the human condition under such trying circumstances.

@6 Thanks for the "connection" novel reference. I shall look up "The Meursault Investigation". I recommend a similar one. Read "Ahab's Wife" by Sena Jeter Naslund. It's a novel about Captain Ahab's wife, yes, he was married. Ahab of course, is the skipper of the Pequod of "Moby Dick". Check it out.

9

@8 -- Ahab's wife? The imagination already starts to run riot! Thanks -- will check it out.

10

"I have always believed that a nation is answerable for its traitors as well as for its heros. But so is a civilization, and the civilization of the white man in particular is surely as answerable for its perversions as for its glories".
-Albert Camus

11

A) There are terrifyingly stark realities in Part III. As I read it, though, I felt a strange sort of reassurance, a sense of “Yes, this is how it is.” I experienced that comfort that literature can give us when it reflects our emotions, making us feel less alone. I think Camus left out characters and dialogue to give us a sense of the scope of the disaster and its effects on society as a whole vs. individuals.

B) A beautiful piece of tie-dye fabric brightened my day on Sunday. Quarantine friends, I sew face masks! Would anyone like one? It feels fitting that they should go to members of the Quarantine Club. Chris can vouch for my sewing skills.

C) “It [the plague] was, above all, a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organizer, doing his work thoroughly and well.”

12

A. Since the symptoms of seasonal allergies are uncomfortably similar to first person accounts of the early onset of CV19, part 3 was a pretty grueling read. Doom was looming as I read that section & it was not fun. I love Maaaaags’s description of this section as a movie montage. Brilliant. This was that section where Camus played out vignettes of the horrors running in the background of the character’s individual dramas.

B. In Bellingham there is always a trailhead a few minutes away. The trails aren’t crowded & one can practice “shinrin-yoku” (AKA forest bathing) & social distancing. That & meet ups in the comments section of FB live concerts by our neighbors in the music community.

C. “For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough because love asks something of the future, and nothing was left to us but a series of present moments.”

Pus filled buboes are scary, but this was the nightmare that could actually become our reality. Especially if the election gets hijacked & we find ourselves living through an economic depression in a viral hot zone ruled by a fascist dictatorship.

13

As I was falling asleep last night, I kept thinking about the narrator's bird's-eye perspective in Part Three, and how it kind of matches where we are on "the curve" of covid cases.

@6 & @8 -- Thanks for the recommendations on "The Meursault Investigation" and "Ahab's Wife." Hadn't heard of either of those.

@11 -- Are you kidding? I don't have a mask and would LOVE one made by a fellow Quarantine Club member! What an unbelievably generous offer.

14

First off, Christopher, I LOVE your mini Christmas tree, and that you keep it where you can see it all year. I have a pair of those fake pillar candles with the “flame” that seems to flicker, and I find those really comforting.

@1 - Congratulations to you and your wife! I suspect the grandparents-to-be are over the moon as well. I thought being a parent was wonderful, but being a grandma? Ooh, that’s a whole other level of all the best things.

@11 - I would love one of your hand-sewn masks as well. Can I pay you or make a donation to The Stranger or some other organization of your choosing? (And should I email my address to Christopher?) Thank you for doing this.

And now, on to the questions:

A) Before I read Part 3, I thought, “Oh, it’s a short one — sweet!” Current events seemed to be magnified by the events of the novel, and I was beginning to think it might not have been the wisest reading choice for me in the moment.

Of course, as it turned out, Part 3’s shortness belied its grim density.

@4 - Your image of it as a movie montage, a bird’s-eye view, resonated with me. I felt as if we were ground-level with the characters in Parts 1 and 2, our dread mounting with theirs, and then almost as if we were reading a wrenching narrative piece of journalism about it in Part 3. You’re at a distance from it, and now the enormity of it, and the choices made as the death toll mounts — how to dispose of the bodies, the dearth of opportunities to say goodbye, etc., so tragically mirrored in our time with Covid-19 — pierce the heart in a fresh way.

It is brilliant in its own way, an oppressive overview and “breathing space” before Camus plunges us back into the characters’ lives and exhaustion in Part 4.

B) And now for something completely different— joy! My son has been sharing via videos the progress he and my 6-year-old grandson have made in constructing a cardboard pinball machine with a Ghostbusters theme. This was a gift for Sanjay’s birthday on March 15th, which was the last small family gathering we had before the hunker-down. Speaking of small joys, I discovered in my pre-shopapalooza inventory of my pantry that I had three boxes of powdered sugar, so I messaged my kids to see if either of them needed a box. My son replied that Sanjay loved powdered sugar, and I joked that I should wrap it as a birthday gift. Which is how we ended up with a picture of joy that I’ll email to Christopher, as I can’t seem to paste it here.

C. From Page 176 in my edition: “Many of the gravediggers, stretcher-bearers, and the like, public servants to begin with, and later volunteers, died of plague. However stringent the precautions, sooner or later contagion did its work.”

15

I hope you - none of you - mind that I'm late to the party and jumping into the middle of the story.

For a few years after I earned my last degree I told people that the experience broke reading for me. And it did. It took the death of Kurt Vonnegut for me to pull myself out of that particular doldrum, piick up books, and enjoy them again.

But another thing that experience did for me was provide the capacity to read from a distance - engage or disengage with characters, plot, story arc at will. Maybe that's what felt so broken in me - I lost the capacity to automatically fall into and remain fully submerged in a story. Now it's a skill: I can fall in or keep my balance on the outside. I don't think part 3 was as hard for me because of this skill.

Below is a bowl of alphabet soup with answers to A, B, and C floating around together.

I read this book for the first time when I was 20 - which is now a very long time ago. I am enjoying the re-reading through eyes that have lived a lot more life. Plus: I love Camus; I especially enjoy his cadence, which I recently described as being like Melville on espresso, all of the big ideas and lush descriptions, but faster, in shorter sentences. And Camus haunts me when I read his works. When I've set them down to go about my life, he follows me around, carrying the text, inviting me to return to the reading. He does not leave me alone until I comply. All of which to say I'm down with part 3.

I like the stage setting in the beginning of the section. People are no longer individuals: they share a destiny. Individual viewpoints are gone. And the wind - so often a representation of spirit/god - comes along as an unwelcome and resisted visitor. Add to that the omniscient viewpoint, and the big thing I take from part 3 is atheist Camus lambasting god- whether Christian or Muslim - as being an outrageous, hateful thing that would allow this magnitude of suffering without hope. God is a being who disregards what people (we readers) find most engaging: the characters in the story. Not only does he disregard the individual characters: he visits horror upon horror. And no matter the people's logic, no matter their efforts, god and the plague prevail. That's some commentary on religion/god! To my mind, this is the worst sentence: "Thus the disease, which apparently had forced on us the solidarity of a beleaguered town, disrupted at the same time long-established communities and sent men out to live, as individuals, in relative isolation." Individualism only has value within community *...there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.." ~Melville. In this chapter individuals are taken from us and so is their community. What is left? Just plague.

The person who made me aware of this book club made me smile this week. He even made a Schrödinger joke this morning that had me giggling longer than it maybe should have.

16

@14 A "cardboard pinball machine with a Ghostbusters theme"? That sounds awesome.

I'm thrilled to make a face mask for you, Laura. No payment please, but a donation to The Stranger would be great! Email your coordinates to Chris and we'll take it from there.

@13 I also love your Christmas tree. What a little sweetie. Laura will send you her address, and maybe if there are a few more takers, then you can forward those to me, and I will sew QC face masks. Hooray!

@15 I like the comparison to Melville. I find Camus' nonfiction incisive and profound as well. The quote @10 is probably Exhibit A.

17

Andrea -- aka @16 -- you are so damn lovely to offer to make book-club masks. And to suggest donations to The Stranger instead of payment.
Thank you, and yes, please do add me to the list of wannabe maskees.
Christopher has my coordinates.
-- Lesley (aka The Accidental Theologist)

18

PS to Andrea
@16 --
Since Christopher is working flat out and more these days,
we can maybe simplify logistics by picking up from your porch or mine once you've worked your fingers to the bone.

19

@16 Lesley
@14 Laura

I'm so excited to sew these for you. A porch drop-off isn't possible because I live north of Boston. To simplify for Chris, please email me your info. andreacaswell [at] bennington dot edu.
I'm busy sewing (and reading Part 4) today!

20

(A) I didn't find it especially hard to read. Perhaps because it was short. If it were 50 pages of this, it might be an issue. I appreciated the general descriptions and a look at the town as a whole, and the ability to make comparisons readily to today (for better or worse -- mostly the latter). And I think that's the reason for this section. This is more Newsreel than personal/character-specific. (Did anyone read 1919? I liked Dos Passos's mix of Newsreel clips woven throughout. They give a flavor of what all is happening.)

(B) Going outside and hearing ducks holler at each other. Seeing fluffy ducklings zip through the water and slowly grow up. Feeling the sun. Walking the dog.

Inside, daily videos from Stephanie Anne Johnson (remember her from The Voice?) of her singing & playing guitar in pajamas. She does one song and talks about how she's doing, about 5 minutes in all. It's both beautiful and raw.

(C) "So much energy was expended on filling up forms, hunting round for supplies, and lining up that people had no time to think of the manner in which others were dying around them and they themselves would die one day" (174).

I think this was meant as a good thing -- hooray for distractions! -- but yeesh.

21

@15 -- I'm right there with you on this: "Camus haunts me... he follows me around... He does not leave me alone." The sign of great writing, that it tucks itself into you, into your thoughts, and won't let you be, doesn't leave you.

@17 -- What Lesley said! I am just unbelievably excited to have a mask from you, Andrea, and very touched that you encouraged donations to The Stranger. Thank you a hundred times.

@20 -- Speaking of ducklings, did you see Lesley's video? Not only is she invaluable in these comment threads (posting as the Accidental Theologist) but Lesley, who is probably the most widely published member of the Quarantine Club, also recorded a video for The Stranger's morning series of messages to the city from artists, and hers was about ducklings. Just in case you haven't see it: https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2020/04/04/43328879/a-message-to-the-city-from-lesley-hazleton

22

Response time!

@1 - I hadn't bothered to do much (any?) digging into the background of Camus and setting of this book. I assumed it was a small town in France, probably from the names. I did notice the gender split and thought it odd. With the info you provided, that aspect makes more sense -- but, as you've noted, now there are so many more questions! Thank you for all of that. Also, congrats!

@2 - Oof. Intense indeed.

@4 - Movie montage! That's a great description. And thanks for the offline coupon book link. I know someone that'd be a great gift for. And maybe another for me too.

@6 - Thank you for the additional information. I haven't read The Stranger (well, the book ... not to be confused with our lovely host here), but Daoud's response sounds worth a read. And your viewing of frills & puddles sounds absolutely gleeful!

@11 - (A) Yes, I think this is what I was feeling, and your apt description makes me feel like less of a monster for saying it wasn't incredibly difficult to get through.
("I felt a strange sort of reassurance, a sense of 'Yes, this is how it is.' I experienced that comfort that literature can give us when it reflects our emotions, making us feel less alone." -- Agreed! Well put!)
(B) tie-dye!!!
(C) Oof.

@12 - Yes to online concerts! There was a band I used to see all the time when I lived in North Carolina, that I haven't been able to see in ages. Now they're doing shows every week from their living room, that I can watch online. And others doing short sets or individual songs help form a collective way of us all getting through.

@14 - Narrative/journalism piece -- agreed, and great description. And your chosen sentence? Oof. Yes, I remember that one.
Great idea about the candles. Fake or real, I haven't had candles around for a while, and those sound quite nice right now. Cardboard Ghostbusters pinball machine?! Love it! =D

@15 - "People are no longer individuals: they share a destiny. Individual viewpoints are gone." Yes. So true. I think the latter part vs. some Americans' sense of endless, unfettered liberties is proving particularly difficult for getting people to close up shop and keep away from everyone.

23

@21 - This is lovely! And good to (virtually) meet you, Lesley; and thanks for the link, Christopher. I never would've made the connection. The fluffiness and tweet tweet tweets of ducklings make them seem just so innocent, along with their cuteness. I sent you a picture of the ducklings I've been watching as my "joy" photo early this week -- let me know if you didn't get it. Your post was so morose I thought I'd send it early.

24

I offer this as a favorite sentence: "The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous."

25

Is it just me but the all-year-round christmas tree is a shock?!:) that's from a woman who drinks her favourite matcha latte from a Christmas Cat cup every day lol.

I'm very pleased about the slowing down of reading as came late to the bookclub and reading a couple of other books right now so a slower pace is very welcome! anyways my answers:

A. I didn't find it as difficult as, I think, I was deliberately emotionally detaching myself from the grim descriptions of burials and body transportation - it's just too close for comfort with the current situation. I enjoyed the writing style of this part (if not the subject) and didn't mind lack of dialogue as the descriptive richness of prose helped me to finally get into the book properly. I wonder if the author is taking a bit of a pause to set out the grim context before he gets into a more darker space in Part 4?! I'll find out in the next couple of days:)

B. Thankfully lots of things are giving me joy in lockdown but I have to work on it (e.g. only checking news once a day, meditate, exercise and keep some sort of regular routine each day with activities I enjoye). One of the joyful moments was seeing a family of geese with their cute little fluffy chicks on my run in a nearby nature reserve (I'm so lucky I can do my daily exercise without approaching anyone, if going out early).

C. "He knew, too, that if there was another rise in the death-rate, no organisation, however, efficient, could stand up to it; that men would die in heaps, and corpses rot in the street, whatever the authorities might do, and the town would see in public squares the dying embrace the living in the frenzies of an all too comprehensible hatred or some crazy hope." Scary!

26

Responding late to Week 3...

A) Like other posters above, I appreciated the change in writing style, as Camus makes us focus on the big picture instead of character development. I'm with Maaaaags @4 - "It’s all so grotesque and uncomfortable. Makes me want to take a shower."

B) I just sent Christopher a photo of some dandelions I put in a pretty little glass near my reading chair, along with this note: We are paying our gardener to stay home for the duration and we don't own a lawn mower, so dandelions are popping up. Now I go out each day and and pick them before they turn into those puff balls spreading new dandelions everywhere. It feels not unlike trying to flatten the covid curve, on a more tangible scale. It's a weird pleasure, but I'll own it. :)

C) Scary sentence: "For then coffins became scarcer; also there was a shortage of winding-sheets, and of space in the cemetery." This hit home, given current shortages here, and how much worse conditions are in many other parts of the world, as the virus spreads.

27

@19 - Thank you, Andrea, I’ll email you my info and make a contribution to The Stranger as a way of paying it forward. Plus, my daughter is a 2007 Bennington grad who lived in Kilpat. Small world!