It's Quarantine O'Clock... three days late. Thank you, Quarantine Club members, for your patience. I have been preoccupied organizing the first ever worldwide silent-reading party—will you join us for that?—but I loved Part Four, I can't wait to discuss, and I am overjoyed by all the pictures you've sent. In the book, I'm happy to be returned to the world of Rieux, Rambert, Tarrou, and even a couple of the characters I enjoy hating. Especially, you know, that one guy. Thank God he finally died!
Just to buy some time so there are no spoilers at the top of this post...
Let's look through the avalanche of photos you sent me—here are seven of my favorite:
I'm noticing some trends here: fireplaces, cats, and ducks. Those are trends I can get behind. Did you see Seattle author Lesley Hazleton's duckling-related message to the city earlier this week? You might enjoy it.
Okay, let's get to it...
Father Paneloux is dead!!! Finally. Sheesh.
Because I'd read The Plague before, I knew this was coming, but it seemed like it took forever this time for the guy to go. You may have been wondering why I made such a big deal about him in Part Two, and it's partly because I knew he was getting what he deserved eventually, so I wanted to make sure you noticed what a doom-and-gloom buffoon he was.
The book is full of magical thinking, superstition, and wrongheadedness, but Paneloux—blaming innocent people for the plague because they were not worshipping his God of choice enough—has to be the worst of the worst.
One thing you probably read right past (I did the first time I read the book) is a sentence right when we first meet Father Paneloux. He's introduced on page 17 in my book, and then on page 18 comes this:
"Oh, I suppose it's an epidemic they've been having." The Father's eyes were smiling behind his big round glasses.
I wrote "?!" in the margins as I read that this time. His eyes were smiling? At his own mention of a plague coming!? You smile with your eyes when you are genuinely happy, when you can't help being happy. Here's a man of God smiling at the misfortune of others. He has to be the villain in this book, right? Not the smugglers, not the guy who spits on cats—the preacher. I love this invention of Camus's, and I have never been happier to see a character killed off.
Cottard is a man of magical thinking, too. His whole thing about how one person can't get two diseases? It's on pages 195-196 in my book, this is Cottard speaking: "Let's suppose you have an incurable disease like cancer or galloping consumption—well, you'll never get plague or typhus; it's a physical impossibility."
Absurd. Cottard's mansplaining of diseases and how you can't have two at once makes me think of all the people succumbing to COVID-19 precisely because they have some other ailment that makes them more vulnerable. It makes me think about two friends of mine (who don't know each other) who both have Stage IV cancer, and are navigating care through this crisis. One of them has a husband who still goes to work every day—and every night when he gets home he strips naked on the back porch, boils his clothes in the wash, and hops in the shower before saying hello to her. Just to be safe.
Tarrou writes in his diary about Cottard (p. 197) that:
He is happily at one with all around him, with their superstitions, their groundless panics, the susceptibilities of people whose nerves are always on the stretch; with their fixed idea of talking the least possible about plague and nevertheless talking about it all the time; with their abject terror at the slightest headache, now they know headache to be an early symptom of the disease...
How many of us have self-diagnosed COVID-19 in the last couple of weeks? I know several people who've been worried that they're not breathing right, and have gone fully into panic spirals, before realizing the problem is not their breathing, but fear itself.
Even Rambert, the journalist, convinces himself at one point in Part Four that he has the plague (p. 203):
[O]n leaving the bar he had an impression that his groin was swollen and he had pains in his armpits when he moved his arms. I'm in for it! he thought... On returning home and failing to discover any symptoms of plague on his body, he had felt far from proud of having given way like that.
This also reminds me of being a gay kid of the '90s and being constantly on the lookout that I was dying of AIDS, even though I hadn't even had sex yet.
In an interesting turnabout, Rambert in Part Four decides that he doesn't want to try to make a break for escape anymore—he doesn't want to leave Oran, he has started to feel like he belongs there, that he has to help. And Rieux, who a hundred pages ago seemed dismayed that Rambert was only thinking about himself and his faraway lover, is now (on p. 210) singing the opposite tune, telling Rambert: "For nothing in the world is it worth turning one's back on what one loves." (Rieux adds: "Yet that is what I am doing, though why I do not know.")
These are dynamic, interesting, complicated characters, and that is what I love the most about this book. You never really know what is going to happen with each of them... just as each of us never really knows what's going to happen to us.
Obviously, Part Four has some tough stuff in it as well: The opera singer dying onstage, the magistrate's son's protracted death, Paneloux's thrashing all night long and refusing to see doctors (way to go, brainiac) before croaking. And then the upsetting stuff with Grand toward the end of Part Four, when he's wandering the streets aimlessly, "looking very queer," acting (on p. 262) like those pirouetting rats from Part One:
Then he spun round on himself and fell flat on the pavement, his face stained with the tears that went on flowing.
But Part Four is also packed with goodness and warmth, and it cuts against the suffering mentioned above.
I was touched reading about Tarrou's goodness (what he learned watching his dad sentence men to death, in particular that man who looked like "a yellow owl scared blind by too much light") and Tarrou's conviction that being in favor of the death penalty is a kind of plague of the mind. And that many people have it. Maybe all people have it.
"Each of us have the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it," Tarrou says on p. 253. His thoughts on how we all can hurt each other without realizing it are both tender and COVID-relevant: "Even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can't stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody."
Tarrou also says, on p. 253:
[O]nce I'd definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to make history. I know, too, that I'm not qualified to pass judgment on those others. There's something lacking in my mental make-up, and its lack prevents me from being a rational murderer. So it's a deficiency, not a superiority.
Oh, Tarrou—I love you. What a gentle soul. With his humility, with his love for everyone, Tarrou is basically the opposite of Father Paneloux.
Also wonderful: What does Camus invent to soothe Tarrou—an evening swim. In the text of the book, it's Dr. Rieux's idea. He tells Tarrou: "Really, it's too damn silly living only in and for the plague. Of course, a man should fight for the victims, but if he ceases caring for anything outside that, what's the use of his fighting?"
So Tarrou agrees to go for a swim to go swimming with Dr. Rieux, and they experience something that none of them have in a while: happiness. On page 256, Camus writes:
Once they were on the pier they saw the sea spread out before them, a gently heaving expanse of deep-piled velvet, supple and sleek as a creature of the wild. They sat down on a boulder facing the open. Slowly the waters rose and sank, and with their tranquil breathing sudden oily glints formed and flickered over the surface in a haze of broken lights. Before them the darkness stretched out into infinity. Rieux could feel under his hand the gnarled, weather-worn visage of the rocks, and a strange happiness possessed him. Turning to Tarrou, he caught a glimpse on his friend's face of the same happiness, a happiness that forgot nothing, not even murder.
They are happy, even though they know how fucked everything is. I love this moment. The author makes it look effortless, balancing all these complexities at the same time.
The other happy jolt Camus inserts into Part Four? More comic relief at Grand's novel's ridiculously over-written first sentence!
When Grand appears to be on death's door, before his unexpected "resurrection," Rieux (on p. 263) takes a look at Grand's manuscript, and sees Grand has composed fifty pages of writing, but: "Glancing through them, Rieux saw the bulk of the writing consisted of the same sentence written again and again, with small variants, simplifications or elaborations."
Hahahahaha. Hats off, Grand! Hats off.
Note: The discussion of Part Five will go up a week from today—so, Friday, April 17—instead of on Tuesday. I fell behind, what can I say. If you're behind, too, you have a few more days to catch up!
A. What do you make of Tarrou's comments about how we all have a little plague inside us? [Roughly pages 245-257.]
B. Are you as happy as I am that Father Paneloux is dead?
C. Which character are you most rooting for to survive till the end of the book?
D. What's your favorite sentence in Part Four?