‘Marriage, to me, is not a chain but an association. I must be free, entirely unfettered, in all my actions, my coming and my going; I can tolerate neither control, jealousy, nor criticism as to my conduct. I pledge my word, however, never to compromise the name of the man I marry, nor to render him ridiculous in the eyes of the world. But that man must promise to look upon me as an equal, an ally, and not as an inferior or as an obedient, submissive wife. My ideas, I know, are not like those of other people, but I shall never change them.’ Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami


The Plague

Albert Camus

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 19, 2014
Category: Fiction

So far exactly one person has died from Ebola in this country: a man who acquired the disease in Liberia and had the misfortune to be turned away from a hospital in Dallas. [It was founded as a non-profit faith-based hospital in 1966; thirty years later, it became a for-profit private business. Typically, that change means greater emphasis on billing --- and a reduction in services for those who can't pay. It's not known how many poor people of color have been turned away since the hospital changed its status.] For the moment, therefore, there is no Ebola crisis in America. But the usual suspects in the megaphone media have ginned one up to the point that many Americans — especially white males of a certain age — believe there’s an imminent threat to their personal well-being. Which it is: as metaphor. And that makes this a good time to read or re-read “The Plague.”

Most readers know "The Plague," the 1948 masterpiece by Albert Camus, because it was Assigned Reading in school.

If you were taking something like 20th Century Thought, you read it in English.

If you were studying French, you struggled through it in the original.

Either way, the pages are, for you, spoiled by the chalk dust of the classroom.

What you were supposed to get out of it is this: The novel is an allegory, ultimately about the spread of Nazi ideology and a community’s reaction to that deadly invasion. It asks: How should people act when faced with a daily threat to life? How can they survive when an arbitrary fate marks some for immediate death, others for a later grave?  What do we owe our neighbors? And, in the end, what does it all mean?

The next-to-last time I thought about those questions was the week after Katrina. We were spending a few weeks on Nantucket, sharing a house with friends. The days were North African, hot and clear. The beach was all ours, which certainly suited our daughter, then in the constantly naked phase. It was great times if you could put the suffering in New Orleans out of mind. I couldn’t. So I read "The Plague." And wrote.

The last time I thought about “The Plague” was after Hurricane Sandy. And what I thought about was the flooded subway system — so flooded downtown that the rats were forced above ground. They breed fast, and they carry diseases, including viruses. More rain we might all have had reason to pick up "The Plague" again.

And now the Ebola “crisis” and the fear of deaths by the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. Clearly “The Plague” has meaning beyond the horrors of Nazism, or Communism, or any system that eats freedom for breakfast. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

The good news: "The Plague" is a better book than the one they talk about in schools. For one thing, it has a remarkably sympathetic narrator in Dr. Rieux, who is first to notice something amiss — rats appearing in unlikely places, their bodies twitching and blood spurting from their mouths. Rieux’s wife has just gone to a French sanitarium in the hope of a cure for her tuberculosis; confinement is much on his mind.

Oran, Algeria — the coastal city where Camus lived in 1942, and his setting for his novel — may overlook water, but its energies are dull and worldly. People worship money and devote all their time to making it. Love flourishes briefly, then dissolves into habit. Government is inefficient and formal; it is slow to conclude that frothing rats and dying people have any connection.

In short, a thoroughly modern city.

Less good news: "The Plague" isn’t exactly fun to read. How could it be — this is the account of a doctor who spends twenty hours a day watching people die. And yet it’s hard to put the novel down, for it describes — with great precision — the stages of this kind of disaster. At first, Dr. Rieux notes, people were "worried and irritated." Their first reaction: "to abuse the authorities." (Sound familiar?) Later, we hear that "officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic." (Where have you heard that before?) "The newspapers, needless to say, complied with the instructions given them: optimism at all costs." (That was back when media conspired with government to keep the citizenry docile. No more. Now media competes to see who can terrify us the most.)

The very good news: The book really achieves greatness in the last 50 pages, where Camus spells out the origin of the plague (it’s in us, in each and every one of us) and what that means for our lives together. There’s great tenderness beneath this savage analysis — Camus applauds "the passionate indignation we feel when confronted by the anguish all men share."

Camus sees the fight against terror as "never ending." But fighting it is our lot, indeed our glory.

“But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”

Can anything save us?

“…a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”

Camus praises "human love," but that doesn’t seem equal to the cruel challenges of malevolence.

He tries again: "We learn in times of pestilence….there are more things to admire in men than to despise."

That message — harsh and lyrical, terrible and ennobling — is worth a hundred bromides from the pundits and politicians who have bludgeoned the airwaves with solutions that solve nothing.

“And indeed it could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended.”

“The Plague” is 308 pages of pure sanity. And, if we are smart, a road map to salvation.

Short takes


I’ve been writing my way into a new book for months. It’s been frustrating: I know the story, I write scenes, but I haven’t quite known what the novel is really about. The other night I was driving to my most unlikely friend’s house in New Jersey for shabos dinner — yes, you read that right — when WFUV played this song. Lights flashed. Pennies dropped. Suddenly I knew why I’m writing this book. And I am beyond psyched. (Contest: What four lines am I thinking of quoting at the start of the book? Winner gets… I have no idea.)

Lori Lieberman: Killing New York Softly

Lori Lieberman says she likes “nothing more than walking my dogs and eating a good chocolate chip cookie,” but if you’ve ever heard or seen her, you know that is just false modesty. This is the woman who wrote the poem that became “Killing Me Softly.” She’s loved in Europe. On Saturday, November 8, it’s New York’s turn — she’ll be performing at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. For tickets, click here.

Staging the Scene: Pick-Me-Ups for the Home

When my family travels with Christina Green Gerry and her kids, no sooner have we lugged our suitcases into a rented house than she moves a few things around. Invariably, the rooms look… better. Now she and her friend Stephanie Moulton are making a business out of pepping up apartments and homes. At Making Home, they “stage” residences to help them sell faster; they also fill empty spaces. If I were an unmarried Wall Streeter with no time to give to a new apartment or beach house, I’d just hand them the key; ditto if I wanted a Hamptons rental that looked just a bit smarter than the rest. They’re New York based, but I’d bet they’d travel a reasonable distance — you wouldn’t have to send the jet.

Reader Mail (Advertisements for myself)

From Paul Zengilowski

My children will turn 19 and 21 in a few weeks and the birthday gift choice falls to me. My wife and I bought them books by the bushel when they were young — some they chose, more often though, we exercised our parental prerogative. That stopped as they entered their mid-teens and felt more confident in their choices than in ours.

I’ve not bought them books in years — with two exceptions. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, was a high school graduation gift. Knowing that having the money talk with them would be fruitless, I passed on to them my financial bible. I’d read it when it was first issued and it has served to keep me mostly on the financial straight and narrow over the last 30 years.

The second exception is their birthday present for this year: The 100 Essentials. Should they read only those two books, I’m confident they’ll enter adulthood with important and foundational knowledge that will serve them well.

from Marcie

You recommended Queen’s Gambit to me when I asked for the most grabable book you could think of. I loved it. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what the dark magic of that book is, but I found it fascinating — the characters, all of them, were like no others I’ve encountered. The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother was so subtle. I love that Tevis never capitulates to cliché or sentimentality. Elegant. Thank you for urging me to read it.