Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aimless Reading: The C's, Part 5.2 (Albert Camus)

The Plague
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Camus, Albert
The Plague

This Modern Library College Edition seems quite old, and is in pretty bad shape. Lots of water damage to the top edge, very yellow pages. I think I actually got this from my parents bookshelf. I don't know to which parent the book belonged, and I'd have a hard time guessing. My parents both read quite a bit, but neither had overly literary tastes in reading.

My father liked to read history and biography and memoir, and had a special place in his heart for books that related very specifically to his own life. He liked to read books about growing up in Brooklyn. I remember a book on his shelf called, When Brooklyn Was The Whole World. He also had a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers called The Boys of Summer. I remember he also had James Cagney's memoir, Cagney by Cagney. 

My father worked his whole life in the automobile industry - first for Hertz, then at Ford Motor Company, where he met my mother, who worked as a secretary in Lee Iacocca's secretarial pool. Iacocca was a big hero of his, and I remember he had Iacocca's memoir on the shelves.

When he read literary works, he tended to read Irish authors. He once bought me a copy of a book containing three memoirs by Yeats, though I don't think he read them himself. He owned Frank O'Connor's memoirs, I recall. Of course, the big Irish sensations of the 90's -- Angela's Ashes and How The Irish Saved Civilization -- were among his faves in the last few years of his life.

My mother, on the other hand, read (and reads)  mostly mystery novels and books on religion. She was a big fan of Tony Hillerman back in the 80's. I can picture a whole slew of religiously themed books, but I can't recall the titles of most of them. I remember she owned the Seven Story Mountain, by Thomas Merton, which I had for while, but never got around to reading, and a copy Augustine's Confessions, which I now own. I remember seeing C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters on the shelf. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid and I remember my utter disappointment upon cracking open Screwtape in the fifth grade only to discover it was not one bit like the Chronicles. Actually, she's a much more diverse reader now.  She tends to read a lot of the big book club picks nowadays.

Other books I can see on my parents shelves:

Or I'll Dress You In Mourning
Alcoholics Anonymous
12 Steps and Twelve Traditions
The Bourne Conspiracy
The History of Civilization
The World Book Encyclopedia 1978

Anyhow, one or both of them read The Plague. I read it somewhere along the way. I have much clearer memories of reading The Stranger, though I think I liked this novel more. This edition has little icons at the heading of each chapter containing a hooded skeleton with what looks like a machete or a sword above raised above its head.

Here's an excerpt:

The Prefect greeted them amiably enough, but one could see his nerves were on edge.

Let's make a start, gentlemen, he said. Need I review the situation?

Richard thought that this wasn't necessary. He and his colleagues were acquainted with the facts. The only question was what measures should be adopted.

The question, old Castel cut in almost rudely, is to know whether it's a plague or not.

Two or three of the doctors present protested. The others seemed to hesitate. The Prefect gave a start and hurriedly glanced toward the door to make sure it had prevented this outrageous remark from being overheard in the corridor. Richard said that in his opinion the great thing was not to take an alarmist view. All that could be said at present was that we had to deal with a special type of fever, with inguinal complications; in medical science, as in daily life, it was unwise to jump to conclusions.

Rieux, who had said nothing so far, was asked for his opinion. We are dealing, he said, with a fever of typhoidal nature, accompanied by vomiting and buboes. I have incised these buboes and had the pus analyzed; our laboratory analyst believes he has identified the plague bacillus. But I am bound to add that there are specific modifications that don't quite tally with the classical description of the plague bacillus.

Richard pointed out that this justified a policy of wait-and-see; anyhow, it would be wise to await the statistical report on the series of analyses that had been going on for several days.When a microbe, Rieux said, after a short intermission can quadruple in three days' time the volume of the spleen, can swell the mesenteric ganglia to the size of an orange and give them the consistency of gruel, a policy of wait-and-see is, to say the least of it, unwise. The foci of infection are steadily extending. Judging by the rapidity with which the disease is spreading, it may well, unless we can stop it, kill off half the town before two months are out. That being so, it has small importance whether you call it plague or some rare kind of fever. The important thing is to prevent its killing off half the population of this town.

Richard said it was a mistake to create too gloomy a picture, and, moreover, the disease hadn't been proved to be contagious; indeed, relatives of his patients, living under the same roof, had escaped it.

But others have died, Rieux observed. And obviously contagion is never absolute; otherwise, you'd have a constant mathematical progression and the death-rate would rocket up catastrophically. It's not a question of painting too black a picture. It's a question of taking precautions.

It comes to this. We are to take the responsibility of acting as though the epidemic were plague.

It doesn't matter to me, Rieux said, how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be.

Followed by scowls and protestations, Rieux left the committee room. Some minutes later, as he was driving down a back street redolent of fried fish and urine, a woman screaming in agony, her groin dripping blood, stretched out her arms toward him.

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