Deep Emotion, Plain Speech: Camus’s The Plague


On Language

Mur de la Peste, Lagnes. Photograph by Marianne Casamance, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Plague was not an easy book to write. Camus was ill when he began it, then trapped by the borders keeping him in Nazi-occupied France. Aside from these difficulties, there was the pressure of authentically speaking up about the violence of World War II without falling into the nationalist heroics he deplored. Like with most problems in art, the solution was to address it directly: in one of the most revelatory sections of the novel, the character Tarrou blurs the line between fancy rhetoric and violence. “I’ve heard so much reasoning that almost turned my head,” he says, “and which had turned enough other heads to make them consent to killing, and I understood that all human sorrow came from not keeping language clear.”

All human sorrow! The boldness of this claim hints at how much Camus believed in words. The Plague is full of people who struggle to clarify their language and strain to make it more precise: Grand, Rambert, Paneloux, and even Rieux all try—and often fail—to express their deepest feelings through words. But in writing, Camus manages to develop a style that encapsulates feeling within the sentence structures themselves—a kind of syntax that captures deep emotion in plain speech.

For example, the first time Rambert tries to get out of the city, the smugglers who might help him escape don’t show up, and he despairs at the thought of having to retrace his steps:

At that moment, in the night spanned by fugitive ambulances, he realized, as he would come to tell Doctor Rieux, that this whole time he had somehow forgotten his wife by putting all his energies into searching for a gap in the walls that separated him from her.

Camus raises the emotional register of the language slightly here, but the words are quite plain, and most of the work is done by the structure of the sentence itself. Though the opening of the sentence promises immediacy, it is full of delays and distractions—the ambulances, the presence of the doctor, all the intervening time. The three prepositional phrases that front-load the sentence create the syntactic equivalent of the delayed gratification Rambert is experiencing, and the end of the sentence enacts the separation itself, forming a word wall between him and his love, which in the French is even more difficult to surmount: les murs qui le séparaient d’elle. The sentence ends with him and her, and only séparaient, the word for ongoing separation, divides them. This stylistic strategy has provoked a bizarre paradox. Critics have called and continue to call Camus’s prose in The Plague “rigorously and studiously unbeautiful,” stoic, flat, or even blank. Yet readers react to the prose with emotion—they find it powerful and sometimes tender. 

Restraint is a tricky concept, a tangle of literary and emotional implications. It has been weaponized by conservative critics to argue for a kind of “appropriateness,” to disavow the urgent necessity of radical self-expression. Restraint has also been mistaken for a kind of stiff-upper-lip style, a way of pushing feelings down out of patriotism so that horrific events like wars remain veiled from the public eye. Then there is restraint as a kind of humility before the unknown, the restraint of contemplating forces beyond a human scale. Late in life, Jacques Derrida, who also grew up in Algiers, linked restraint to the hush of faith: “Scruple, hesitation, indecision, reticence (hence modesty <pudeur>, respect, restraint before that which should remain sacred, holy, or safe: unscathed, immune).” Camus’s character Tarrou, who wants to be a secular saint, isn’t so far from Derrida’s idea. For Tarrou, clarity in language prevents loss of life, and restraint is a kind of earthly religion, a path of “clear speech and action.”

As a secular person and as someone who felt compelled to bear witness, Camus had to develop an idea of restraint that was compatible with confronting harsh truths. But he was also troubled by the rarity of restraint in the aftermath of World War II—a lack of clemency, a quickness to defer to the binaries of good and evil, us and them. These forms of Manichean thought proved that simplicity in language could also lead to extremism. In 1948, the same year The Plague came out in an English translation, Camus published Letters to a German Friend, in which he explicitly addresses the problems with these binaries. “When expressed forcefully,” he writes, “truth wins out over falsehood … we are fighting for fine distinctions, but the kind of distinctions that are as important as man himself. We are fighting for the distinction between sacrifice and mysticism, between energy and violence, between strength and cruelty, for that even finer distinction between the true and the false.” Unlike falsehoods, truth, for Camus, requires a certain delicacy of expression, the fine distinction between clarity and simplicity. The syntax of this passage parodies the structure of binary thinking, but the words themselves counteract simple opposition. In fact, each pair is designed to provoke questions: where does sacrifice bleed into mysticism? How could there be a fine distinction between the true and the false? To get at some sense of reality, Camus uses syntax that is clear but not reductive. In Letters to a German Friend and in his lecture “The Human Crisis,” he hopes for a community of individuals who could disarm hatreds and stereotypes, but he knew that such a world could only be possible if humans acknowledged their capacity to carry the venom of extremist thinking and to turn people’s heads with its rhetoric.

Plenty of venom, conscious or unconscious, can emerge through the flourishes of style. As W. G. Sebald points out, writers who attempt to bear witness to horrific events can fall prey to their own technique. His book On the Natural History of Destruction explores the few texts that attempt to describe the firebombing of Germany during World War II and the civilian casualties that resulted. In one essay, Sebald quotes the writer Arno Schmidt for his excesses of metaphor, which lead Schmidt to describe the smoke after an air raid as a woman: “a fat-lady cloud stood up above the warehouse, puffed out her round belly and belched a pastry head high into the air.” The depiction of this woman-cloud is both sexist and not particularly moving; it’s possible for a reader to forget the loss of life this cloud signifies. Sebald writes: “The author certainly intended to conjure up a striking image of the eddying whirlpool of destruction with his exaggerated language, but I for one, reading a passage like the following, do not visualize the supposed subject: life at the terrible moment of its disintegration … I do not see what is being described; all I see is the author, eager and persistent, intent on his linguistic fretwork.” In Schmidt’s eagerness to convey the intensity of destruction, he robs it of all its power, and the style serves as a screen between author and reader so that the horror of what’s being represented is blunted into a kind of literary fancy.

By contrast, The Plague uses few instances of figurative language and, at the sentence level, rarely extends a metaphor. This aspect of the book has, at times, confused its readers, not to mention its translators. For the translator Stuart Gilbert, who lived through World War II and translated the book in the immediate postwar period, the novel’s plainer moments seem to provoke anxiety, and he meddles with them to make them closer to heroic postwar rhetoric. Where Camus writes “they must begin again” (il fallait recommencer), Gilbert adds a mythological flourish: “they must set their shoulders to the wheel again.” These inner workings of restraint are counterintuitive: often the less drastically the writer expresses an emotion, the more forcefully a reader can feel it. Naming a feeling or conjuring it through elaborate flourishes can be deflating and reductive. It’s Camus’s lack of stylistic padding that makes his work harrowing. In a moment of the novel that has been read by critics as Camus’s acknowledgment of the Nazi death camps, he writes, “And since a dead man carries no weight unless you’ve seen him dead, a hundred million corpses strewn across history are nothing but smoke in the imagination” (une fumée dans l’imagination). Robin Buss, who translated the novel in 2001, blinks here, using “a mist drifting through the imagination.” By turning smoke into drifting mists of memory, Buss represents the veil humans place between themselves and the dead, rather than what’s left of the bodies. Instead of obfuscating, Camus’s original metaphor tricks us into looking at what we don’t want to see.

Confronted with the horror of death and ruin, Sebald identifies “the moral imperative for at least one writer to describe what happened in Hamburg on that night in July.” When Sebald praises the writer Hans Erich Nossack, it’s for his directness: “The narrative tone here is that of the messenger in classical tragedy,” Sebald writes. As Alice Kaplan points out in her essay on the narrator of The Plague, Dr. Rieux has some of this directness. He is a messenger, the counterpoint to Camus’s narrator in The Stranger. Where Rieux is a “we,” Meursault is a hollow “I”; he lacks a sense of community. The endings of the two novels represent two forms of immersion in the world, or perhaps two ways in which the world absorbs human emotion. Where Meursault is a loner, someone who decides to open himself “to the tender indifference of the world,” Rieux is a community member whose task is “to write simply” what the indifference of the world has thrown at him.

Of course, Camus was also trying to create an allegory, and in that sense, Rieux’s task was always simpler than Camus’s. Yet in this pandemic year, The Plague has been tested as a direct chronicle of illness, and it has held its own. We have all, to some extent, become residents within its chapters. Many of the novel’s details feel more realistic than your average allegorical gesture—the mastic trees, the skies, the characters’ understandable hypochondria, the heartlessness of bureaucracy. In the midst of all this, as I translated the novel, I had to restrain myself from transferring my experience of plague onto the page.

It would’ve been so easy to use the words in the news; to choose vaccine instead of serum; to put my own frustrations in Rambert’s mouth, or worse, Rieux’s; to make the prefect of Oran, who downplays the threat of the epidemic, sound a little too much like Trump. I felt this mirroring all year as I translated the novel in quarantine, as if the events of the world might become legible, rising through the ink shadow of the page. Perhaps The Plague holds up so well as a chronicle of real illness because, more than some of his contemporaries, Camus had an intense and highly specific relationship with the natural world. Though he was criticized by Roland Barthes and Jean-Paul Sartre for representing the Nazi occupation through a biological phenomenon, there is a certain humility to this choice—a certain refusal to put human intervention on a pedestal. “There are two sorts of efficacity,” Camus writes in The Rebel: “that of typhoons and that of sap.” As Sebald proves, there is a great deal of restraint in natural history, in trying to describe the world plainly and precisely but without oversimplification. This use of description presents another paradox of restraint: that the world itself is dramatic enough. If you look at it closely, its images can express intensity without much embellishment. Channeling emotion through observation can be another way to express a feeling without naming it.

I’m reminded of, in The Plague, the first rat Dr. Rieux observes on his landing, and the way it makes him think of his wife’s illness. By describing how the animal collapses and coughs up blood, he accesses both the pain of his wife’s symptoms and the fact that they are ever-present in his mind. In this way, what the doctor notices lets us understand the true danger of his wife’s condition without having to say it directly. Restraint is sometimes the act of watching what disturbs another’s eye.

The craft of observation, of image making, is closely related to poetry. The Plague combines Camus’s stylistic facility with fiction, philosophical essay, and the dialogue of a play, but there was another, less obvious genre that also influenced him: the lyric essay, which is the writing closest to a kind of poetry about the natural world. In Ellen Conroy Kennedy’s brilliant translation, Camus’s essay “Nuptials at Tipasa” opens like this:

In the spring, Tipasa is inhabited by gods and the gods speak in the sun and the scent of absinthe leaves, in the silver armor of the sea, in the raw blue sky, the flower-covered ruins, and the great bubbles of light among the heaps of stone. At certain hours of the day the countryside is black with sunlight. The eyes try in vain to perceive anything but drops of light and colors trembling on the lashes. The thick scent of aromatic plants tears at the throat and suffocates in the vast heat.

Today, this would be called a prose poem—it’s Camus’s early voice at its wildest. And yet, there is a kind of restraint here, too, in delaying the self to foreground the landscape. Here, the “I” is withheld until the end of the paragraph. He begins with the lyric voice as an eye rather than an “I,” a lens through which a reader is guided to observe the world. The intensity of this language serves to plunge us into the scene, to make us feel the granular detail of the sunlight, the rocks, and the smell of the foliage. By immersing himself in the world, by placing suffocation in the heat and the scent of absinthe rather than in his own lungs, Camus withholds his actual situation: his struggles with tuberculosis, which made him confront his own mortality. There is a sincere urgency in this beauty—you can only be so arrogant when you know you’re going to die, when your body is already fighting for survival. These essays prove that restraint isn’t the same thing as moderation—restraint can’t exist without deep feeling on the part of the writer, without intensity to harness. Camus’s early pieces read like the manifestos of someone trying to merge with a landscape as a way out of himself. This kind of “style incarnate” is, for Camus, what gives the written word power.

To return to The Rebel: “Through style, the creative effort reconstructs the world, and always with the same slight distortion that is the mark of both art and protest … Art is an impossible demand given expression and form.” Remember what I’ve seen. Feel something of what I feel. More than any other literary experience, translating Camus has taught me that restraint isn’t for the writer; it’s for the reader. By holding back the dazzle for a moment, a writer can let someone look directly through the page, at the part of the world that hurts.


Laura Marris is a writer and translator. Her recent translations include Albert Camus’s The Plague, Louis Guilloux’s Blood Dark, and Geraldine Schwarz’s Those Who Forget. Her first solo-authored book, The Age of Loneliness, will be published by Graywolf in 2024. She lives in Buffalo, New York.

This is an excerpt from States of Plague: Reading Albert Camus in a Pandemic by Alice Kaplan and Laura Marris, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in October 2022.