“…to redeem the race, he must make himself once more manifest; HE MUST COME IN PERSON.”
Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur was the highest selling novel of the 19th century; and is also one of the most commonly abridged novels of our time. The edition I read was unabridged, and like most avid readers I’m not at all interested in anything other than the fully story as approved by the author … but, by the time I had finished this book, I could see why. Wallace is unafraid of letting his story lavishly wander about, in terms of setting and in terms of background. Certainly, a modern editorial team would have tried very hard to rein him in.
Having said all that, I am glad that I read it. Wallace does manage mood and atmosphere very well, and in the strong poignant moments he really excels. He does get you in the feels, and this could be why he stacks so much backgrounding in—for this to work on you.
Much of it is still very interesting to read, and you go along for the ride, but there were points where I really just wanted him to get on with the story. Now, a 19th century readership, particularly an American Christian readership that were not novel-readers, since the form was considered highly un-Christian at the time, would not have found it so: hence its huge popularity; the many filler-scenes and ornately described Holy Land vistas would have been drunk up like thirsty desert travelers. But I became impatient. And even though I don’t specifically recall ever having seen any of the film versions, the plot itself is quite predictable and sometimes lacking in verisimilitude…
Also, the first five chapters which details the backgrounds of the three wise men and how they came to be… the whole book is worth this part. My sense of these characters in the story, and then the wider story of the Christmas narrative will be forever couched in Wallace’s depiction and understanding of them.
…and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.
A plague before the 24 hour news cycle was a different animal to the uber-virus after it. The uber-virus is viral in ways the plagues were not; and the plagues more mortal and demanding. But there are some similarities too, and some of them quite visceral ones. The suggestion by the American Conservative Blog to read this book is a good one:
Great literature always invites new contexts upon itself, and encloses them in unexpected ways. Just as the politics of Camus’ time collects around the politics of ours in equally unexpected ways … certainly in ways Camus (the artist) would have had trouble comprehending, as opposed to the art he produced.
Yes, Nazism influenced the writing of this story, Camus was living through it and resisting it, in his way; but it is not about it. This novel, published after ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and written during the sometimes hostile response to the book, begins what became to be known as Camus’ Cycle of Revolt (along with ‘The Rebel’ and the plays ‘L’état de siege’ and ‘Les justes’).
It is of interest to note that one of the regular complaints regarding ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by both Camus’ contemporaries and thinkers today is that it is ‘…too abstract’ to be taken as a serious philosophical tract. Putting aside the fact that Camus never referred to it as a book of philosophy, but as a series of essays, the journalist in ‘The Plague’, Rambert, echoes these critics when he says to Rieux: ‘You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions. To which Rieux later muses to himself:
Yes, an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities. Still, when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.
In this story, a city in North Africa, Oran, where Camus had lived for short amounts of time, becomes quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic and, later, pneumonic, plague. Lots of people are dying and everybody has to deal with it, in their way. We follow the responses most closely of a Doctor (Rieux), a journalist (Rambert), a writer (Grand), an intellectual [for want of a better word] (Tarrou), a priest (Paneloux) and a criminal (Cottard).
Also of note is the asthma patient that Rieux treats at key points in the narrative (in particular, right at the starts of the plague and right at the end. Why? Because his lung condition is mirroring Camus own (tuberculosis) ‘he required frequent treatments from Doctors, like Rieux’ and its important to note that Camus often considered himself on the verge of death due to his condition, mirroring the psychology of those living with the plague: to live with the knowledge of the threat of imminent and unavoidable death.
‘They’re coming out, they’re coming out…’ …the asthma patient says gleefully. And later, at the end, he poses an important rhetorical question that has been foreshadowed throughout the story: ‘But what does that mean, plague? Just life, no more than that.
And Tarrou, much later: ‘I had plague already, long before I came to this town.’
No, not Nazis, but life; but more specifically, life being brought into sharp focus, creating an awareness of it through an understanding that it ends. Being forced into exile by the plague, or not, the absurd conditions of life remain unaltered. It’s the awareness of the conditions that shifts through plague-caused exile: to be separated from the rest of the world, from love, from culture, etc; for it to be a part of your consciousness, and the consciousness of all the exiles around you; this is the plague. What does this do the people? It drives out Hope. It makes them live only in the past (through memories) and the present (through knowledge). The future no longer exists. Your illusions regarding your existence have flown. You have no peace.
This is the Plague; the awareness of the Absurd. And then, the only active option is revolt; even in the face of the unchangeable. And through this it’s possible, maybe not to be a saint, but to be a man.
It was only right that those whose desires are limited to man, and his humble yet formidable love, should enter, if only now and again, into their reward.
How these characters come to terms with the plague and, thus, the Plague, forms the bulk of the story; and how they all, in different ways, follow Rieux’s lead and accept revolt, forms the work’s chief intellectual interest. Without wanting to give away serious plot points, think about this when one of them contracts both varieties of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—the first person ever to do so.
Don’t get me wrong: this is also an aesthetic achievement of the highest order, even in translation: the scene with the dying boy reaches the aching terrible narrative beauty of one of Camus greatest literary heroes, Dostoevsky. But, indulge me in discussing some of these characters and how they played out in a kind of general sense, if you will…
Tarrou and Rieux have the most special relationship: the moment of respite they share swimming alone at night in the forbidden sea is memorable to both of them, and to the reader. Just before hand, in conversation with Rieux, Tarrou comes to his main point about his life:
‘It comes to this, Tarrou said almost casually, what interests me is learning how to become a saint.’
‘But you don’t believe in God.’
‘Exactly. Can one be a Saint without God?’
A little later on, Rieux finally responds:
‘But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than the saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man’.
‘Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.’
Seeking sainthood is its own variety of retreat from the plague, not revolt. It’s full acknowledgement that the plague is greater-than. While Tarrou obsesses over existential issues, and broad morality, in his efforts to not transmit the plague to others, he can’t help but do so anyway.
Paneloux (the priest) and Rieux clash on the other side of the plague. When Paneloux is introduced into the story, it is early days in the plague: people are seeking the solace of the Church, and he delivers his First Sermon, which is your typical this is Gods vengeance upon his misbehaving creation kind of fare. Rieux is unimpressed. However, he asks Paneloux to become involved in the Santization Groups and he accepts, throwing himself into the actions of the revolt against the plague. After the death of the boy scene, there is a shift in his beliefs, and his Second Sermon follows that event. For those who have read The Brothers Karamazov…
(if you have not, what are you doing reading this? Stop it and go out and read this book instead… No, wait, there’s time, as long as you don’t have plague: finish my review first)
…this sermon could be read as how Aloysha should have responded to Ivan Karamazov when the death of innocents was put toward him as a reason to revolt against God (Book V, Ch. IV). Rieux summarises Ivan’s position nicely:And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.Instead of Aloysha’s quiet wishy-washy acceptance (coupled with his refusing to face the outcome of this acceptance) a little like modern Western Christianity generally, Paneloux responds:Believe everything so as not to be forced to deny everything.They must acquire and practice the greatest of all virtues: that of the All or Nothing.He’s not saying that you’re either for God or against Him, but that you’re either with God or without Him. It’s no good being with Him when without plague, and without when you are. Because then you are without him anyway.
Rambert is the lover who wants to run from the plague. But comes to his own absurd realization; Cottard finds the plague-stricken world better than the normal world; Grand, the writer, revolts with the rest of them, but his life remains disturbingly unaffected. He obsesses over his opening sentence, which hes been working on for years, mirroring Camus obsession with his book, which took him longer to write than any other. When Rieux gets a look at the full manuscript Grand is working on he notices that the bulk of the writing consisted of the same sentence written again and again with small variants.
In the end, even during the victory celebrations, the plagues there, laying dormant, never really gone, waiting, even on the bookshelves Read this book. Get the plague.