Narziss and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse (1930)

He drew himself, as a wanderer, a lover, a fugitive, with reaping death hard at his heels…
(Narziss and Goldmund, page 228)

‘Narziss’ is a direct transliteration of the name in original German title, Narziß und Goldmund, but the word also translates as Narcissus, which is why some modern editions are titled Narcissus and Goldmund. Goldmund translates literally as ‘gold mouth’, though you can see why this wouldn’t work so well as a title. Narcissus and Gold Mouth might begin to sound too much like a fairy tale.

Narziss and Goldmund is longer than its predecessor novel, Steppenwolf (300 pages in the Penguin edition compared to Steppenwolf’s 250 pages). And it’s far more integrated and coherent than Steppenwolf, which is built up from a number of different texts, echoing the fragmented nature of the protagonist’s divided mind. By contrast, Narziss and Goldmund maintains a calm, lyrical and mellifluous sonority throughout, leading some critics to call it Hesse’s ‘most lyrical’ novel.

Narziss and Goldmund is set in the Middle Ages and both narrative and dialogue are couched in an unobtrusive but persistent cod-medieval style which might irritate some modern readers.

‘Mistress Lisbeth,’ he said, in a friendly voice. ‘I am not come to ask you for work. I wanted to give you greeting – you, and the Master. It irks me sore to have to hear you. I can see you have had much sorrow. If your father’s thankful apprentice can do you a service – name it – it would be my recompense.’ (p.224)

But, as mentioned, it is this low-key but persistent ‘medieval’ style which gives the book its distinctive flavour and tone.

Two opposites

The two central figures are ‘types’ – of the dry intellectual, the analyser and categoriser (Narziss) and the passionate lover of life, wine and women (Goldmund).

The first fifty or so pages describe in some detail how the pair first meet, as young novitiates at the ancient monastery of Mariabronn somewhere in North Germany. Narziss is himself a junior monk but already skilled and educated enough to be put in charge of the monastery school. One day young Goldmund is dropped off by  his father, a knight, who asks the monks to educate him. He never sees his father again. It slowly emerges that he’s never known his mother who, his father told him, was a wanton hussy who ran off when Goldmund was a baby.

This will turn out to be centrally important because there is a sense, in everything that follows, right up until his death, that this missing mother, the search for the Absent Mother, is central to his psyche.

Goldmund goes a wandering

Initially Goldmund is a good scholar. He is ragged by the other boys in fights and taunts which are presumably meant to reflect the bullying of schoolboys everywhere, in all times, but he fights back and establishes a place for himself in the hierarchy. There’s a naughty excursion from the monastery when a bunch of older boys sneak out of the premises to a nearby village, where they drink wine and chat up a peasant’s pretty daughter. She takes a shine to Goldmund, who is fiercely attracted to her and fiercely tries to repress the impulse.

Narziss and Goldmund forge a special bond based on Narziss’s uncanny insight into other people. They have many intense conversations. In one of them Narziss dwells on Goldmund’s absent mother and it comes as a revelation to Goldmund that there is this great hole in the centre of his life, and he breaks down in tears. It is that kind of very intense psychological bonding between the pair which gives the book its title.

But fate is fate, or biology is biology, and Goldmund goes out walking, picking flowers and marvelling at the beauty of the world. He falls asleep and is woken in a half-dream, by a beautiful gypsy girl, Lisa, waking in her lap, as she leans down to kiss him and, to cut a long story short, she takes his virginity, which is described in flowery euphemisms appropriate for 1930.

It is a revelation. Goldmund realises he is never going to be a monk, he’s not even that good a scholar. Goldmund returns to the cloister to tell Narziss he’s leaving, there and then. He packs his bags and leaves. He finds Lisa again the next day, but this time she is scared and runs back to the husband who beats her.

Now commences the long central section of the book where Goldmund goes on the tramp, vagabonding across northern Germany, and – this may be the slightly hard bit for a modern reader to swallow – everywhere he goes he is ‘desired and appeased by women’ (p.98). With his blonde hair, good looks and slim figure, Goldmund is a ladykiller, a babe magnet.

He quickly, comprehensively and intuitively becomes an expert at sex, a connoisseur, ready and able to give every woman what she wants, whether hard and fast, or slow and sensual, responding to all moods and needs. If you’d expected a spiritual classic, it certainly has a lot of deep psychology about life and destiny, but you’ll be surprised by the amount highly sensual, soft porn writing.

Drawn and clasped to one another, they lost themselves within the scented night, saw the white, shimmering secrets of its flowers, plucking its fruits, for which they thirsted, with gentle, ever-grateful, hands. Never before had spielmann struck such a lute, or lute known fingers so strong and cunning. (p.234)

The knight and his daughters

Pages 100 to 122 describe his adventures at a castle. He is taken in by an ageing knight who, when he discovers Goldmund is a scholar, hires him to write the life’s long adventurous life story in Latin. But the knight has two daughters, Lydia and Julia, and they are soon competing for his favours. It takes a bit longer than usual but Goldmund persuades Lydia into his bed where, however, she strips and kisses a little but, irritatingly, refuses to give him what so many other gypsy girls and peasant girls and farmers’ wives have already given him.

Worse, they’re lying there one night when the door opens and in comes the jealous younger sister Julia. Lydia is panicking when Goldmund overrides her and invites Julia to join them in bed. There follows a passage where Goldmund is kissing older, stiff Lydia on one side while with his hand he strokes and then begins to masturbate young Julia on his other side, who begins to make moans of pleasure.

See what I mean about a certain soft-porn 1970s feel? That’s one way of looking at it. The other is to see all these sexy passages as extraordinarily open, candid, honest descriptions of sex for their time (1930), and to place them in the wider context of the books and their serious concerns with human psychology and spirituality. In other words to see that Hesse’s books address the entirety of the human condition, sex and death and bereavement and loss and abandonment and friendship and love and art, and that the lyrically porny sequences are just an unashamed, honest inclusion of the role sex does play in many people’s lives.

This soft porn sequence is, alas, interrupted when the older sister leaps out of bed and threatens to tell their father. Both girls go. But Lydia goes to the knight and tells him everything. Goldmund is rudely awakened the next morning by the knight who is too angry to speak, who grabs his stuff in a bundle and marches him half a mile to the bounds of his land and then tells him never to return on pain of death. It is snowing. Goldmund sets off into the freezing cold.

An hour later, Hans a servant rides after him and delivers gifts from Julia – one golden ducat, an undershirt she has woven, and a side of bacon. Well, it’s something.

Goldmund comes to a village where he begs food and then is conscripted to assist as a villager gives birth, quite a traumatic experience for a young, sensitive mind. Typically what strikes Goldmund is the way the sounds of pain are so close to the sounds of a woman’s ecstasy, which triggers characteristic philosophical meditations. He dallies in the village a while i.e. has a brief ‘affair’ with a brawny village wife, Christine.

Murders Victor the vagabond

In this village he meets another vagabond, Victor. Victor is a seasoned, wily survivor, full of impressive stories of life on the road and Goldmund is taken under his spell. They travel on together for a few days but late one night in the forest, Goldmund wakes up to find Victor stealthily rifling through his clothes looking for the precious gold ducat Goldmund had told him about. When he resists, Victor starts to strangle him, in earnest, so Goldmund finds himself with his last breaths fumbling for the small knife he keeps mainly to cut up bread and cheese, and in a final paroxysm, stabbing Victor again and again and again until the grip round his neck loosens, and the man falls away from him, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds and there and then, in the dark early hours, in a forest in winter, Victor breathes his last, leaving Goldmund staggered and appalled. (p.127)

(And this reader thinking, yet again, that these German novels have a special affinity for knife murder.)

Master Nicholas and the nature of art

Goldmund comes to a nearby city, referred to as the Bishop’s City. On the outskirts he had come across an isolated chapel and been entranced by a sculpture inside it of the Mother of God.

In the city he makes enquiries as to who carved it and discovers it is a certain Master Nicholas the sculptor. To cut a long story short, Goldmund asks to be his apprentice. Nicholas tells him to draw something, anything, on a piece of paper he gives him and the result impresses him enough to take him on.

There follow extended passages meditating on the nature of art, on the meaning of reproducing the world and God’s creatures.

Goldmund realises he has within him the faces and personalities of all the women he’s encountered and realises he must make a particular carving, bringing the essence of all these women together to create a Mother of God.

Goldmund stays with Master Nicholas for two years while he works on this figure. During that period he has many many women – the tradesman’s wives and daughters – including the serving wench in a butcher’s house, Katherine, who he calls his ‘pork and sausage maid’ (p.179).

All through this period he is tormented by the contradictions in art between the soul and the physical, despising little people who are happy with decorations, driven by a striving for the unseeable essence of the subject.

Many lengthy discussions of the nature of true art. Goldmund ponders why Master Nicholas is a master sculptor, all right, but also a journeyman craftsman and that ability, facility, doesn’t interest Goldmund. Goldmund sits by the river and realises it is those endless flashes, light off the ripples, sudden glimpses of pebbles on the riverbed, the light through a butterfly’s wings – all the art in the world can’t compete with the beauty of the actual world.

Meanwhile, Master Nicholas has been thinking and offers to make Goldmund his heir, bring him into his workshop and to marry him to his daughter, Lisbeth. Unfortunately he makes Goldmund this offer at just about the moment Goldmund has realised he doesn’t want to be a journeyman like Nicholas. Nicholas goes white with anger when Goldmund embarrassedly turns down his offer, and makes it plain he must leave immediately.

Rather as he was ordered by the angry knight to leave the castle.

So Goldmund sets off on his rambles again, despite there being so many women in the city of whom he might have taken his leave (p.184). Last, and barely noticed, is the 15-year-old lame daughter of the burghers he’s been rooming with him. As he leaves the city, she offers him a drink of fresh milk and a crust of bread and, out of politeness, he leans down and kisses her. She closes her eyes in bliss. She has had a teenage crush on him all this time but, as in an American magazine romance, Goldmund doesn’t know or care. Then he is back on the road.

The plague

Goldmund hooks up with timid young Robert, a younger tramp. We learn it is ten years since Goldmund left the monastery (p.204). He now has a blonde beard (p.209).

The pair come to a plague village, whose villagers aggressively warn them away. But Goldmund goes in and finds a family dead in their beds, prompting characteristic Hesse reflections about Death. And the artist in Goldmund is attracted by their postures and positions…

As they walk on they discover that the whole countryside is ravaged, abandoned. Coming to an empty town, Goldmund notices a beautiful young woman (of course) leaning out a window and, as usual, picks her up. Her name is Lene (p.198) and she succumbs to Goldmund’s invitation to come with them, packs a small bag and off they go. She is ‘a sweet mistress… shy and young and full of love’ (p.201)

After much wandering they come across abandoned farm buildings, decide to settle there, fix them up and make a life, rounding up stray abandoned animals.

One day Lene and Goldmund go hunting, get separated, he hears her screaming, runs and finds her being raped, grab the scrawny rapist, strangles him and dashes his head to a pulp against rocks.

Goldmund carries Lene home, washes her breast where it has been scratched and bitten so hard it is bleeding. But, somewhat inevitably, Lene gets the plague and dies in a matter of days. Robert refuses to come near the hut she’s in, then runs off never to return.

Goldmund tends Lene till she dies and then, characteristically, studies the face of death. Then he sets fire to the hut, as a funeral pyre and to cleanse it, and hits the road again, wandering through a landscape of horror where the deserted villages and towns are surrounded by plague pits, passing processions of flagellants, watching the lynching of people scapegoated for the disaster, not least the burning alive of Jews in their houses in one town. Horror. The Kingdom of Bones (p.212)

But he watches it all with fascination, soaking up the suffering and despair, never tiring of watching the Grim Reaper at work.

Goldmund stumbles across a beautiful young Jewess (isn’t he lucky to come across so many beautiful young women) weeping beside a big burnt-out fire and discovers this is where 15 Jews from the nearby town were murdered and burned to death, including her father.

Goldmund is touched and offers to take her with him and protect her but can’t stop himself also trying to seduce her with honeyed worlds. Well, for once it doesn’t work. Unsurprisingly, she is disgusted, says all Christians are alike, murderers and hypocrites (and she might well have thrown in the accusation that all men are alike) and runs off.

Goldmund’s head is full of all the images he has seen, a medieval panorama. With increasing urgency he wants to return to ‘the Bishop’s city’ where he lived and worked for Master Nicholas. When he finally arrives back there he is overwhelmed by happy nostalgia of re-seeing all the familiar sights, the old churches, the market square, the clear purling river.

But, inevitably, Master Nicholas is dead of the plague… and his beautiful, haughty daughter, Lisbeth? She is now yellow-faced, gaunt and shrivelled. He offers help but Lisbeth (and the raddled old servant Margret) scorn him.

Wandering the town’s streets Goldmund bumps into lame Marie, who had a teenage crush on him, and she invites him modestly back to her parents’ house. They are honestly glad to see him. Inspired, Goldmund starts drawing hundreds of pictures of everything he’s seen in the Landscape of Death.

Lady Agnes

One day Goldmund is struck by the sight of a haughty beautiful rich woman riding by on a horse. He must have her. It is a challenge. He places himself at the town gates every morning as she goes a-riding. He appears under the trees near where she stops the horse for her daily rest.

After a few days she deigns to talk to him. She gives him a token, a gold necklace, which gives him admittance to the castle. He goes there that evening, claiming to have found the lady’s necklace and wanting to return it. He is allowed into the busy castle courtyard, full of horses and bustle.

The lady’s maid takes him up to her ladyship’s luxury rooms and there, amid the fur and incense, on a rich white bed, he strips and makes love to her, as – inevitably – ‘she has never been loved before’!

If you let yourself go along with this mood, it is a scene of exquisite sensitivity; if you are a little more jaded, it is like an extended Flake advert.

But the next very evening, when he returns for some more soft-focus erotic goings-on, he is trapped and caught by the jealous husband, Count Heinrich.

As the big angry knight opens the bedchamber door, Lady Agnes pushes Goldmund into her closet. Here the knight discovers him but Goldmund is quick witted enough to pretend he is a thief who has broken in to steal the precious dresses and furs.

The count believes him and says he will be hanged in the morning. Goldmund’s wrists are tied and he is led down to a pitch-black dungeon and thrown in. As the churls are unlocking the door to the dungeon, two priests visiting the castle pass by, and one stops to ask if the prisoner is to be confessed and shriven, then tells the guards he will come at dawn to perform this service.

Goldmund spends the night trying to reconcile his soul to death, to never more see the sun or feel the wind or hear the birds. He also spends the whole night freeing his wrists from their tight cords, cutting himself badly in the process. When dawn comes, the door opens and a cowled monk descends the stairs into his cell.

Goldmund is fully prepared to whip up hi stool, dash the monk’s brains out, steal his habit and make a getaway. Imagine his amazement when the monk pushes back his cope and reveals the face of… his old, old, deepest friend, Narziss, now thin and gaunt with asceticism and the responsibilities of command. For Narziss has now become the abbot at Mariabronn.

Narziss raises Goldmund to his feet and says he spent a lot of effort the night before pleading with the angry knight for his life. Result: Goldmund will not hang. Instead the other monks dress his wounds, pack their bags, mount their horses, and ride out of the castle courtyard. Even at this late stage, and despite having learned his lesson, Goldmund still looks up at the windows overlooking the courtyard, hoping the beautiful Lady Agnes will be looking out of one at him. But no.

Goldmund rejoices as his horse carries him through the scenery of all his adventures, he reviews them, the many women, murdering Victor, the cold nights lying in the forest and so on.

Then they reach the old monastery and Goldmund is overcome with memories of his youth. Here he is kindly invited to stay as a guest, with no demands on him to become a lay brother let alone a monk, by his wise old friend.

After a spell of feeling a bit lost and bewildered, Goldmund decides on a plan, which is to work as a carver again, and create a wooden relief spiralling up the steps to a lectern where monks read texts to each other in the refectory.

This penultimate section of the book allows for:

  1. an emotional reunion of Narziss and Goldmund and a series of conversations during which they revive their friendship and remember the old times, the old abbot et al
  2. a series of debates between them about the nature of the scholarly intellectual mind and the artistic creative mind. Goldmund comes to realise he has led a chaotic and disorderly life, but when he tells Narziss how much he admires the other’s purity and devotion, Narziss says that’s only because he knows nothing of his (Narziss’s) intellectual doubts and uncertainties. Both envy the other his clarity and conviction, while both reveal they are, in fact, riven by doubts and uncertainties.

Womanising

Almost all of the long middle section of the book describing Goldmund’s wandering is, in my opinion, a little undermined by his endless womanising.

I take the point that it’s designed to show Goldmund’s immersion in ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ and so point up the basic dichotomy between the Worldly Personality and the Scholarly, Secluded Personality. My criticism is that these worldly scenes describe the same schoolboy fascination with seducing and stripping nubile young women without any attempt to explore the deeper levels a heterosexual relationship can go to, let alone the complicated problems relationships often develop.

Instead it’s just one woman after another, just as in a porn film.

Anyway, this passage at the end of the book discards all the womanising and sensual rhetoric, and returns to much more abstract discussions between the two friends about art and religion.

There’s a lovely passage where, after a good long time of working on it (with a young boy assistant he’s been given, Erich) Goldmund shows his carving to Narziss, and it prompts the older man to a wonderfully insightful speculation about the intellectual and the artistic routes to God.

He mulls over how the intellectual personality strains to clear away all the clutter of the world in order to strive for the simplest, purest, most fundamental truths – while the artist throws him or herself into the things of the world, precisely into all the clutter, and, by dint of his or her passion, reveals beneath it the pattern underlying the world’s profusion.

‘I see you by the opposite way, the way which leads through the sense, reach as deep a knowledge as any that most thinkers achieve, of the essence and secret of our being, and a far more living mode of setting it forth.’ (Narziss addressing Goldmund, p.280)

This passage is worth rereading and savouring, as many passages of the book are, for example the couple of pages where Goldmund sits by the river, watching its ever-changing surface and pondering the nature of manmade beauty contrasted with the ever-fleeting beauty of the natural world.

Briefer but just as full of juice and wisdom is the passage where Narziss instructs Goldmund how to pray.

But, says the younger man, my mind is overwhelmed with doubts, about whether my prayers can ever be heard by a God who probably doesn’t exist and, even if he does, probably doesn’t hear them.

To which Narziss replies, imagine you’re singing a song. You don’t let yourself get swamped with doubts about whether you’re doing a good rendition or whether the composer would be upset by your voice or whether anyone’s listening properly and so on. You abandon yourself to the song. You give it your best shot. Singing is its own justification. Same with prayer.

I can see why Hesse inspires such loyalty among his devotees. He discusses serious problems with seriousness, he isn’t patronising or ironic, and his characters discuss ideas which occur to any educated person clearly and simply, and sometimes, with a depth of feeling or insight which clearly derive from the author’s lifelong engagement with these ideas.

And the depth and seriousness leave their mark on the reader. Some of these passages are really stirring.

Goldmund hits the road again

But all good things come to an end. It takes Goldmund two years to carve the wooden relief and when it is finally done, and installed on the steps and pulpit, he returns to his workshop and feels empty and spent.

He begins another work, a statue of the Mother of God, but goes absent for long walks in the country, feeling increasingly restless. He encounters a young peasant woman, Francisca, but is struck that, although he uses all his old tricks and tells her romantic tales of life on the road etc, she listens politely as to an old man, as to her father. Ah. He is old.

Back in the monastery, Goldmund realises he has grey in his hair and wrinkles round his eyes but more than that, he feels old.

So he leaves the monastery. With Narziss’s blessing he departs, leaving the narrative to describe Narziss’s sudden sense of emptiness. Narziss admires the way Goldmund’s wastrel, vagabond life has made him capable of creating such exquisite carvings which will bespeak the glory of God and his creation long after Narziss and his dry, scholarly theology is forgotten.

Goldmund returns, a broken man

Inevitably, Goldmund returns, in the autumn of the same year, but much changed, transfigured. Now he is an ill old man and Erich his assistant is appalled to see him, help him back into the workshop and put him to bed. After some days, Narziss comes to see him and is also appalled. Now Goldmund is grey-haired and sick, he has broken ribs and internal injuries.

As his health fails, Goldmund tells Narziss what happened. Turns out his real motivation to leave was not a general romantic urge to hit the road, but that he’d heard that Lady Agnes was in the area with Count Heinrich. Improbably, Goldmund had managed to secure an audience with her, but the Lady told him to his face that he is no longer the golden youth, the blonde sex god, that he was – and she turns away, uninterested.

Heartbroken, Goldmund rides off and doesn’t mind when his horse stumbles and throws him down into a gulley. He lands hard in a stream, breaks some ribs and lies all night in the freezing mountain water. Next day he staggers up and on and eventually is found and placed in a hospice, where he stays for months, sells the horse, uses up the money Narziss gave him and eventually realises he had to stagger back to Mariabronn.

Here Goldmund dies. On his deathbed, he says he is not afraid of death. In what we now realise was the great defining conversation of their youths, when Narziss had identified the central pillar of his personality as being the absence of his mother. Goldmund says that Narziss had given back his mother, restored the image of his mother to the central place in his life.

Now the pains in his chest feel not like the broken ribs and infections, but as if his mother, his beloved mother, the earth mother Eve, is putting her fingers between his ribs and pulling out his heart, taking it to her. For only with a mother can you die. ‘How can anyone love without a mother, and how can we die without a mother?’

And on these last words and their rather shocking image, Goldmund dies, leaving Narziss distraught.


I’m caught between two views, as I am with all the Hesse I’ve read.

Against

With my hard hat on, I know it is romantic twaddle. By that I mean that every scene is lit with a sentimental romantic light, and profoundly unrealistic.

1. Painless vagabonding Take the way he survives as a vagabond, with no food or money, and travelling across north Europe in the winter, for not weeks, or months, but years on end. I know people did do this, but a lot of them died of starvation and exposure. After a week sleeping rough in a forest, with no food and no blankets or bedding you would be in very poor shape, more a J.G. Ballard character at the end of their tether than a handsome swain.

2. Women everywhere Whereas Goldmund is always in such tip-top condition that, wherever he goes, every woman that he meets – virgin or housewife – throws themselves at him, and he ploughs his way through hundreds and hundreds of women.

3. The dialogue And then there’s the diction, the sub-Tennysonian melliflous fake medievalism, all palfreys and pilgrims, varlets and churls, like scenes from a thousand pre-Raphaelite paintings. As a tiny instance take the moment when Goldmund speaks to the haughty, high-born lady by the ivy-covered town wall, and offers his devotion:

‘Oh’, he replied, ‘I would as lief make you a gift as take one. It is myself I would offer you fair woman, and then you shall do as you will with me.’ (p.231)

It is all written in this style.

4. Lucky And the way he keeps landing on his feet – in the castle of the knight who needs a Latin scholar, in the household of the Master artist Nicholas – is more like a fable or fairy tale than an adult narrative.

5. Sex And the way there always just happens to be a nubile and beautiful young woman in the offing for him to seduce, fondle, strip and make love to… is more like a 1970s soft porn movie than reality.

Gently he unclasped the white fur at her neck and unsheathed her body. (p.234)

Indeed, the entirety of Goldmund’s adventures could be devastatingly critiqued as a sustained example of male wish-fulfilment, as the most basic sexist fantasy that more or less every women you meet is ready and willing to have sex with you, at no more than a smile and a wink.

None of the women appear to have periods or any other medical problems or difficulties. And nobody in this dreamworld appears to have a sexually transmitted disease.

6. Death as romantic And take the fundamentally romantic notion that Death is somehow romantic, seductive and sensual, a warm loving mother luring you into her bosomy embrace – an image which emerges in the plague scenes and recurs at the end.

‘I’m curious to die because it’s still my belief, or my dream, that I’m on my way back to my mother; because I hope my death will be a great happiness – as great as I had of my first woman. I can never rid myself of the thought that, instead of death with his sickle, it will be my mother who takes me into herself again, and leads me back into nothingness and innocence.’ (Goldmund, p.297)

Twaddle. Having seen death up close, I found absolutely nothing redeeming or good about it at all. It is the grief-stricken cessation of life. The sensual penumbra Hesse casts over it is late-romantic, 1890s sentimentality.

For

On the other hand… although the plots which deliver them up may be questionable, the intensity with which Hesse describes the emotional and sexual entanglements, especially the menage a trois at the knight’s castle, are conceived and described with an intense sensuality which really goes home to your imagination, reminding you of the best and most sensual experiences in your own life.

Similarly, the vagabonding is to be taken with a pinch of salt: it’s a narrative framework, a scaffolding, an age-old narrative trope designed to deliver a steady stream of situations which allow Goldmund/Hesse to meditate on the meaning of life, and death, of art and suffering, as he encounters and observes them.

And although he may not have anything blindingly original to say about these subjects, nonetheless reading a Hesse book means that you engage with these questions in a sustained and serious way for several days, through the medium of his lyrical and measured prose. And this can turn out to be a very moving and thought-provoking experience.

And because the characters in the books cover quite a range of topics, chances are that some, at least, of the subjects will touch a chord. For me it was the entire sequence with the Master carver and in particular the scene where Goldmund sits by the river and mulls over why some art may be technically finished and immaculate but doesn’t move you, whereas other, less finished works, for some reason touch your soul.

Conclusion

The hokiness of the plot, and the often sentimental romanticism of the worldview, and the questionable womanising, are all forgiveable because the book delivers a steady stream of deeply pondered thinking on a range of perennial topics.

Credit

Narziß und Goldmund by Hermann Hesse was published in 1930. It was translated into English by Geoffrey Dunlop in an edition which appeared in 1932, titled Death and the Lover. Penguin Modern Classics republished this translation in 1971, with the different title of Narziss and Goldmund. All references are to this 1971 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (The Plague, page 63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence), a city which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims and slowly comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city.

The plague doesn’t relent but keeps getting gets worse and worse, and Rieux plays a key role in reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city and so on.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary 1940s ideas derived variously from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, and who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these characters come into contact with Dr Rieux at one stage or another, as acquaintances who he treats or as friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of Jacques, the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t stop till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, forced to face up to the fundamental questions of existence – and Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this completely believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself The Narrator, who explains how – after the plague had finally expired – he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and so is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character of The Narrator’s account. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age when he wrote the novel, it is Rieux who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards, and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city and separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big, strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s ‘flail’ or ‘scourge’ swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Father Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. The priest offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There then follow inevitable dialogues between Father Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in a conversation with Rieux, and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Father Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Father Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. It is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Father Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which The Narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of many of the other characters such as Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level of the narrative, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, and arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter of Oran when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates throughout existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned representative of a vengeful Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the ‘injustice’ of ‘bourgeois society’, which stood up for the workers and for the humiliated everywhere. But then Tarrou found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders of his movement (presumably the communists in Spain) claimed were necessary to overthrow the unjust regime.

Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic and brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying, all chime perfectly. It is a great scene. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois, legalistic world of his father, Tarrou has also walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register which domaintes the novel – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. But a saint without a God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books, I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He was a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague struck. When the city is closed, Rambert finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers.

This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another. He is told to be ready to be smuggled out of one of the city’s gates by ‘friendly’ guards, only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches.

Presumably Camus is deliberately trying for a realistic, unromantic and unexciting narrative effect – the opposite of a Hollywood adventure movie. Somewhere The Narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion, his loyalty, his quixotic quest, are contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of most of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows just after the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-stricken Oran, Rambert has realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the political and social issues of Camus’s time, great big issues of justice and commitment, loyalty and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something, somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic stereotype of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, Grand uses his real skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by The Narrator as demonstrating precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which The Narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them as a result of an incident, when Grand telephones the doctor to tell him that he’s just found Cottard as he was attempting to hang himself. The doctor rushes round and he and Grand save and revive Cottard. Cotard recovers but, from that point onwards, is shifty and consistently evades the police and the authorities, since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in Cottard becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks together. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises the disease is bubonic plague far more quickly than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally mass produced and administered, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague or whether the plague declines because it had worked its way through the population anyway.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children around Oran. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a plague victim, Othon is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising the characters like this makes it clearer than when you actually read the novel, just how schematic they are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity.

Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types. Additional comments:

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is lucky enough to be packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife, back in Paris. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist. (Algeria achieved its independence from France after a horrific war, 15 years after this novel was published, in 1962.)

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever and pain and the last-minute falling away of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically. It is described as a character with agency and intent.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto. Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends a serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus was not a philosopher. Although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to anywhere near the same level as Sartre, who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s coterie. But then, Camus himself was ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus can maybe be described as a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour, he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe.

Exile is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging.

He uses the word hope to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his later ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express, various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’ and the medical aspect, as I’ve pointed out, is medieval.

No, we read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter, at around 100 pages each. The Plague is by far the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The realisation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is much more important to Camus than the ideas around ‘the Absurd’
  3. Camus’s horribly long-winded style which makes stretches of The Plague almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post)

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18-year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England, where, by the 1970s, most people thought of ‘the Church’ as a retirement home for nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope via P.G.Wodehouse to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics.

The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its theological tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God.

Politically, the French Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them, deeply cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free – indeed that you are condemned to be free – to make your own set of values and decisions, derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this knowledge involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

So it seems reasonable to speculate that a lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something vital and life supporting – and that now it is lost.

In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is simply that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish, when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or ‘exiled’ by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse.

Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals, without feeling the need to burst into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of other facts about the world we live in, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

This line of thought was prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly ‘existential’ or ‘atheist’ worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. Christianity is key.

When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

Likewise, God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology.

This plucky godlessness only really has meaning by reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. Camus and his characters can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of the throat, some philosophical foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc? It’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before the characters finally feel able to get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity, and so on.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus.

The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his life and actions. But where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text saturated with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are a few passages about ‘the Absurd’ but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. The Law is absolutely central to these two novels, and it is a notion of the law inextricably interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice.

And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux, and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and ever since have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wonder why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and to be a member of the Resistance. That would have been of huge historic importance and also directly tied his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful.

Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels (published in 1942, 1947 and 1956) mention the Second World War, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all. Kafka was another author obsessed by the idea of law and justice.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything – a transparent reference to The Trial.)


Key terms in The Plague

Because the entire translated text is available online, it’s easy to do a word search for key terms. The following results tend, I think, to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

References to Camusian concepts

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

There are, then, surprisingly few direct references to the main concepts which made him famous.

References to Christian concepts

Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more fully expressed and explored.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

References to the law

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

Exile

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’.

This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from the (Christian) belief systems which give our lives purpose.

But it is typical of Camus that this key term is not a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word in the book is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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