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3:AM in Lockdown 61: Laura Marris

The Plague During Pestilence
Laura Marris interviewed by Ethan Powers.

It was in late January that Laura Marris began to see a reflection of her work on the television.

Marris, a literary translator and creative writing professor at the University at Buffalo, had been working for several months on a new translation of Albert Camus’s The Plague. Glancing intermittently between the words on the pages and those on the screen, it wasn’t until one word in particular began flashing across the bottom of TV screens throughout the world that the abnormality of the situation truly hit her.

“QUARANTINE,” the screens read, a word that appears countless times in Camus’s novel and carries with it a connotation historically attached to the very notion of plague as well as the physical and psychological ramifications it inflicts upon the infected populations.

“The quarantine as it happened in China sort of mirrors what happens in the book, where people are sort of unaware of what exactly is progressing,” Marris said.

Gradually over the following weeks, Marris entered a surreal state of consciousness, where the descriptions of the fictional pestilence she was translating to English from Camus’s native French manifested in the real world as the novel coronavirus pandemic brought the globe to a standstill.

Government responses languish as their reactive approaches are criticized. Case numbers rapidly increase while residents deal with the suddenly indefinite cessation of daily routines. Shortages of goods exacerbate anxieties and the city centre, once crowded with patrons gleefully partaking in the choices of consumerism, becomes a husk of commerce relegated to memory as stores, bars and restaurants empty.

Camus wrote his now eerily prophetic work between the Algerian city of Oran — the setting of the novel — during World War II and also in Nazi-occupied France. By 1947 when The Plague was published, the French citizenry yearned for writing that would allow them to process the trauma of the Occupation, if not to offer answers for its existence, then at least to chronicle the experiences of living beneath the pall of fascism.

In writing The Plague, a work widely read as an allegorical novel narrating the spread of totalitarianism, Camus tapped into an eager audience in France. He didn’t have to wait long to revel in the same kind of enthusiasm abroad. Stuart Gilbert, a renowned scholar and translator of James Joyce, worked quickly to get the book translated into English and completed the task in just a few months. Gilbert’s translation published in 1948 remains one of only two major English translations of the work, in addition to the Penguin Modern Classics edition translated by Robin Buss in 2001.

Sensing interest from the academic community, Knopf Doubleday approached Marris about the possibility of a new interpretation. They invited her to “audition” for the project by translating the first 20 pages of the novel. Having liked what they saw, Marris’s translation of The Plague is now set to be published next year. In it, she hopes to restore what she refers to as the “restraint” in Camus’s narrative as the author intended it to read. “[Gilbert] is very accurate. It’s not that he makes translation mistakes, but he tends to over-paraphrase,” she said. “He sort of brings his own experience of reading the book to his translation. Where Camus will be restrained, Gilbert will write the emotion of the scene, but that’s not in the text.”

The examples, she says, are relatively innocuous to the untrained eye, but the liberty in diction that Gilbert exercised can portray a poetic heroism that Camus went to lengths to avoid. Where Camus will write “And then they got back to work,” Gilbert’s translation will read, “They set their shoulders to the wheel”. For Marris, Camus’s understated and frequently blunt language was his way of portraying heroism as it existed in wartime France — not as some extraordinary incident of valor, but as the muted act of endurance and of resiliently carrying on, without accolade or fanfare, in the face of tribulation.

Yet don’t attribute the poetic lyricism of Camus’s prose to Gilbert. “It’s kind of like [Gilbert] is adding cymbal crashes, where Camus wants you to feel a cymbal crash, and he wants to evoke that by having something significant happen, but happen with restraint,” Marris said.

Marris is no stranger to authoritative French fiction, having previously produced an acclaimed translation of Blood Dark, Louis Guilloux’s influential World War I novel, as well as a comic book version of Marcel Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. But Camus has presented a handful of distinct challenges, particularly in his ability to oscillate between the esoteric moments of his characters and the long-winded existential ruminations of the narrator. “Camus has this ability to zoom in on an individual story, picking out something happening in the city or watching someone through the window with an odd routine, and then zoom out with a portrayal of loneliness and separation. The challenge is to be able to keep up with Camus when he’s writing the granular detail of those intimate moments and then, suddenly, he’s offering his philosophy on loneliness,” said Marris.

Exile and separation are recurrent themes throughout The Plague, not only in their depiction of physical absence, but the way in which that absence begins to permeate the heart and mind, endowing the inflicted with a kind of individualized suffering. For Camus, the themes were personal. He wrote The Plague separated from his wife while he battled tuberculosis, and the appetency he endured as a result is inherent in his novel’s text through Oran’s unattached couples — “the great longing of an unquiet heart is to possess constantly and consciously the loved one, or, failing that, to be able to plunge the loved one, when a time of absence intervenes, into a dreamless sleep timed to last unbroken until the day they meet again,” Camus writes. Camus meticulously describes the anguish of indefinite separation inexplicably imposed by an unseen force, and the winding syntax that gives way to some of the novel’s most rhythmically moving passages is deliberate, says Marris. The author, she notes, intended for readers to be active participants in that heartaching discomfort, not omniscient observers to it. “In those sentences when he’s talking about separated lovers, he actually will stretch them really long, so you kind of feel the pull of the characters waiting,” Marris said. “You almost feel as a reader that you can’t get a breath.”

In catching those breaths, Marris also wants readers to take stock of a character in The Plague whose presence in the novel has previously been inconspicuous and underappreciated: the city of Oran itself. She believes that the context of the novel’s setting is somewhat erased through translations that can homogenize the narrative for Western audiences.

A view of Oran by Laura Marris

In December, Marris traveled to Oran to see the novel’s topography up close, and while many of the street names have changed since Algeria gained independence in 1962, facets of the city referred to by Camus can still be found. “You can see where Camus imagined the guard posts,” Marris said. “People have read this novel for a long time as something that was perhaps more allegorical than realist, and certainly there are things in the novel that are true to the physical spaces of the city.”

The behavior of Oran’s citizenry, as Camus envisioned, upon the declaration that plague had indeed entered the city, has become a timeless portrait of humanity’s response to the arrival and progression of pestilence in all its forms — erratic at first, then defiantly unbelieving, followed by reluctantly somber acceptance. Just as enduring, however, was Camus’s ability to capture the seemingly perpetual knack of bureaucracy to stifle fact-finding. When Oran’s doctors gather at the beginning of the novel and are debating, as Marris puts it, whether “to call the plague what it is,” the scene stings with an eerie relevance for modern readers who have borne witness to a U.S. administration that first dismissed the COVID-19 pandemic as a hoax before disputing the idea that American society could be adversely affected by it. The U.S. has now recorded more than 80,000 deaths as a result of the virus, more than any other single nation.

The future inability of governments to accept the newfound realities created by plague — or plague-like ideas like that of nationalism — is something Camus accounts for in the conclusion of his novel when he provides a list of clandestine locations where a disease might lie dormant for decades before reemerging. In some translations, that list includes the word “paper”. “I think the actual French is a lot closer to ‘paperwork,’” says Marris. “I think that’s a pretty direct call-out to the ways in which bureaucracy can prevent the truth from coming out, or at least slow it down.”

Camus provides readers of The Plague with an admonitory ending, cautioning them against abstraction in the face of authoritarian swellings. He also eschews the notion of writing into the narrative some kind of deus ex machina where a cure-all serum is discovered, eradicating the plague and saving thousands of would-be fatalities. Instead, the triumph, if there is one to be had, comes through a combination of science, humanistic efforts, and the gradual fulfilment of the plague’s natural function. The result of the Sisyphean fight against the pestilence becomes secondary to the obstinacy of the fight itself.

Despite the futile endeavors of protagonist Dr. Bernard Rieux to halt the disease’s lethality, even when he must accept the role of passive onlooker to the plague’s ravaging of a young boy dying in agonizing pain, the contagion persists. Camus knew that such evils could never be fully exterminated through one act or individual.

He also knew that the intransigent uprising of autocracy follows the same trajectory as a deadly pathogen. It was in that prescient understanding that he sought to make The Plague a vaccine against such hatred, with the potential to avoid the day, as Camus wrote, “when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city”.

“In the novel, Camus’s idea of heroism is that people fight something, and they get knocked down, and they fight it again and get knocked down. They do their best, but it’s a constant process,” said Marris. “I think he hoped that people have enough resistance to these ideas within them, so that when these movements for nationalism and fascism raise their heads, we can recognize them and put a stop to them.” 

@lauramarris

@ethan_powers

First posted: Thursday, May 14th, 2020.

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