Epidemic reading: two novels of plague.

Obviously there is no fiction yet about coronavirus, although some speculative fiction comes close. So I thought it might be appropriate to look in more depth at two novels about historical plague experiences.

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni.

I first read this many years ago and used to have a copy but it went up in flames. I got an e-book version from the Gutenberg Project but was unable to find out who translated it.

I was surprised to find that the plague section didn’t start till page 370 of 451 pages. It must have impressed me a lot first time round because I could have sworn it was at least half the book if not more!

The novel was written round about 1828, so contemporary with Austen and in fact slightly later. I don’t know whether some of the differences in style can be explained by Italian culture at the time but I got the impression Manzoni struggled with the concept of the structure of a novel. He breaks off at times to apologise to the reader for things like following one group of characters and ignoring others, hardly an unusual aspect of novels. (I wonder what he would have made of The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire!) He also takes pains to assure the reader that various aspects of life and thought have changed since the events he is recounting. His writing is very florid compared with that of most English writers though that might owe something to the work of the translator. On this second reading, I found myself skimming a lot of description.

The novel is set in Lombardy in the early seventeenth century and tells the story of Renzo and Lucy, and their involuntary separation on the eve of their marriage. Renzo is determined to find Lucy again. Lucy, in dire straits, vows never to marry if the Virgin will save her, and then has problems when Renzo returns.

The first part of the story concerns social problems: the problems facing peasant farmers; the structure and power of the church; the tendency of some noblemen to surround themselves with ‘bravos’, effectively criminals who would carry out the lord’s wishes regardless of law. It’s an interesting look at social history, especially as it affects one family in one village in one region.

During the separation of the betrothed pair, Renzo finds himself in Milan during the famine and bread riots. These are described in great detail and are fascinating in the way they relate to current stockpiling and the logistics of supply. It would seem that nothing much has changed. (Substitute toilet rolls for bread rolls…) Renzo finds himself accused of participation in the riots and flees to Bergamo, then to Venice.

Meanwhile, Lucy arrives in Milan at the outbreak of the plague. Again, the events and reactions are described in exhaustive detail. There was plenty of fake news doing the rounds, despite a lack of internet or even modern media of any kind. Rumour spread almost as fast as the disease. The authorities tried to use social distancing by quarantining the sick, and to deal with known routes of infection by burning the clothes and personal goods of those who died.

I hardly need to add that both Renzo and Lucy survive and there is a happy ending, blessed by the church which does not approve of Lucy’s vow.

It was fascinating to read about a plague which took place in the area of Italy worst hit by the current pandemic, and to realise how little attitudes have changed. One obvious difference was that the churches and monasteries were at the forefront of the fight, whereas now the Health Services are the major players.

I think it was particularly effective to see the social issues, the famine and the plague through the eyes of two protagonists whose story had a romantic appeal and whose characters were well developed. This distances it from plague accounts like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (based on a true account) and Samuel Pepys’ diary, both of which simply give the experiences of a single person. As such The Betrothed is an interesting example of an early novel addressing social issues, something that few fiction writers were doing at the time.

Another theme in the novel is that of repentance and redemption, perhaps not surprising given the power of the church, but also interesting in its application to other periods and people.

This was written two hundred years ago, based on events that happened three hundred years ago, but in many respects it could be a novel about today.

The story gripped my interest and the information about the devastation of both famine and plague seemed fresh and pertinent to our modern situation. I would recommend the book with the caveat that the modern reader can afford to skim, as I did, some of the more meandering descriptions.

Books that are out of copyright are published in a variety of e-book formats by the Gutenberg Project and are free, so go and download The Betrothed!

The Plague by Albert Camus

I thought I’d read this (years ago) but I hadn’t. I’d read The Stranger, and disliked it intensely. So I hadn’t looked for any of his other works. I read this purely because I wanted something to compare with The Betrothed, and because an article in The New Statesman mentioned it as relevant reading for our times.

Camus’s works are out of copyright (this past January) so although if you want a print or e-book version you might have to pay for it I felt no qualms about downloading a pdf and then converting it for upload to my Kindle. According to The Guardian, Camus’s daughter says it’s nice to have a little money coming to the estate again but that she is sure her father would have been more interested in fame.

The book is interesting, in that it deals with the plague in Oran, in Algeria, supposedly in the 1940s with modern trappings such as cars, trains and up-to-date hospitals with facilities for developing serums (vaccines?). However, Camus, writing in 1947, based his account on the spread of the plague in Algeria in 1849.

The novel is a straightforward account of an epidemic in a quarantined town, as seen through the eyes of a doctor working both in the hospital and among private patients. It follows Dr Rieux and his friends through their experiences. At the same time, it mirrors the ‘plague’ of Nazism that Camus saw overtake Europe so the book can be read on more than one level. This is intentional on the part of the author, not just later critics reading between the lines.

The sufferings of the main characters and of the town are uniformly depressing and even the ending, when the quarantine is lifted, is not all sweetness and light. In this, the account is probably more realistic than Manzoni’s story but I am not particularly fond of fiction that does not have a happy or hopeful ending. There is quite enough non-fiction for that.

Like The Betrothed, the novel divides into three sections but all three chart the plague.

In the first, we meet the town and some of its inhabitants, and share with them the growing horror at the number of dead rats and the first reports of an unusual disease. There is a sense of a story in waiting, a calm before the storm. The narrator does not (at this point) name himself and indeed talks about his own part in the tale in the third person, something that irritated me as the book went on.

In the second section the plague is beginning to take hold, people cannot leave Oran, and family members or loved ones who were away when the disease broke out are not allowed to return. Dr Rieux’s wife is being treated for TB in a sanatorium a hundred miles away and he knows it is unlikely he will ever see her again. Reactions to the conditions are varied, and there are attempts to leave, to take advantage of things like food shortages, to communicate with the outside world, and even to pretend nothing is happening. Bureaucracy wields its usual power, and for the time being, the wealthier inhabitants are spared the suffering of the poor, presumably because of the greater rates of infections in the slums. There is also fake news, alongside rumours of cures, preventatives, and so on.

The final section sees the plague spread throughout the town. Funerals become a problem. There are initially lime pits in the old cemetery but even these can no longer hold all the corpses. A crematorium is set up with trains rattling to and fro day and night and smoke covering the town when the wind is in the wrong direction. (The descriptions seem to be an unnecessarily heavy-handed allusion to the Nazi concentration camps.) Dr Rieux continues, throughout, to work doggedly and ‘do his best’ although doctors become unpopular because they enforce quarantine and the separation of families. Among the other characters we meet one who originally thought it all none of his business but has a change of heart and becomes a keen front line worker alongside Rieux. Another smuggles goods. Yet another simply wishes to direct his life towards some kind of sainthood (without a belief in a deity). Eventually, the plague passes, and the town is released.

I found the story interesting, but didn’t enjoy it as much as The Betrothed. There was little underlying plot for any of the characters and only one had any real development over the course of events. I preferred Manzoni’s use of a romance, however unlikely, to illuminate wider happenings. Camus is invested in exploring character and metaphor, and for me this makes the novel a less intense personal experience.

I found it odd that Camus never referred to WWII or any other world history (other than in metaphors like the one I mentioned). The town was isolated by quarantine, but also from all news. Everything took place in a strange vacuum which perhaps reflected the feelings of the residents but gave me a sense of unreality that detracted from the overall effect. So did the annoying conceit that left the identity of the narrator hidden until near the end even though it was perfectly obvious from near the beginning.

Would I recommend it? As a kind of curiosity, perhaps, or if you are interested in a novel penned by a writer who was a philosopher first and a story teller second. And of course, as an account of a town in lockdown.

Two novels about plague: one written in the nineteenth century about plague in the seventeenth, the other written just after WWII ostensibly about a contemporary plague but in fact based on a nineteenth century one. Both read during the start of our lockdown in UK, to a background of news bulletins about numbers of deaths, the fake news that people spread, the failures and the triumphs of politicians. Interesting! I’m glad I read both. However, I would recommend The Betrothed unreservedly as an intriguing classic novel, but suggest The Plague should only figure on your reading list if you are as intrigued by plague literature as I was.

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