It may sound like the LAST thing you’d want to read right now, but in a weird way it could be the feel-good novel of the year. The Plague, by Albert Camus, is the story of a major city under siege by a deadly virus. Set in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940’s, it’s a graphic portrayal of a city suddenly infested with Bubonic Plague, strictly quarantined and cut off from the rest of the world. With little outside help, the city and its stunned residents must cope with the unreality of their situation alongside its very real threat to their lives. With contagion and corpses around every corner, the moral fiber of the populace is tested to its limits.
As in all his major writings, Camus questions the fundamental nature of life and death. As hard as it is to define those questions, the answers are even more elusive. But The Plague is a beautiful, yes beautiful, frightening and inspiring study of human nature in all its imperfection. And while we all want to escape, somehow, from the sadness and fear that right now bombard us from every direction, perhaps a deep dark look into the mirror of literary fiction is a truer escape, one that might comfort us longer and reflect a bit of light upon our path.
Her gaze wandered over Paris, over the sky from which the light drained a little earlier each day, with an impartial severity which possibly condemned nothing.
We saw the movie, recently, about her, and decided we wanted to read one of her books. We had never heard of Colette. But it turns out that we were very familiar with her work. Gigi is one of my wife’s favorite movies. And when I was a kid and began learning to play the cornet, the title song of Gigi was one of the songs in my head that I longed to hear coming out of the bell of my instrument.
So from the library we got Colette’s volume containing her short story Gigi and her short novella The Cat. Reading this mere sample of Colette’s work does not make us experts. It only makes us fans. Here are some thoughts from a fan:
Gigi is a charming story, the movie tracked it pretty closely, just adding a few scenes and characters and a perfect musical score. With refreshing realism and sweet undertone of satire, Colette wrote a story of what one publisher refers to as “the politics of love”. That interesting phrase seems to be a good label for the story, which I would probably have called a comedy of manners. But labels don’t do justice to the story, which is a very special sketch of a very unique romantic entanglement created by the moral ambiguity of early 20th Century Paris. I finished the story with the sudden realization that I had just read a fine piece by a writer of underestimated talent. The Cat did nothing to dispel that opinion and only cemented it.
The Cat gives new meaning to the term “cat lover”. It is a sweet portrayal of human weakness and shortcomings, including awkwardness, jealousy and mistrust between lovers. Colette painted the portrait with a keen sense of observation. And, assuming that the translation is true to the original*, she wrote in language of such rich color and impressive depth that I will keep some of her work in the little gallery in my head where I try to collect bits of artistry, bits of intelligence that may not be masterpieces to others but are priceless to me.
*My brother-in-law could tell me. He used to teach French.
“I’ve always thought,” I said, “that anyone who makes someone else doubt the foundations of his morals hasn’t lived in vain.”
Our daughter loaned us the book. My wife and I both read it. I had never heard of Marguerite Duras. I am glad to have crossed paths with her at last. The Sailor From Gibraltar is an odyssey of sorts, and a strange kind of love story. A nameless disenchanted bureaucrat becomes infatuated with a woman pursuing an endless voyage to find a lost lover. Both loves are one-sided, obsessive, and blind. At the deepest level, the novel is a study in philosophy and psychology. It charts the murky depths of love and, certainly, life as well.
Written and translated in tough, lean prose, the book is a search for something that doesn’t exist. The story and its characters are full of contradictions. They don’t know their own minds—or hearts. And that’s what ultimately touches ours.