Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Interpreting 'La Peste.' (by Albert Camus, 1947)

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Interpreting 'La Peste.' (by Albert Camus, 1947)

Article excerpt

Tout va etre sens dessus dessous. (La Peste, p. 1285)(1)

I

In the introduction to a collection of articles devoted to La Peste published in 1977, Brian Fitch described the novel as "le texte romanesque de Camus qui a le moins retenu l'attention des critiques."(2) Little seems to have changed in the intervening years. The MLA Bibliography covering the eighties lists nearly twice as many items devoted to L'Etranger as to La Peste. Camus's longest fictional text seems to have provoked surprisingly languid critical activity, with a flurry of critical guides but relatively little other work.(3) Although (at least in my experience) the novel continues to generate enthusiasm amongst undergraduates, it has failed to produce a high level of interest amongst their teachers. From the outset I shall suggest an explanation for this: despite the best efforts of admirers of the novel, La Peste continues to be perceived as basically straightforward, proposing ethical positions which are at best outdated. The text does not seem to be problematic enough for modern tastes. It will be the argument of this paper that such a view can be largely ascribed to a significant degree of resistance to the problems of interpretation raised by the text, a resistance that can be traced within the text itself, as well as being visible in critical commentaries and even in the pronouncements of its author. My aim here is to suggest some of the hermeneutic and historical causes of that resistance.

Since the fierce polemics of the forties and early fifties, La Peste has more or less disappeared from the field of critical controversy. This is surprising, given that assertions of the inexhaustibility of the Camus's novel have become commonplace. Two recent studies end on a similar note. Jacqueline Levi-Valensi argues that "il est difficile de rendre compte de sa richesse, de sa complexite, de sa portee: en d'autres termes de sa reussite,"(4) and she recommends that we should attempt to preserve "la part de mystere inherente a toute grande oeuvre."(5) In a different critical vocabulary, but to similar effect, Edward Hughes writes that "a text like La Peste is clearly capable of being invested with new meanings and significance as subsequent generations of readers assimilate it. As their preoccupations, preferences and situation change, so a text will undergo new forms of reception and interpretation."(6) In principle, then, the text is affirmed to be available to new, even conflicting interpretations and hence radical controversy. In accepting this possibility, critics of the most diverse tendencies are paying homage to an often unexpressed critical doxa: interpretation is never complete, and the best texts are those capable of generating the most, and the most varied, interpretations. In his book The Classic Frank Kermode shows the convergence of modern writing and new protocols of reading in what he calls the "modern classic": "[The modern classic] offers itself to readings which are encouraged by its failure to give a definitive account of itself. Unlike the old classic, which was expected to provide answers, this one poses a virtually infinite set of questions."(7) Thus it becomes possible to confer literary value in an age of suspicion: "It is in the nature of works of art to be open, in so far as they are 'good'."(8) Good works are open, the best works are those which are most open; though Kermode does add that "it is in the nature of authors, and of readers, to close them."(9)

Given what Rachel Bespaloff describes as "la multiplicite des significations et des interpretations" suggested by La Peste,(10) it is perhaps surprising that there is such agreement amongst commentators regarding the meaning of the work. Critical consensus seems to have arisen almost simultaneously with the publication of the novel in 1947, and the most recent studies echo the earliest articles. Roger Quilliot's analysis of the triple sens of the novel (as account of a plague, as description of the Occupation, and as a metaphysical study) summarizes a consensus which still commands support. …

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