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The Plague
French edition
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La Peste - titre Manuscrit d'Albert Camus

This volume is the first-ever reproduction in manuscript form of The Plague. A landmark and visionary work echoing the crises of today’s world; a bestseller once more in 2020.

The Plague, the manuscript of Albert Camus

Sixty years after the death of Albert Camus, SP Books are publishing the manuscript of the author’s first major popular success: The Plague. Published in 1947, its success was a surprise even to the author himself, the result of a long-term effort.

La Peste - livre et étui

A novel written over five years

The word ‘plague’ appears for the first time in October 1941 in his Notebooks, but Albert Camus had already been thinking for some time about the sweeping epic which would initiate the second great cycle of his work following his cycle of the Absurd: the cycle of the Revolt. The preparatory work of the writer was intense and well-documented; he began to sketch out several of his characters at the end of the 1930s. From the 1987 treatise La Défense de l’Europe contre la peste ('The Defense of Europe against the plague') by Adrien Proust (father of Marcel), to Mémoires sur la peste en Algérie('Memoirs on the plague in Algeria') by Adrien Berbugger, Une épidémie de peste en Mésopotamie en 1867 ('An epidemic of the plague in Mesopotamia') by Dr Tholozan, La Peste: épidémiologie, bactériologie, prophylaxie ('The Plague: epidemiology, bacteriology, prophylaxis') by Dr Bourges… his sources were extensive, both scientific and literary. He read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d'outre-tombe ('Memoirs from Beyond the Grave'), documenting the ravages of the plague in Marseille.

La Peste - Manuscrit

The choice of title proved difficult for the author – he initially considered Les Séparés ('The Separated'), Peste ou aventure (roman) ('Plague or Adventure (novel)'), La Peste libératrice ('The Plague of Freedom') and Les Prisonniers ('The Prisoners').

When he began to write this very manuscript containing the first version of the novel between August and December 1942 – the corrections evident on the pages dating probably from January 1943 – he had no idea that it would take him five years to master his tale. The themes he decided to tackle – the fight against evil, the importance of collectivity and solidarity, division – as well as the allegory of resistance against Nazism, were so fundamental that he dismantled and rewrote multiple different versions. It took him five long years, and much perseverance in his task. The different versions succeed one another throughout pages filled with his tight handwriting and fingerprints as he refined his vision for the text until it was complete. Camus wrote to his friend Lucette Maeurer: “I have made good progress with The Plague but I think I shall have to start all over again”, and then in July 1946 in his Notebooks: “Plague. In all my life I’ve never felt such a sense of failure. I’m not entirely sure I’ll make it through to the end.”

A manuscript very different from the published version

Written out in blue ink with corrections marked in black and pencil, Albert Camus brought this document into being in solitude, separated from his wife Francine and holed up in the manor house of Panelier, a small hamlet in Haute-Loire in middle France. While his wife returned to Algeria, Camus had stayed in the countryside for health reasons and ended up trapped there by the tragic political developments that followed. The beginning of the German invasion of Southern France in November marked a turning point in his writing: in his Notebooks he writes that they are “Like rats!”, noting that the enemy can come in human as well as bacteria form.

Camus La Peste

There are numerous variations between this 105-page manuscript numbered by Camus and the final published version, varying in both form and content. Between the two, there are more than 1500 variations, affecting words, groups of words and structures. It includes unknown characters (such as the professor Philippe Stephan) and scenes judged later too mordant, while the individual dimension of the narrative still overshadows the collective. Page after page, the document shows the extremely high standards to which Albert Camus held himself. Reading and deciphering the manuscript, an insight into the initial gestation period of The Plague, is a precious tool for understanding the development of Albert Camus’ novel.

The Plague’s contemporary relevance

Without doubt, the crises that the world is currently experiencing in historic, health and geopolitical dimensions are encouraging readers to return to classic works of literature, and none more so than The Plague, which Camus in fact conceived as a pamphlet, an invitation to revolt as well as to reflect.

Of course, we know that the plague has its benefits, it opens our eyes, it forces us to think. Thus it mirrors all the ills of this world and the world itself.
Albert Camus - Carnets II, 1942-1951

Facsimile La Peste

The novel, which is made up of five parts (four in the manuscript), chronicles the story of the small town Oran in Algeria contaminated by the plague from April 194X. Doctor Bernard Rieux first discovers a dead rat on the stairs of his building, which is only the beginning; other rodents litter the streets of the city, an undiagnosed fatal fever infects the population and the city gradually succumbs to panic. Once the disease is identified, the authorities attempt to maintain control of the spread by treating the ill and appealing for a serum from Paris. The gates of Oran are then closed, cutting it off from the rest of the world. The rising count of the dead forms the pattern of the desperate days of the men and women trapped inside the walls. A state of siege is deAn allegory of European resistance against Nazism of the past, ideological and state totalitarianism of the present, collective action versus frenzied individualism, the need for consciousness and civil action, fear, isolation, separation and confinement… The Plague draws frightening parallels with human existence today.

An unexpected success

The novel was published in 1947 and was an immediate success both with critics and the public. It was translated into ten languages and won the prix des Critiques (Critics’ Prize). “The Plague is up to 96,000 [sales]. It's had more victims than I thought”, wrote Camus in a letter the same year. The novel was adapted for film in 1992 and for theatre in 2011-2012.

Albert Camus gave the manuscript to his friends Michel and Janine Gallimard in August 1944, as attested to by the dedication scribbled at the bottom of the first page, which reads ‘With the memory of your old friend A.C.’. The manuscript afterwards entered the collection of passionate bibliophile Daniel Sickles, before arriving in the manuscript department of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 1983.

La Peste - Roman d'Albert Camus

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Eric Karl Anderson (@lonesomereader) shares an enlightening
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