Your April 16th NYT essay perfectly dovetailed with the conclusion of my own re-reading of LA PESTE—a daily dosage of imaginative, imaginal vaccine—for this week I finished re-reading the original, Gilbert’s version, and Gallimard’s foliothèque 8 (Valensi commente).

I am glad that you will be offering a new translation: Gilbert’s prose feels stodgy, his usages too British and outdated, and some passages in his version seem even at times—in the liberties he takes—presumptuous, if not exactly unfaithful. Do you know when your translation will become available to the general public?

I am in greater awe than ever of Camus' narrative technique in LA PESTE, in addition to admiring his clearheaded thinking, judicious irony, and humane priorities. During this most recent reading, I drove myself crazy trying to figure out where does Dr. Rieux' POV end and where does the POV of 'the narrator' end and where o where does Camus’ begin and end? To me, that intriguing dynamic is one of several games that Camus plays well, elevating his narrative high above straight polemical treatise or expository, discursive prose.

I have hammered out 1,000 words of my thoughts on one aspect of Camus’ PESTE in the time of Covid-19. I expect you have other fish to fry but would welcome your response of any kind. Can you provide me with an email address to which I can send it?

And all the best in your “navigating between each sentence and its real-time double.” I can relate!


Peter Boffey

[No response received.]


«Cette chronique touche à sa fin. Il est temps que le docteur Bernard Rieux avoue qu’il en est l’auteur.»

The final subsection [C: pp.273-9] of the fifth and last section of LA PESTE can be divided into three parts: its first four paragraphs in which the narrator’s identity is confessed (sic) and his narrative stratagem justified; a middle passage in which the storyline proceeds; and the last three paragraphs, in which Camus’ credo—fictively embedded—concludes the book. But if—unknown to the reader, even unsuspected—the main protagonist has been the narrateur incognito all along, have we not been duped? The narrator ingratiated himself with such a credible, versatile, sympathetic, and objective chronicle of the plague “in 194-? in Oran.” Ought we to be embarrassed for having let ourselves be seduced into believing in a God-like authorial omniscience? Is the masquerade latterly unmasked a merely literary sleight of hand? To re-read the last section of LA PESTE gives us an opportunity to redeem ourselves as more than casual readers and lets us consider—and appreciate—how Camus’ grand, stunning, imaginative narrative ruse operates throughout the novel.

Yet since when have stories within stories not been told? By what Homeric campfires, in what Biblical oases has our capacity for suspended disbelief not been exploited by the one who speaks? Conrad is out front about wearing a masque in THE HEART OF DARKNESS; MOBY DICK is immediately framed as a tale within a tale. Camus is more circumspect, entering at late hour by the rear door. After the last two parts of the final subsection, allowing the Wizard of Oz to resume his wizardry behind a curtain cum scrim drawn back and left in place, Camus doubles down on the informed scheme between crafty author and complicit reader as the confessor’s singular je reverts to the more ambiguous l’on, that French language pronoun encompassing our English use of we, you, and they and, more rarely employed, an unspecified one. The ultimate resumption of the narrator’s “objective” voice can make us feel privy to one last specimen of the re-veiled narrator’s/author’s self-talk writ large. We have not been tricked by an unreliable narrator but, with a wink, initiated into a worldview and an ethical perspective articulated by a master storyteller. The author has not sabotaged his narrative or his reader: rather, he has elegantly underscored the relevance of storytelling to story.

In re-reading, the chronicler’s vaunted objectivity becomes something of an inside joke for the reader who has been made aware of the mask and is now attentive to the implications of novelist’s closing peripety. This deliberate, artful confounding of the voices of Camus/Rieux/le narrateur bears mightily upon our re-assessment of all the personages who, to greater and lesser extents, become variants of the author’s polymorphous perspective. We have all along differentiated the individualized responses to the evolving situation of the epidemic and apprehended them as de facto characterological. In retrospect, by virtue of the surprise ending, those conversations in Camus' mind embodied in his characterizations include a relativization of the narrator’s point of view impinging upon the author’s/narrator’s/character’s (and reader’s) dynamic relationships with them all.

Camus has not cheated us but, exercising the rights of artistic license, left us with a narration as faithful to the anarchy of a-logical dreams as it is to any chronological, thematic development and philosophical inquiry. No single point of view vis a vis the epidemic—even that of the articulate Dr. Rieux—is unconditioned, beyond questioning. Relativizing the narrator, the author has shown us his cards yet, undaunted after having displayed this trick in the storyteller’s trade, he returns us to the game. Some of us may now feel disarmed from clinging to any prior absolutist judgments upon any players in the book’s domain—whether the author, the narrator, the characters, or ourselves.


Upon first reading the opening chapter of LA PESTE, we had no reason not to entrust the narrator with our credence, assuming him to be a reliable guide through the range of characters to be portrayed, each personage offering different views of the epidemic’s terrain. Camus presents his chronicle of the plague in various formats (dialogues; fully developed scenes; sidebar-like discourses of historical information; excerpts from journals; reports of behavior observed; reports of reports of behavior observed, etc.), and Rieux’s status as a conscientious physician provides him a passe-partout in Oran, granting him exposure to people from many classes and walks of life: functionaries and administrators; patients and their families; medical professionals and civic volunteers. Yet even the earnest physician’s omniscience is shown to be limited and, upon the delayed revelation, we must admit that the narrator’s comportment is neither absolutely right nor wrong, nor morally elevated above the rest of the cast; his point of view provides no one—author or reader—access to a divine overview from which to assign simplistic praise or blame.

Revealing Rieux as the narrator does not stop Camus from delivering a mature credo in his last few paragraphs. To accomplish that expression and remain within the realm of realistic fiction is a significant artistic achievement. We know Shakespeare was capable of imagining and credibly rendering Iago's Credo, but we are not meant to believe that Shakespeare wholly believed what he has Iago say. However, we can believe that Camus wholly believed what he has the narrator Rieux say, all the while sustaining the speaker’s perspective as only one in a multiplicity of points of view. Fascinating artistry, when an author can employ a limited omniscience yet sustain a character who functions as the author's own primary porte-parle!


Gestated during WWII, written during a period including a relapse of Camus’ tuberculosis requiring him to recuperate in France, which fostered his active resistance to the Nazi Occupation and entailed a prolonged separation from his wife, LA PESTE remains a cri de coeur as well as an analytic gloss on one specific historical epoch. Criticized in the brouhaha raised by Barthes et al, who displayed a curious tone-deaf, myopic application of ideological insensitivity to this literary pièce de résistance; faulted for its extirpation of the Arab and Amazigh populace from the novel’s topography in colonized Algeria—perhaps a reflection of the author’s honest admission of his priorities, which decision reflects in turn a sort of widespread cultural apartheid—LA PESTE nevertheless remains a profoundly humane testament. Dramaturgic in its five-act structure, supple in its prose—alternatively lyrical, theatrical, expository, and journalistic—the novel published in 1947 remains pertinent to our own encounter with Covid-19 in the 2020s.

Having disabused ourselves of blind faith in any authorial omniscience, we can marvel at the sudden, swift, deft turn of events when the narrator’s low-key confession clarifies and fortifies the authority of the author’s overarching vision and carries out an apparently magical (but actually hard-earned and fully accomplished) legerdemain of great literary inventiveness. Without undermining the legitimacy of its historical referents—no less imposing than the machinations of the Nazi Occupation of France, the facts of the European Holocaust, the recurrence of plagues throughout known history—by virtue of his narrative strategy and no mere “literary device,” Camus realized a provocative work of art, a story for its time and, unfortunately, for ours.

LA PESTE, OR THE MYTHOLOGY OF THE POSSIBLE [conclusion from ALBERT CAMUS, LA PESTE, commentary by Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, foliothéque 8, Éditions Gallimard, 1991, pp. 139-41]

Between Meursault’s monologue and Clemance’s soliloquy, LA PESTE may seem like a chunky, stuffed, crowded, and not edifying but sermonizing novel. On closer inspection, upon reading and rereading it, we perceive that we cannot have done with it quite so quickly, and that it is difficult to fully realize its richness, complexity, and range—in other words, its success.

And finally, how can we—reading LA PESTE, clarifying its meanings—also safeguard the part of mystery inherent in all great works? We are tempted to say: “While rereading the novel….”

LA PESTE is at once a witness to History, rooted in a specific era which is not so distant, an era in which we still live, a fable of the present time and, strangely atemporal, a fable of Time; an argument in favor of human innocence, drawing upon moral reflection, the analysis of behavior, and the splendor of images to express the inequitable combat of man facing evil, misfortune, suffering, and death; an allegorical description of everyday life and of the implausibility of reality; a myth about human conduct, about what can be said, about what man can or might accomplish for himself and for others—a myth about the power and powerlessness of man. If it is true that every novel’s creation arises from what we can call a mythology of the possible, LA PESTE offers us one of the most fruitful examples.

Expression of revolt, LA PESTE, in its form and meanings, illustrates the demands of creation as Camus defined them in LE MYTHE DE SISYPHE: “It requires daily effort, the mastery of self, the precise apprehension of the limits of the true, measure, and strength.” [p.156, Gallimard]

Perhaps the novel also proposes that “art of living in times of catastrophe,” the necessity of which his “Discours de Suède” would address. [Essais, p. 1073, Pléaide]

It especially remains that “overwhelming testimony to man’s sole dignity: tenacious revolt against his condition.” [LE MYTHE DE SISYPHE, p.156]

[translation by PB April 2020]


[The four texts cited in this article are indicated by the initial letter of their authors’ last names:

(C) LA PESTE by Albert Camus published by Gallimard 1947; pagination from Collection Folio Edition, 1998.

(G) THE PLAGUE translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert first published 1948; pagination from Vintage Books Edition, New York, 1972.

(B) THE PLAGUE translated from the French by Robin Buss first published by Penguin Classics 2002; pagination from Penguin Classic edition, 2013.

(M) THE PLAGUE translated from the French by Laura Marris published by Knopf (New York) 2021.

Evaluating the variant translations of the same original text seems valuable. One first example suggests the influence of translation upon reading Camus’ highly deliberate verbal constructions (fictive and non-), that is, his rhetorical recourse to a rhythmic building up of ideation, as much or more a matter of music and architectonics than a matter of logical reasoning.


« C’était une constatation. » (C135)

A simple simple (sic) sentence, which nevertheless spawned three divergent renditions: “It wasn’t a question.” (M153) “It was a simple statement of fact.” (B110) “He made the observation in a quite casual tone.” (G136) Here the target language has influenced but hardly dictated the disparate choices made. “Constatation” comes across as French Latin (not Anglo-Saxon or Germanic), and in this case the different “takes” on Camus’ use of that straightforward term have more to do with the translators’ stylistic tendencies than any lexical system. Clearly, the translator’s craft entails more than scouring dictionaries, thesauruses, and translations previously accomplished; the translator must locate discrete linguistic elements within their fuller textual contexts, for example: the historical period, the mise-en-scene, the narrator’s voice and point of view.

«…tous les tmoignages de ce genre que la petite histoire pouvait fournir.» (C201)

«…la petite histoire….» That’s obvious, right? “…little history…” or perhaps “…small stories….” Yet those three little words give rise to three different versions:

“…all the first-person accounts of this kind that anecdotal history could furnish….” (M201)

“…all the writings of this kind that could be found in the highways and byways of history….” (B171)

“…all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles, memoirs, and the like….” (G205)

These versions might seem interchangeable and faithful enough but are clearly identical neither in tone, insinuation, nor register, and none captures the succinct je-ne-sais-quoi (sic) of the original French. An ideal version would remain true to the text and still connote the worldview that Camus communicates throughout this opus, that is, curiously enough, a worldview both deadly earnest and ironically skeptical; each of the translations fall short of carrying that quality across from his French into our English. Is there a better version to offer? Is la petite histoire a fixed yet versatile expression in everyday parlance, an idiom known to all educated native speakers, yet also used by less educated naïve speakers? Is it what Americans might call small talk, or regional history, or folk history? Three translations, none perfect. Is a perfect translation conceivable? Seems hard to imagine. Even an ideal translation seems elusive. Notwithstanding the historical affinities between the modern French and English languages, there are conventions and usages so thoroughly endemic to each that the gap between them seems not relatively but absolutely non-spannable.


In multiple instances I detect an over-reaching by the translators and conclude that the choices reflect upon the translators’ agendas more than the original author’s presentation:

«‘Bon,’ dit Rambert. ‘Ils ont des complicités?’» (C134)

“Good,” said Rambert. “So they have connections.” (M152) [acceptable]

‘Fine,’ said Rambert. ‘Are they in collusion with the police?’ (B109) [questionable reference to police]

“I see.” Rambert paused for a moment, then asked: “And, I take it, they’ve friends in court?” (G135)

My preferences, here as elsewhere, begin to show: Marris’ seems closest to the original in letter and spirit; Buss’ seems farther off, by specifying the police; Gilbert’s seems way off-base, presumes too much, and does the French author and his English readers a disservice by delimiting the possibilities of an intentional ambiguity. Who says Rambert “paused”? Who says anything about any judicial accomplices? Only Gilbert, not Camus.


My approval rating is not entirely consistent, and Buss sometimes comes out on top:

« Le docteur l’examina d’un air distrait. » (C264)

“The doctor looked her over with a distanced air.” (M313)

‘The doctor looked at her absent-mindedly.’ (B225)

“The doctor turned and looked at her almost as if she were a stranger.” (G272)

“… looked her over….”—has Marris inadvertently employed a phrase that unavoidably carries sexual-gender-game connotations in contemporary US English? Gilbert’s sentence smacks of that over-reaching for special effect. Who said anything about the speaker “turning”? Not Camus. This scene shows a mature son looking at his elderly mother. Can Gilbert actually have been trying to cash in on the earlier success fou (et d’estime) of L’ETRANGER by employing the subjunctive mode and winking at the reader about some psycho-analyzable aspect of the author’s masked persona? That last unverifiable notion occurs perhaps only to me! In any case, the version elaborates unnecessarily. Buss’ “absent-mindedly” connotes more than “distanced” yet at least it offers no distracting elements.

There are rare occasions when misconstruing the original French seems to result in mis-readings offered to the poor English-speaking person dependent upon Gilbert’s and, to lesser extent, upon Marris’ books; in the following instance, business-like Buss’ treatment again rings true:

«…et c’est de tous qu’il faut parler.» (C266)

“…and that was all they wanted to talk about.” (M316)

“…and we must speak of everyone.” (B227)

“…and it is of all those people on the platform that we wish to speak.” (G274)

Were all three translators working from the same page?


«Tout va être sens dessus dessous. » (C79)

Camus’ French phraseology natturally feels more felicitous than his English translators’, especially in any patch where a translator seems to be striving to convey more meaning than the original signifies.

“Everything’s upside down.” (M84)

‘Everything will be upside down.’ (B63)

“This town’s going to be in an unholy mess, by the look of things.” (G76)

Here Gilbert’s liberties stand out as belabored, self-indulgent, even disrespectful of the original.


Differing word choices are not criminal offenses but do evoke greater and lesser degrees of subtly:

«Un garçon de café est toujours au courant de tous.» (C131)

“Café waiters are always in on everything.” (M149)

“A waiter in a café always knows everything that is going on.’ (B106)

“A waiter usually knows much of what’s going on behind the scenes.” (G132)

Marris’ handling is adroit; Buss’ is correct; Gilbert cannot resist embroidery, perhaps a standard practice of his era.


Challenging examples of the complexity of this whole literary translation enterprise persist. For example, what to do about translating the following specimen of tutoiement?

«…et il tutoyait Rambert pour le persuader….» (C139)

«…talked with Rambert like a friend,…» (M158) [effective]

“…and started to call Rambert tu while trying to persuade him that….” (B113) [savvy, given the options]

“…was calling Rambert ‘old boy,’ and trying to convince him that….” (G140)

Marris proves trustworthy and modestly avoids overstatement; Buss wisely succumbs to underscores an especially intransigent cultural-linguistic disparity between English and French; Gilbert’s post-WWII attempt to re-locate the original tone in the target language’s equivalents now comes across as latter-day Victorian—if not bloody Empire!


Some of the nuanced text seems all but non-translatable or only translatable to much weakened effect. For instance, even after one becomes cognizant of the build-up to this clause—«L’habit chassait la peste.» (C182)—occurring at end of several long interrelated paragraphs, the simultaneous gravity and lightness of Camus’ narrator’s quip seems almost impossible to transmit into any English without losing its poetry, as these results suggest:

“Habit chases out the plague,” (M211)

“Evening dress drives away the plague.” (B155)

“…evening dress was a sure charm against the plague.” (G185)

Marris’ “habit” is in no way today’s standard English usage for “attire” or “clothing” or “dress-up;” while cognately and cognitively correct, it’s too loyal to the French and dissonant to the contemporary ear. Buss renders the usage more subtly, and Gilbert’s identical use of “evening dress” succeeds before he proceeds to spell it out further, maiming the wit of Camus’ brevity.


Chez LA PESTE, the search for any new exhilaration in translation seems misplaced. There are often good arguments in favor of freer-version approaches in translation; of course, it all depends upon what the ground rules are. In the case of LA PESTE—one of the more sober, chastening novels in the canon—the more traditional approach seems appropriate. Marris' and Buss' self-imposed constraints and restraints seem more respectful of the work than Gilbert's voluntary fancies. What a shame that for a half-century the hapless English language reader has had to access Camus’ French language masterpiece only by soldiering through the version by Gilbert who, ironically, gives the impression of having had in mind to improve upon the original! At this late date in the history of LA PESTE’s translation into English, Gilbert’s seems inexcusably verbose, overly free with paraphrasing, and tendentious in its explications, condescending to both author and reader. His bona fides may have been unquestionable (JJ et al), but his version of LA PESTE is superannuated by two generations and now outdone by not one but two better jobs.

Buss delivers the goods but with somewhat flattened affect. If my online research is any indication, his business-like translation doesn’t seem to have gotten much press; as a general reader—not a specialist—I missed its 2001 appearance altogether. I still wonder why the work seems left out of the serious discussions that I've hit upon: as a serious

improvement upon Gilbert’s, it merited and still merits attention, providing a touchstone for literal interpretation and making some nice turns in British English.

Marris’ literary modesty—the translation sometimes seems faithful to a fault—pays off by lowering the temperature and sticking closer to the original text. She produces a genuinely lyrical lilt in US English, favorably comparable to Camus’ peculiarly exquisite French. Her prose equivalents never deviate far from Camus', and her self-imposed constraints prove virtually Camusiens.

December 2022