One hundred years ago this fall philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus was born in French Algeria.
Although best known today for his work The Stranger, Camus wrote several important books, was involved in the French Resistance during World War II and was an active human rights proponent.
The second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, after Rudyard Kipling, Camus died in car crash in January 1960 at age 46, less than three years after winning the award.
One of Camus’ masterpieces is The Plague, a 1947 novel set in the Algerian city of Oran.
In Camus’ work, an outbreak of bubonic plague sweeps the coastal community, which is sealed off as a health measure, trapping hundreds of thousands for months as the death toll steadily mounts.
The Plague ponders the vagaries of fate and the conflict between man’s innate tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, even when none may exist.
The book, believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran’s population in the middle of the 19th century following French colonization, is illustrative of Camus’ stripped-down style.
Camus’ description of the ravages of the plague on those inhabiting the town jail – whether jailer or jailed – is both simple and brilliant:
“The plague was no respecter of persons and under its despotic rule everyone, from the warden down to the humblest delinquent, was under sentence and, perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned in the prison.”
When you find a sentence that taut and powerful, it becomes readily apparent how a talented literature professor can devote an entire semester to a single book.