Reading “The Plague” in the Middle of a Plague

The Guardian recently reported that novels about epidemics were selling like crazy in Europe, including books by Stephen King, Dean Koontz–and of course Camus’ 1947 classic The Plague.

It’s set in the grim, dull, very un-scenic Mediterranean town of Oran in French-controlled Algeria where business seems people’s main preoccupation until it’s suddenly swept by wave after wave of dying bloody rats.  Everywhere.  Apartment building stairways, street corners, markets, cafés. Citizens are grossed out and complain to the authorities, and massive clean-ups go into effect day after day after day.  Then the rats vanish.

Problem solved.  Until people start showing signs of the bubonic plague.  In scenes that will seem eerily familiar, slow-moving officials wonder whether they should actually use the word “plague” or not because it might cause alarm, and the public notices they put up alerting people to guard their health are mealy-mouthed and not specific enough.

That all changes when the walled city is shut down completely, with guards at the gates preventing anyone from leaving.  With limited telephone service (it’s the late 1940s, after all), everyone is cut off from neighboring cities, towns, and France itself except by telegrams of ten words.  At first it seems this must be temporary.

Then dread spreads through the populace as there’s no end in sight and the death toll is so high that it’s reported daily rather than weekly in a vain attempt to make the numbers seem less alarming.  It’s hard not to think of the U.S. Surgeon general talking on CNN recently about the importance and difficulty of “messaging.”  Or a president not wanting a cruise ship to unload its passengers because that would supposedly increase the numbers of the infected–as if being aboard a ship puts them in an alternate universe.

Conditions worsen, rationing and irrational behavior become the new reality.  At the center of this unrelenting storm is Doctor Rieux who first observed signs of the plague in his patients.  As the story progresses, he’s overwhelmed, overworked, and understandably hardened by the horrors he faces, yet he argues “That’s no reason to give up.”

The book is filled with people risking their lives to care for the ill and dying not because they’re heroes, but because it’s the right thing to do.  They contrast with the scores of citizens who have unavoidably succumbed to a habit of despair that’s “worse than despair itself.”  They’re inspiring.

Reading The Plague is surprisingly cathartic in our anxious, uncertain time because it’s also surprisingly beautiful. The translation is subtle and fluid, the writing quietly lyrical even when describing the grim realities facing a city siege–as millions of Americans feel right now.

It was four in the afternoon.  The town was warming up to boiling-point under a sultry sky.  Nobody was about, all shops were shuttered.  Cottard and Rambert walked some distance without speaking, under the arcades.  This was an hour of the day when the plague lay low, so to speak; the silence, the extinction of all color and movement, might have been due as much to the fierce sunlight as to the epidemic, and there was no telling if the air was heavy with menace or merely with dust and heat.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

Academia: A Nest of Vipers?

Over the years and on many book tours for my mysteries, people have asked me “Is academia as vicious as all that?”

The answer is Absolutely. How do I know? Because I not only escaped that world with lots of notes, but I have many friends who are still there, reporting one fiction-worthy incident after another to me.

I’ll start with a minor example that shows you how petty and small-minded academia can be. Back in 2011, I was invited to teach at Michigan State University’s English department, where I had earned my PhD years before. The current chair had realized via a news story that I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. He was impressed, and I was flattered.

When I started teaching, the office manager wouldn’t order a plastic name plate for my office door, the kind that all the faculty members had. We’re talking about something that costs just a few bucks and is recyclable, for a department with a budget well in the millions. That was as silly as it was insulting.

My current mystery State University of Murder focuses on a charming but dictatorial chairman of an English Department, Napoléon Padovani, who manages to alienate almost all his colleagues in an oppression blitzkrieg. He’s a composite of department chairs I’ve heard about from across the country.

One chair had a bizarre approach to resolving a conflict between two professors: he suggested that the two of them get drunk together at the annual Christmas party and all their problems would be resolved—they would be friends forever! That’s on the ludicrous side, to be charitable.

Another held academic cage matches. Adjuncts competing for the possible tenure-track positions that might, just might be opening up each year had to present their work-in-progress every week (!) and put it in the best possible light and hope they might win the prize. The pressure was intense, the competition ugly and brutal. There’s a department chair I heard of who revealed personal psychological information about a professor during a department meeting while supposedly “worrying” about her mental state, totally violating that professor’s privacy.

And another chair who knew a faculty member was going to complain about his disregard for university regulations and not only tried to stop her from a formal complaint at a university committee, but sat behind her at the meeting along with one of his henchmen and muttered derisively when she read her statement.

A religious studies chairman I know of argued with a rabbi teaching in his department as an adjunct that Judaism was absolutely not a culture but could only be spoken about and taught as a religion. Their disagreement was a major reason the rabbi wasn’t rehired.  I should add that the chair was not Jewish.

When my office mate at Michigan State University reported that a graduate student in the department who was a former boyfriend had burst into her apartment, knocking the door off her hinges, and roughed up her current boyfriend and threatened her, the chair did absolutely nothing.

And dispatches from a department I know of are that the current atmosphere is “Stalinist.” While there’s significant disapproval of actions the chair is taking to limit academic freedom and free speech, those faculty members who disagree are afraid to speak up for fear of harassment and punishment. And the faculty listserv is now off limits to discussion of anything remotely “controversial.”

My Nick Hoffman series is satirical, taking real situations and people, extrapolating from them, making them more ridiculous, more threatening–but the emotional core is ultimately true. And the emotional toll this kind of rampant and widespread abuse of various kinds can take is also true.

There’s no evidence that George Bernard Shaw actually said “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,” but whoever is the source, that quote has guided me through my series and will continue to do so.

***
Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder. He teaches individualized writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  This blog originally appear at the Mystery Fanfare website.

Viral Quotes That Mark Twain Never Said

The Internet is awash in bogus quotations and Mark Twain is a favorite “source.”

Here’s one that’s all over Facebook, and the first time I read it was early in the morning, spoiling an excellent cup of coffee: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

My warning bells went off immediately because the whole thing sounded too contemporary, especially “putting us on.” Not that Twain couldn’t be scathing about politicians. In A Tramp Abroad he wrote, “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”

While I haven’t read nearly as much Twain as Eliot, I know The Gilded Age well, having read James, Howells, Wharton, and other novelists of that period extensively. I also researched it for a few years to write my own Gilded Age novel, Rosedale in Love: The House of Mirth Revisited.

The quote doesn’t  show up anywhere as legitimately Twain’s, but it is definitely viral.

Then there’s this beauty:

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Twain never said it, and it leads the list of the ten most famous bogus Twain quotes.

Why would anyone with half a brain or an ear for the English language think this could be by Mark Twain? It has no wit, no style, no soul. It’s all about mechanics and could have been written by a team putting together an instruction manual.

The Web is flooded with sites where Twain supposedly gives this banal advice, and because Twain supposedly said it, that means wow, it’s important, take note!

Twain is often picked as the avatar of what Oscar Wilde called “more than usually revolting sentimentality,” like this classic:

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Could anyone who’s read Twain or even read about Twain possibly think he’d say something this smarmy and illogical? And if so, how?

It’s as incongruously Twain’s as this other quotation that’s run amok across the Internet, spread by people eager to associate any thought at all with some distinguished American author, preferably dead:

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Yes, unbeknownst to most Twain scholars and fans, the great satirist really wanted to write greeting cards….

The maudlin violets quote has been been sadly mis-attributed to Twain for some decades with the help of the Dear Abby advice column. More recently, it got the imprimatur on NPR of self-improvement guru Dr. Wayne W. Dyer (W for Wikiquote?).

You’d think that someone looked up to for enlightenment by tens of millions of people might want to get his facts straight. All he’d have to do was consult Google to see the quote show up as problematic right away.

If you want to check a Twain quote yourself, it’s very easy.  One resource is Snopes, which has its own Twain page.   And there’s Barbara Schmidt’s web site TwainQuotes.com where you get the real man, not a fake reeking of  Victorian sentimentality or bogus can-d0 spirit.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Literary Agents Have Messed With My Mind

Huffington Post once reported that a British literary agent got sentenced to prison for cheating gullible, fame-seeking clients out of their money. His clients thought movie deals were in the works with big Hollywood names — and who doesn’t want to be famous as well as rich?

I’ve never been cheated by an agent, but remember in Moonstruck how Vincent Gardenia warns Cher not to go through with a second marriage? He tells her, “Your mother and I were married fifty-two years and nobody died. You were married, what, two years, and somebody’s dead. Don’t get married again, Loretta. It don’t work out for you.”

Well, that’s been my story with literary agents. All of them.  They didn’t work out for me.

One agent was funny and charming and we had great chats, but my career only moved a bit forward over several years because an editor I admired approached me to switch publishers.  So I brought her the deal.

Another agent made me feel like I was caught up in a bad romance, never responding to my queries or telling me who was seeing my book. It turned out that she was busy sleeping with her most famous client.  A third agent screwed up a book deal in major ways and a fourth offered me great advice for revising a book, but despite my doubts took it to New York in the middle of a stock market meltdown when panicky editors weren’t buying anything.  Even though I had asked her to wait.

A fifth agent kept sending a mystery of mine to editors who didn’t like the genre, and then she left the business. After we signed, another agent relocated to Japan and I wasn’t convinced a long distance relationship would work out despite her saying she’s come to the U.S. once a year. Then there was the agent who turned weird on me and another client who was a friend, spreading rumors about the other writer for reasons that are mysterious at best.  That agent was fired by her agency.

I started my career at a time when the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t even have a career without an agent. And without an agent, you weren’t really a serious writer. But experience has proven something different and the publishing world has completely changed since then. Most of my books have been un-agented and they’ve done as well as or better than the ones agents represented.  One of them has even sold about 300,000 copies and been translated into fifteen languages from Spanish to Thai.

When I told a novelist friend in New York about my bizarre agent history she assured me that my saga was pretty typical: “It’s just that most of us don’t want to talk about it because we’re too ashamed.”

Lev Raphael’s 26th book is about college professors behaving badly, very badly: State University of Murder.

Review: Reading Camus’ “The Plague” During The Pandemic

The Stranger by Albert Camus was my least favorite book in eight years of French classes. It wasn’t the language, since I was a solid French student, thanks in part to a French-speaking mother. I just couldn’t relate to the story at all–too young, I guess–so I never bothered to try anything else of that author until this past week.

That’s when I read an article in The Guardian which reported that novels about epidemics were selling like crazy in Europe, including books by Stephen King, Dean Koontz–and of course Camus’ 1947 classic The Plague.

It’s set in the grim, dull, very un-scenic Mediterranean town of Oran in French-controlled Algeria where business seems people’s main preoccupation until it’s suddenly swept by wave after wave of dying bloody rats.  Everywhere.  Apartment building stairways, street corners, markets, cafés. Citizens are grossed out and complain to the authorities, and massive clean-ups go into effect day after day after day.  Then the rats vanish.

Problem solved.  Until people start showing signs of the bubonic plague.  In scenes that will seem eerily familiar, slow-moving officials wonder whether they should actually use the word “plague” or not because it might cause alarm, and the public notices they put up alerting people to guard their health are mealy-mouthed and not specific enough.

That all changes when the walled city is shut down completely, with guards at the gates preventing anyone from leaving.  With limited telephone service (it’s the late 1940s, after all), everyone is cut off from neighboring cities, towns, and France itself except by telegrams of ten words.  At first it seems this must be temporary.

Then dread spreads through the populace as there’s no end in sight and the death toll is so high that it’s reported daily rather than weekly in a vain attempt to make the numbers seem less alarming.  It’s hard not to think of the U.S. Surgeon general talking on CNN recently about the importance and difficulty of “messaging.”  Or a president not wanting a cruise ship to unload its passengers because that would supposedly increase the numbers of the infected–as if being aboard a ship puts them in an alternate universe.

Conditions worse, rationing and irrational behavior become the new reality.  At the center of this unrelenting storm is Doctor Rieux who first observed signs of the plague in his patients.  As the story progresses, he’s overwhelmed, overworked, and understandably hardened by the horrors he faces, yet he argues “That’s no reason to give up.”

The book is filled with people risking their lives to care for the ill and dying not because they’re heroes, but because it’s the right thing to do.  They contrast with the scores of citizens who have unavoidably succumbed to a habit of despair that’s “worse than despair itself.”

Reading The Plague is surprisingly cathartic in our anxious, uncertain time.  It’s surprisingly beautiful. The translation is subtle and fluid, the writing quietly lyrical even when describing the grim realities facing a city under furious, relentless siege.

It was four in the afternoon.  The town was warming up to boiling-point under a sultry sky.  Nobody was about, all shops were shuttered.  Cottard and Rambert walked some distance without speaking,m under the arcades.  This was an hour of the day when the plague lay low, so to speak; the silence, the extinction of al color and movement, might have been due as much to the fierce sunlight as to the epidemic, and there was no telling if the air was heavy with menace or merely with dust and heat.

Their emotional suffering and isolation is total.  Compare that with our own potential situation. Even if millions of us were quarantined like the population in Italy, France, or Spain.  We would have texting, Skype and countless ways to stay in touch with people outside our zones.  Our lives would be painfully disrupted, yes, but we wouldn’t necessarily feel like the citizens of Camus’s Oran who were were abandoned to what felt like solitary confinement.  Cold comfort, maybe, but comfort all the same.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

Review: Washington’s Retirement Was Anything But Dull

Like other school kids, I was steeped in reading about the Father of Our Country from elementary school onward, but my fascination with George Washington had a personal backdrop.  I lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and our apartment building was on Ft. Washington Avenue.  My high school was named after him as well.

It created a sort of kinship which was deepened by studying his famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island where he promised that the new nation “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  More than that, he wrote that Jews were not going to be less equal than Christians: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” (Slavery, of course, was a giant asterisk to this discussion)

How could a son of Holocaust survivors who came to American for freedom not admire a man like the author of that letter?  A man who could have been king if he wanted to, given how so many people idolized him.  But at the end of his second term as president, having steered the fledgling nation from revolution to democracy, he chose to ride off to his Virginia estate, leaving politics and governing behind because the quiet life of a farmer with large holdings suited him best.  He faded gently from the scene, appropriately aloof from politics.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

In fact, Horn shows through brilliant use of contemporary letters and newspapers from a wide range of figures that Washington may have been offstage but he was as deeply embroiled in politics as ever.  He scrupulously followed every twist and turn of the rivalry between the two parties forming around President Adams and Vice President Jefferson and was keenly alert to the threat of war with our former ally France.  And for anyone who knows Alexander Hamilton only from the musical, he cuts a much less dashing figure here, and had delusions of grandeur.  But then Hamilton fits the general turmoil of jockeying for position against a background of tremendous political and global instability.  Many of our Founders and their supporters had their diva moments.

In the middle of all this Sturm und Drang, you feel the sorrowful isolation of Washington who complains of “Having staked my life–my reputation–my fortune–my ease, tranquility & happiness–in support of the government of our country” when at every turn fate might undo all that effort and plunge the United States into bloody chaos.

Yet there’s the wildly comic dithering about what kind of insignia officers for the new army being formed should be wearing, and you wonder how anyone could be so concerned with minutiae at a time when war with France was looming–or seemed to be.

Horn’s deft use of letters reveals the daily reality of Washington’s “retirement” and his recruitment as commander-in-chief.  President Adams realized that Washington was the best person to lead a newly strengthened army in case the French decided to invade the US.  He did not have to be on the scene to be caught in the tug of war between Republicans and Federalists and affected by war fever.  Just as important was his abiding concern about the legacy he left behind in his voluminous papers.

And if you thought our current political climate was newly poisonous, think again.  The scheming and invective between various factions around Washington before and after he left the White House were every bit as vicious, cruel, and divisive as today.  The main difference is the speed at which the poison spread and the tools used to spread it.  The rhetoric employed today to eviscerate your opponents is a lot more juvenile and not remotely as witty, either.

This book is everything you could ask for from a popular biography. It’s beautifully written, dramatic, compelling, colorful, revelatory, refreshing, sometimes hilarious and sometimes shocking–and at times it reads like a thriller.

Best of all, it makes Washington relatable and human, not a portrait, not a monument.  That’s the author’s greatest achievement.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, several public radio stations, and had his own on-air book show where he interviewed authors like Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong.