“The Paris Showroom” Was Badly Edited

This historical novel builds on fascinating, horrible facts. While plundering the belongings of deported or imprisoned Jews, rich and poor, the Nazis in Occupied Paris “processed” their goods in three locales, including the Lévitan department store

Anything valuable that officers, their wives or mistresses might want was displayed and the rest sent off to Germany, no matter how prosaic an item it was.  Damaged goods were repaired for the greater glory of the Reich and personal effects like letters and photos were burned.

The 800 prisoners forced to do this labor lived in appalling conditions and the author makes their plight very vivid, but that’s one of the book’s few strengths.

I really wanted to love The Paris Showroom because I’ve read hundreds of books over the years, fiction and nonfiction, about WWII, including books about France during the Occupation. 

But I couldn’t. The dialogue too often seems American and contemporary, with characters saying things like “Whatever” and “True that” and “Beats the heck out of me.”

Then there’s an apartment house concierge who sounds like a 2022 guru or life coach and far too wise.  Worse than that, one of the two main heroines seems unbelievably naive and uninformed: though she’s twenty-one, in 1944 she still doesn’t understand how or why the war started (!) or what the Occupation really means. Her questions can be unbelievably dim and it’s hard to root for someone so out of touch with reality.

Blackwell also gets some things wrong like the French name for The Phony War, that period from September 1939 and April 1940 when there was virtually no fighting on the Western Front.  How could she have missed something so basic?

Another error that’s hard to comprehend from a seasoned author: She says the Jews wore “golden stars.” Not remotely: it was a Yellow Star. I suspect professional historians might find even more problems than I did. 

Though she peppers the book with bits of French for atmosphere, Blackwell for some reason uses the English “huh?” rather than the French “hein?” which you’d get from context. And rather than use “bibelot” she employs the very popular American word from Yiddish “tchotchke”– but doesn’t quite get its meaning right either.  The book is filled with choices like this which you would expect a careful editor or copy editor would have caught.

While there’s a touching family reunion in The Paris Showroom, that and almost everything else in the book is often overshadowed by minute details about fan making.  Don’t ask.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages and he coaches, mentors, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Jason Bourne in 1815 Paris!

You can judge a book by its cover when it’s a C.S. Harris Regency mystery.  The gorgeous covers are elegant, mysterious, evocative and haunting. And that’s the kind of historical mystery Harris writes, fielding a hero I dubbed the “Regency Jason Bourne” a few years ago.

He’s Sebastian St. Cyr, a Byronic English nobleman with some dark family secrets, a brilliant wife, and a powerful Machiavellian father-in-law with whom he’s often been at loggerheads.  A distant cousin of George III who wields tremendous power, this father-in-law is a “ruthless, eerily omniscient man with an enviable network of spies, informants and assassins.” 

But St. Cyr is more than a match for him or any opponent: He’s strong, clever, a gifted sleuth, blessed with supernaturally acute hearing and eyesight, and dangerous when threatened or crossed. 

Remember the scene in The Bourne Identity where Bourne is sleeping on a park bench in Switzerland and suddenly disarms and knocks out two policeman who want to see his papers?  That’s the kind of surprisingly quick, efficient act St. Cyr can perform as easily as tying his cravat.  He may look like a toff but he’s a bruiser when he needs to be.

Our hero is now in Paris searching for the mother who abandoned the family years ago, and that search of course leads to what seems like endless darkness before there’s light.  His journey starts with a shocking and heartbreaking discovery in the first few pages.   Harris is deft at writing opening chapters that grab you without feeling gimmicky and the opening chapter of When Blood Lies may be the strongest and most startling she’s ever written. 

It’s 1815 and France is “a witches’ brew of rumors and swirling threats of conspiracy” after over two decades of “death and heartache, terror and disaster, resentment and fury” due to revolution, war, and roiling regime change.

St. Cyr soon learns that his mother has been deeply enmeshed in France’s current turmoil in ways he cannot guess.  His investigation will require speaking to  a wide cross section of Parisian humanity including royalty, an executioner, the police, an inn keeper and many more.  This diversity is part of what makes the series so fascinating; Harris’s canvas is always large and colorful.

Looming over every interaction and conversation, it seems, is the shadow of Napoleon, seemingly trapped on Elba.  Ditto the echoing cries of mobs lusting for bloody spectacle when thousands of men, women, and children were guillotined during The Terror.

I can’t think of many crime writers who can so perfectly create a scene by appealing to all your senses the way Harris does.  Her fiendish plots, her deeply drawn characters and their tangled relationships are just plain thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres and was the crime fiction review for the Detroit Free Press for a decade.  He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com

Patrica Cornwell’s “Autopsy” is a Dud

I was surprised to receive a review copy of Patricia Cornwell’s 25th Kay Scarpetta book, and I can’t imagine this book getting published by a newbie.  It’s a meandering, slow-mo crime novel that’s badly written and badly edited.

The book is filled with odd usages like “right much” for “very” or “a lot,” and dialogue between family members and spouses that sounds overly formal, almost British. Even tough characters keep saying things like “I’ve not” rather than the more common “I haven’t.”

Whole passages in this book read like a murky first draft, and there are many lines like this one where the writing is seriously off:

My next stop is the kitchen table, what’s actually a butcher block that no doubt belongs to the house.

Just as damaging is the way Cornwell interweaves present tense and past tense–too often I had to go back and figure out what was happening when.  Cornwell’s use of present tense is painful anyway, as when Scarpetta gets dressed and each item of clothing is mentioned in a separate line while she’s on the phone with someone.  Pages like that feel like filler.

Scarpetta is meant to be a uniquely talented, supremely experienced medical examiner but she often seems like an amateur and a jerk.  She’s annoyingly obsessed with minutiae outside her field, griping about a murder victim who didn’t water her plants or recycle, for instance, or use the right storage container in her fridge. 

And for someone scared half to death at one point, the shout of “Goodness!” makes her sound like Miss Marple, not a strong woman at the top of her profession. 

Her overall character seems oddly realized. She lets colleagues, family and even her new secretary bully her, which comes across as annoying and unbelievable.  And for someone who rhapsodizes at length about fine French wines, she thinks pedestrian appetizers are somehow special.  Calling ordinary cheeses “antipasto” doesn’t make them exotic.  If she’s been to France and adores French wine, how comes she’s clueless about its many fabled cheeses?

Her husband drives a Tesla SUV which costs over $100,000 and gets lavish attention in the book, but they can’t afford an actual wine fridge and she has to jerry-rig something in the basement?  Is that–and plebeian cheese–supposed to appeal to readers who can’t afford expensive wines?  Then why show off the fancy SUV?  These things don’t add up and they exemplify the problem of disconnection that runs through the whole book. 

Time and again, there are places where there’s a kind of logical hiccup, some missing connection.  Like a scene where Kay and her husband are alone in the Oval Office with the president and vice-president, but suddenly he’s talking to “those assembled behind closed doors.” Huh?  And while some characters aren’t described at all, others are described well after they appear on the scene. 

As for the denouement–it fells like a cheat, but saying why would be a spoiler.

Autopsy is often so disjointed you wonder if it was written by a committee. In the end, the uneven mix of forensic thriller with industrial espionage, outer space drama,  office politics, biomedical engineering and AI makes the book seem overstuffed yet weirdly underfed.  

Former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres.  He mentors, coaches and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com, with clients across the U.S., in Europe and Asia.

 

 

𝐃𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐁𝐞𝐥𝐢𝐞𝐯𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐇𝐲𝐩𝐞 𝐚𝐛𝐨𝐮𝐭 “𝐅𝐚𝐥𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠”

I was eager to read the airplane thriller Falling because I’d been watching terrific movies set in the air: Red Eye, Executive Decision, Air Force One, Flight Plan, and Non-Stop.  I also re-read Chris Bohjalian’s dazzling, beautifully written thriller The Flight Attendant

So I wanted to love Falling, but the book falls flat again and again despite the insane hoopla it’s been generating. 

As the crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I often saw my fellow reviewers across the country rave about books that were badly written.  Sometimes they even admitted as much, or came close to it, but shrugged off indifferent or even dreadful prose because they liked the plot.  Their cascading kudos, plus blurbs from best-selling authors and good packaging, could easily make a bad book successful.

That seems to have happened with T.J. Newman’s debut thriller about a pilot being given the choice by a terrorist to crash his plane or have his family killed.  The book has a beautiful cover but goes wrong in the very first chapter when the author grossly cheats her readers: the nightmarish flight she describes is only a nightmare.  That’s an amateurish mistake a conscientious editor should have warned her to avoid.

The frantic shifts in the opening chapter from one character to another are just as wrong-headed, and even worse, there are lines that need to be re-read because they don’t immediately make sense.  Despite a slew of blurbs from writers like Stephen King, Ian Rankin, and Diana Gabaldon, this book is marred by writing that’s either weak, confused, ungrammatical, or trying too hard.  Here are some examples:

Jo immediately understood why Big Daddy had failed to put a finger on the man’s essence.  He had an intangible mysteriousness, a mercurial quality of shadow.

A hollow dread seeped out of his heart.

Carrie stared at the floor.  The kettle began to screech and she shut off the burner.  The noise gradually softened until it was only the clock making noise again.

Daddy covered his mouth, a glint of Eureka! gleaming in his eyes.
 
A cold and hollow ache pooled at the base of his spine.
 
Stepping off the jet bridge stairs onto the tarmac, Bill squinted under his hand’s attempt to shield the sun.

Turning it clockwise, yellow digital numbers descended toward the new frequency.

Lying at Bill’s feet, broken and bloodied, her jaw hung open but no words came.

The author also doesn’t seem to know what “residue”  means or the difference between “definite” and “definitive”–among other problems with diction.

The story’s momentum is damaged by sometimes pointless flashbacks, one of which is three pages long.  Aspects of the plot don’t always make sense either, and that’s even more problematic.  Would a mother with young children let in a repairman who shows up unexpectedly without an ID–and then offer him tea?  And it’s unbelievable that her husband sees this man at home but a few hours later doesn’t recognize him on a video call. 

Perhaps the strangest element is the author’s relentless attempt to humanize the terrorists, whose reason for choosing this particular pilot is never really clear.  Almost as screwed up: the baseball players at targeted Yankee Stadium decide to keep playing even when they’ve been warned to evacuate because the plane is headed their way. 

Ten years as a flight attendant have given the author deep knowledge about planes and on-board protocols, but she overdoes the details at times, adding to the book’s overall weakness. It’s not entirely her fault, of course. Knowing that Falling had been rejected by 41 agents, her publisher should have given the book the editing it badly needed.  They didn’t, which is either careless, cynical, or both. 

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and has been a newspaper, online, and radio book reviewer for over twenty years.

 

 

Crime Writer C.S. Harris Gets the Regency Right

Critics lavished Bridgerton with praise for supposedly making the Regency relevant to a modern audience–as if that had never been done before.

But without gross anachronisms or improbable plot lines, C.S. Harris has been writing a dazzling world-class mystery series since 2005 that couldn’t be more relevant to our time.

The Regency she offers us has plenty in common with the American world we’ve recently been living in.  There’s a vast gulf between rich and poor; intolerance and hypocrisy among the powerful; a war that’s lasted for decades; grievous childhood poverty; a skewed judicial system; xenophobia; a sexist culture suppressing women’s opportunities; widespread and rampant violence. Oh yes, and a seriously disturbed head of state.  Sound familiar?

Her touchstone for all this reality and relevance is a nobleman, Viscount Sebastian St. Cyr.  He’s no superhero, but he’s a strong, determined man with a troubled past who invariably finds trouble when it doesn’t find him.  A  freelance crime solver, he has access to the high and mighty through family and marriage connections, and the rest of London through myriad contacts across its many different social classes.  There’s little he can’t discover, sooner or later.

His case in What the Devil Knows, based on a true crime, involves unbelievably brutal murders that defy understanding and shake even a man like him who’s seen the horrors of war.  A wanton killer who has even slaughtered infants and their mothers seems to be at loose again in London and St. Cyr can’t help but worry about his wife and young son as he scours the city for clues.

From lavish parlors filled with exquisite rosewood furniture and ballrooms crowded with London’s most powerful men to alleys filled with rotting fish heads, we follow the indefatigable sleuth interviewing English citizens high and low.  Harris excels at giving readers entree into a world beyond the rich and powerful, but one filled with myriad professions including bakers, maids, sailors, rag pickers, brewers, cooks, tavern keepers, seamen, night watchmen, landladies, vicars, valets, prostitutes, drivers, thieves.

On the home front, Harris writes about St. Cyr and his wife Hero with deep sympathy, but she’s never maudlin.  The details of their daily life and the lives of everyone around them ring with authenticity.  That warmth makes the extreme violence St. Cyr faces more terrible, violence that might for some readers conjure up recent attacks on peaceful demonstrators and the 1/6 assault on the Capitol.

She doesn’t indulge in foolishness like the hokey duel in Bridgerton that totally ignored the strict rules of that ritual.  Harris respects the past and has brought it to life in book after book with prose that’s smooth and seductive.  She’s one of the most evocative writers in crime fiction today.  She makes you smell the nasty, ever-present London fog; hear the creak of wheels over cobblestones or the whinny of horses sensing danger; treasure the tender warmth of candlelight; dread the footfall of a robber.

In What the Devil Knows, you won’t feel mired in the bonbon-eating Lifestyles of the Rich and Vapid, but you’ll relish a world where people do more than just live for the next scandal sheet.  Many of them are desperately trying to make a living, and since this is a crime novel, some are just trying to stay alive.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications as well as several public radio stations.

 

 

An Amazing Rave Review Thrust Me Into the Spotlight

The New York Times ruled in my family when I was growing up in Manhattan.  My mother especially loved the Sunday Magazine articles, my brother relished the daily puzzles, and I enjoyed reading book reviews and features about authors.

I wanted to be an author myself as early as second grade, when I started writing short stories.  And of course, I wanted to have a book of mine reviewed in the Times, someday because I thought that would be the ultimate sign I had made it.

Well, years later, I was heartbroken when I heard from a writer friend that he had heard my first book of short stories was going to be reviewed there.  I waited and waited, but nothing happened.  Then I published a biography and study of Edith Wharton’s fiction.  No review.  Two strikes.

At that point, I was discouraged enough to think I would never be reviewed in the Times.  I should have taken hope from lines Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote:

But, as know, precisely at the moment/when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.

One Monday, I got a call from my agent that my second mystery had just gotten a rave review from Marilyn Stasio, the most important mystery reviewer in the country.  My agent’s assistant faxed it to me and as I read the review, I actually jumped up and down for joy.  Friends started contacting me, my editor was thrilled as was my publisher, and I started hearing reports that the book wasn’t just being shelves in Mystery and Gay Literature sections in bookstores, but sometimes in Fiction right next to Edith Wharton.  And face out, which makes a big difference when it comes to sales.

The review offered great pull-quotes like this one:  “Killing is too kind for the vindictive scholars in Lev Raphael’s maliciously funny campus mystery.”  And because it was in the New York Times, publishers would use various parts of the review on  mysteries I’d write after that one.  Likewise, many people introducing me at events where I’ve done talks and readings have referred to the review.  It’s a kind of touchstone, even though I’ve gotten many more good ones in other newspapers and magazines since then.   The Times is that impressive.

The Edith Wharton Murders has recently been re-published with a gorgeous new cover, a foreward by noted author Gregory Ashe, and an introduction the publisher asked me to write.  Seeing it reborn brings back the thrill of being a new author having his biggest dream come true.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages, and Special Collections at Michigan State University’s Library archives his literary papers.

 

Hot Sex, Violence, and Devastating LA Fires

Get ready for a rough and extremely raunchy ride: Terrill Lankford’s Shooters is a propulsive, hypnotic, sexually explicit, blistering exposé of the American hunger for more, more, more.  A hunger that leaves people empty inside, desperate for meaning–no matter how gilded their cage might be.

This thriller has the sheen and danger of that classic cult film The Eyes of Laura Mars, which it cleverly echoes.

Arrogant Nick Gardner’s the same kind of fashion photographer as Faye Dunaway’s character, creating advertising photos that simmer with violence and eroticism.  But he’s much rougher around the edges.  Highly promiscuous, Nick is the kind of guy who’d “rather have sex with a complete stranger than kiss a friend with meaning.” 

He’s a self-confessed “asshole” who loves showing off his mad driving skills in his Lamborghini and the ultra-hot women who want to ride along.  Think of him as a  foul-mouthed Gatsby with a dark past and an even murkier future. 

Nick has made it big in his field, but he’s keenly aware of how fragile success can be in a city littered with failures.  Musing about all the people who linger in Los Angeles even though their dreams have died, he thinks:

“The city is like a terrible drug.  Addictive in the worst way.  Everyone hates it, yet most of them stay no matter what the cost.  Some manage to leave, only to return a year or so later.  Very few have the intestinal fortitude to kick the insanity for good and live elsewhere.  The dream is always there, a brass ring only inches outside their reach.”

There you have a perfect diagnosis of  our cultural sickness, more than fitting for our dark times in 2020.

The book opens with the threat of wildfires engulfing parts of the city and that threat hovers over everyone and everything until it explodes.  It couldn’t be more emblematic of the fire inside Nick and everyone he meets.  They’re all burning for something: drugs, sex, thrills, money, success, fame.  Some will be destroyed.

Feeling blocked one day at work, Nick hits a party he shouldn’t attend and leaves with a hot blonde coke fiend he should never have even talked to–but of course he can’t resist.  Their orgiastic, drug-crazed night ends badly and Nick ends up traveling down some surprisingly mean streets to solve a crime he’s the prime suspect for.

Following his violent stint as an amateur private investigator, we learn about his unsavory past in a town filled with ugly secrets.  Some of them are not for the easily shocked.  Nick is an anti-hero whose trajectory in the novel is always down, and justice is served in unexpected ways.

In all my years reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press, this is one of the only thrillers I’ve wanted to re-read on a regular basis.  It never fails to blow me away, which is why I’m thrilled to have been asked to write the afterward to the Kindle edition.   The writing is fierce, brutal,  unrelenting–and unforgettable.

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

 

Knife: Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fire: Image by Николай Егошин from Pixabay

Was Sue Monk Kidd’s Editor AWOL?

I saw it a lot when I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press: best-selling authors could publish badly written books and hardly anyone noticed.   Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel The Secret Life of Bees spent one hundred weeks on the New York Times best seller list, which might explain why the editing seems spotty in The Book of Longings.

It’s a serious book about female empowerment told in the voice of Ana, the fictional wife of Jesus, but the first paragraph is filled with grotesque laugh lines and incongruities.  Here’s how it starts:

I am Ana.  I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth.  I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder. 

“Little Thunder” sounds like some hokey name from a Grade B Hollywood Western in the 1950s, the kind where white people in dark makeup played Native Americans.  It sets the completely wrong tone.

Ana goes on: He said he heard rumblings inside me while I slept, a sound like thunder from far over the Nahal Zippori valley or even farther beyond the Jordan.

Little Thunder?  Wow. That’s like something right out of a horror movie or a comedy with lots of bathroom humor.  There’s more:

I don’t doubt he heard something. All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night.

If you’re writing a book set in the early years of the first century CE, it’s not a great idea to use a term that for many people might evoke music of the nineteenth century and Chopin. 

Perhaps Ana is referring to prayer nocturnes (also spelled “nocturns”), but there was no Christian church in the years 16-17 when Ana is speaking, so prayers like that didn’t exist.  They evolved much later, however you spell the word.  So much for the “meticulous” research the publisher says she did. 

The comic factor increases at the end of the paragraph with these lines: That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him.  What he heard was my life begging to be born.

Why is Jesus bending his heart and not his head to listen to his wife?  And if Ana’s heart is making all that noise, she sounds seriously ill and needs to find a healer–though she could just as well ask Jesus for help.  It was part of his skill set, after all.

I read a bit further out of morbid curiosity and met her aunt Yaltha, a character apparently inspired by Yalta, the wife of a rabbi who lived several hundred years later.  The aunt is first called “educated,” but Kidd immediately contradicts that with a ridiculous image: “Her mind was an immense feral country that spilled its borders.”

Feral and educated are opposites, and how does a country spill its own borders?  Was it a seismic event?  A volcano turning rock into lava?  Or was the aunt’s mind filled with feral pigs and that’s what was spilling across the border line?  Could the image be a super-subtle reference to the miracle of the Gadarene swine that appears in the three Synoptic Gospels? 

Probably not, and I was laughing too hard to read much further (though I also found errors in her portrayal of Jewish life in that period).  Bad writing and bad research in the opening of a novel are not good omens.  What else did the editor (and copy editor) miss?

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and publications.  He had his own book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Erica Jong and may other authors.  Raphael is also the prize-winning author of twenty-six books in many genres. The Library at Michigan State University collects his literary papers.

 

 

 

 

Review: “Did You Ever See Hitler?”

You’ve probably never heard of one of Germany’s most important post World War II authors, Walter Kempowski, but he’s a must read.  History doesn’t get much more intimate than it does in Did You Ever See Hitler?, his slim volume of interviews German citizens published in the mid-1970s. He asked them the provocative brief question: “Haben Sie Hitler gesehen?“ Did you ever see Hitler?

Kempowski compiled the book from over 300 interviews with people of all ages and professions, and the project gives you a crowd’s-eye view of Hitler from the 1920s through the end of World War II, concentrating on the effect the dictator had on people and was still having decades later.

Several threads emerge. Some people only saw him once, or barely at all in a motorcade rushing past. Others often saw and heard him in Berlin. The older respondents were the generation that “had fallen for Hitler” and tried to make sure that “the memory of this fall — and the memory of the man — died out.”

*

There are plenty of Germans in the book who almost brag that they weren’t impressed by Hitler, or that they found his manner or face weird (“like a pink marzipan pig”). Then there are others who said they couldn’t imagine he was going to be so powerful. Some of these same people report many public appearances in the 1930s that were less than crowded, and cities where Hitler was not wildly popular. Though as one man notes wryly, after the war, every German city claimed it had disappointed Hitler with small crowds.

But there are far more accounts of the elaborately stage-managed productions that thousands swarmed to, even if the school children or Hitler Youth were required to be there. And one after another, people talk about the hysteria Hitler evoked in women and girls: “The women were howling with delight,” “They were peeing in their pants with excitement, and the older women were moaning as if the Savior were coming,” “The women turned their eyes up so that the whites showed, and dropped like flies. Like slaughtered calves they lay there, breathing heavily,” “We hardly dared wash our hands for three days, we were so affected simply because he had touched them.”

And then there are the people who blame others for his mistakes or the war, and still believed in him. A number of Kempowski’s respondents refer to crowd psychosis and tell him that nobody today can imagine what it was like to be there, whatever one felt about Hitler. Even opponents could feel swayed by the spectacle and apparently by the man.

The volume, available used on Alibris, is illustrated with photos that don’t appear in the German edition. These were propaganda shots that made Hitler out to be avuncular, friendly, approachable, human. They were designed to fill albums which were printed in the hundreds of thousands, then given to students and youths who won prizes for filling them up.

Though many people speaking to Kempowski would claim  that Hitler didn’t move them, the main impression this amazing book leaves you with is the strange mixture of the quotidian and the bizarre. You can almost feel the hungry, thirsty hordes waiting for hours with their feet aching, and then coming to life when they see Germany’s new God appearing, blocking out the sun, promising to punish all enemies and make Germany great again.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in many genres including the memoir-travelogue My Germany.

 

*”hitler1″ by billium12 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.