Pleasures of the Plague: Puškin and Camus

Sofya Khagi, Brown University

Although it has become a commonplace of Camus studies to point out the writer’s interest in the classical Russian writers (with Dostoevskij reasonably in the lead), Puškin has not been considered in the context. This is a significant critical oversight: connections between the famous French existentialist and the “iconic” Russian poet are more than worth exploring.

An examination of Camus’ biography reveals that Puškin figured quite prominently in the Frenchman’s imagination from an early age on, and that both Camus’ acquaintance with the Russian poet’s heritage (including Little Tragedies, virtually unknown to western readership) and the interest he took in Puškin’s works were profound.

This paper aims at shedding light on the neglected issue. Keeping in mind The Plague’s key role in Camus’ oeuvre as well as its focal position in the history of the twentieth century novel, I’ve chosen to commence by investigating the links between The Plague and Puškin’s Feast at the Time of the Plague. As I shall demonstrate, juxtaposing Camus’ celebrated novel and Puškin’s “mini-play” discloses affinities between the two works that go way beyond similarities one could reasonably expect from narratives treating a common theme. It is my contention that The Plague may (and must) be read as, among other things, a response to Feast. I’ll substantiate this proposition by concentrating on the level of motifs, characters and functions in the two pieces.

Using as a springboard Jakovlev’s, Terras’s, Loewen’s and Beliak’s-Virolainen’s views of the play and utilizing Cleanth Brooks’s insights on paradox in poetry, I offer an alternative reading of Little Tragedies in general and Feast at the Time of the Plague in particular as a linguistic, structural and thematic realization of oxymoron. Paying particular attention to the Russian’s transformations of Wilson’s original material and considering them side by side with Puškin’s earlier “Bacchanalian Song,” I’ll present Feast as a “developed oxymoron,”" powerfully dramatizing a paradoxical intermingling of the joy of “Existenz” and the horror of mortality. I’ll demonstrate that The Plague is building upon, complicating and enriching the very same paradoxes which are at the heart of Feast. Focusing on parallels between Rieux/Rambert/Tarrou-Walsingham, Father Paneloux-the Priest and Madam Rieux-Mary, I’ll show how The Plague reconstructs faithfully the whole gamut of conflicting sentiments and motivations arising in connection with pestilence in Feast. The paper will make it apparent that staging a dialogue between the two works produces a subtler understanding of both Camus’ existential masterpiece and its Russian predecessor.