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READING SHILTS READING CAMUS READING A PLAGUE

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Steven G. Kellman

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The Montréal Review, July 2021

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RAMBLING PROSE: SELECTED ESSAYS
By Steven Kellman
Trinity University Press, 2020

 

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Was not Camus' only fault, apart from being too widely read, that he was right too soon?

--Bertrand Poirot-Delpech

 

Even before his narrative begins, Albert Camus offers a cue on how to read The Plague. He positions a statement by Daniel Defoe as the epigraph to the entire work. Any novelist writing about epidemics bears the legacy of A Journal of the Plague Year, the 1722 text in which Defoe recounts the collective story of one city, in his case London, under the impact of a plague, and uses a narrator so self-effacing that his only concession to personal identity is the placement  of his initials, H.F., at the end. 

Camus' The Plague insists that it is the "chronicle"1of an "honest witness"2 to what occurred in Oran, Algeria, a physician named Bernard Rieux who is so loath to impose his personality on the story that he conceals his identity until the final pages. Rieux claims the modest role of  "chronicler  of the troubled, rebellious hearts of our townspeople under the impact of the plague."3

The particular passage appropriated as epigraph to Camus' novel comes from another book by Defoe, from the preface to the third volume of Robinson Crusoe. And, for the reader of The Plague, it immediately raises questions of representation: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not." Coming even before we meet the first infected rat in Oran, the Defoe quotation is an invitation to allegory, a tip that the fiction that follows signifies more than the story of a town in Algeria in a year, "194_," deliberately kept indeterminate to encourage extrapolation.

"I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here, which is tantamount to saying I'm like everybody else,"4 says a healthy Jean Tarrou, by which he suggests that the pestilence that is the focus of the story is not primarily a medical phenomenon nor is it, like Camus' adversary, quarantined in one city during most of one year, from April 16 to the following February. “I know positively - yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see - that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it," declares Tarrou. Camus' novel invites its readers to recognize that they, too, are somehow infected, though the diagnosis seems more metaphysical than physical.

In 1941, a typhus outbreak near Oran resulted in more than 75,000 deaths. However, that  epidemic was clearly a source  rather than the subject of Camus' novel. The Plague is one of the most critically and commercially successful novels ever published in France. It has managed to sell more than four million copies throughout the world and to inspire an army of exegetes. For the generation that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, it was, like The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies, and Catch-22, a book that was devoured although  (and because) it was not  assigned  in school. But its appeal has not been as an accurate case study in epidemiology. Particularly in North America, where Oran seems as remote as Oz, readers have accepted Camus'  invitation to translate the text into allegory. The Plague offered a tonically despairing vision of an absurd cosmos in which human suffering is capricious and unintelligible. The lethal, excruciating disease strikes fictional Oran indiscriminately, and when it does recede it does so temporarily, oblivious to human efforts at prophylaxis. As if illustrating Camus' 1942 philosophical treatise The Myth of Sisyphus, the health workers of Oran combat each case without ever being convinced that their labors accomplish anything.

In a famous letter addressed to Roland Barthes in 1955, Camus attempted to narrow down the terms of interpretation.  He insisted that his 1947 novel be read not as a study in abstract evil but as a story whose manifest reference is to the situation of France under Nazi occupation: “The Plague, which I wanted to be read on a number of levels, nevertheless has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism. The proof of this is that although the specific enemy is nowhere named, everyone in every European country recognized it. Let me add that a long extract from The Plague appeared during the Occupation, in a collection of the underground texts, and that this fact alone would justify the transposition I made. In a sense, The Plague is more than a chronicle of the Resistance. But certainly it is nothing less.”6

Egypte, 1977 by Bernard Plossu (Galerie CAMERA OBSCURA)

Long after the liberation of France, readers, particularly those born after World War II, preferred to read The Plague as something more than a chronicle of the Resistance, as the embodiment of a more universal philosophical vision. The novel was, in fact, even more popular in North America, which did not experience the Nazi Occupation, than in France, where Camus' aversion to torture and violence made him politically suspect by both the left and right. The absence of an immediate historical context encouraged younger Americans to read The Plague as a philosophical novel. So, too, did our inexperience with plagues. "Oh, happy posterity,” wrote Petrarch in the fourteenth century, when more than half the population of his native Florence perished in the bubonic plague, the Black Death, "who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable."7

Before 1980, The Plague was facilely read as a fable. Polio had been vanquished, and the smallpox virus survived only in a few laboratories. Aside from periodic visitations of influenza, usually more of a nuisance than a killer, epidemics, before the outbreak of cholera in Peru in 1991 and later scourges of Ebola and Zika, had been as common in this hemisphere as flocks of auks. Those of us who first read The Plague during the era of the Salk and Sabin vaccines were hard put to imagine a world not yet domesticated by biotechnology, in which a mere bacillus could terrorize an entire city. We read The Plague not as the story of a plague, an atavistic nemesis that seemed unlikely to menace our own modem metropolises. The story was a pretext, an occasion for ethical speculation, in short an allegory without coordinates in space and time. Four decades after the publication of Camus’ novel, the scourge of AIDS would dispel our epidemiological innocence, and change the way we read The Plague. Four decades after that, the COVID-19 pandemic would again concentrate the mind on the devastation of actual pestilence and renew the popularity and relevance of Camus’ text.

Alhough published long before the first case of AIDS was diagnosed and thirty-five years before the acronym (for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was even coined, The Plague assumed a new urgency when it became apparent that epidemics were not obsolete  occurrences  or quaint events confined to distant regions. Ten years after a 1981 article in The New England Journal of Medicine reported seven inexplicable cases of severe infection, AIDS was a global pandemic. Thirty-five years after its first diagnosis, infection with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) would be responsible for approximately 39 million deaths worldwide. At first, AIDS seemed to target homosexual men,  Haitians, and intravenous drug users, but, like Camus’ Plague, it was soon striking indiscriminately, without any regard to the social status of its hundreds of thousands of helpless, hapless victims. As in The Plague, an anxious populace responded in a variety of ways but without any cure. It was no longer possible to read The Plague with the innocence of the existential aesthete.

Coimbra, Portugal by Bernard Plossu (ICP Museum)

Published in 1987, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic is a detailed account of the onset and spread of AIDS and of the spectrum of reactions to it. What, to a student of Camus, is remarkable about Randy Shilts' book - which, selected for the Book of the Month Club, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback - is how much it has in common with The Plague. Not only does Shilts document the same pattern of initial denial followed by acknowledgment, recrimination, terror, and occasional stoical heroism that Rieux recounts during the Oran ordeal, but it is clear that Shilts had read Camus and had adopted much of the style and structure of The Plague to tell his story of an actual plague. Where Camus appropriates Defoe for the epigraph of his novel, Shilts mines Camus' The Plague for epigraphs to four of his nine sections: Parts IV, V, VI, and VII.  In Part II, describing baffling new developments amongst homosexual patients, Shilts echoes Camus' absurdist myth of Sisyphus when he states: "The fight against venereal diseases was proving a Sisyphean task."8 That same Greek myth, for which  Camus is the modern bard, is alluded to two other times by Shilts - flippantly, in reference to AIDS victim Gary Walsh's "Sisyphean task"9 of  renovating his Castro District apartment and, more portentously, in reference to the "Sisyphean struggle"10 against AIDS directed by Donald Francis, a leading  retrovirologist at the Centers for Disease Control.  

Camus' existential vision of a random universe in which adversity, though gratuitous and impossible to defeat, must nevertheless be opposed provides the subtext to Shilts' book, which, translated into six languages and even adapted to an NBC mini-series, became the most influential text on AIDS. "I had written a book to change the world," explained Shilts in a 1988 Esquire memoir, 11and he did.   By alerting and prodding professionals and the general public  to respond to the crisis, And  the Band  Played  On can be credited with saving lives and altering attitudes and behavior. It is a work of committed non-fiction, though it is phrased and  organized  - with prologue, epilogue, epigraphs, and a roster of “dramatis personae" - novelistically, echoing Camus' novel in particular.

Early in The Plague, its still anonymous narrator attempts to establish his credibility by assuming the humble role of historian.  He insists on his distaste for rhetorical flamboyance and   literary contrivance, assuring the reader that: "His business is only to say: ‘This is what happened,' when it actually did happen, that it closely affected the life of the whole populace,  and that there are thousands of eyewitnesses who can appraise in their hearts the  truth of what  he writes. "12 Rather than his own eccentric fabrication, what follows, he assures us, is an  impartial  account  adhering  scrupulously  to reliable sources. "The present narrator,” says the  present  narrator,  in  an  attempt at objective attachment from himself, "has three kinds of data: first, what he saw himself; secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses thanks  to  the part he played,  he was enabled  to learn their personal impressions from all those figuring in this chronicle; and, lastly, documents that subsequently came into his hands."13

Like Camus' Rieux, Shilts also suppresses the first-person pronoun, camouflaging his own presence as both narrator and agent. While Rieux insists on the word "chronicle” to characterize a narrative that pretends solely to record verifiable facts as they unfold in time, Shilts acquired most of his information while reporting for a San Francisco newspaper that  happens to call itself the Chronicle. A streetwalker and heroin addict named Silvana Strangis forms part of his story, and when he tells the reader that "a Chronicle reporter, tipped off by an emergency room attendant, knocked on Silvana's door,"14 that reporter is presumably Shilts himself. When an unnamed San Francisco reporter goads epidemiologist James Curran into a statement about the dangers of gay bathhouses and then publishes his remarks, Bay Area gay leaders are irate. "The reporter, they agreed, suffered from internalized   homophobia," states Shilts impassively, though it is apparent that that reporter is Shilts himself, both the chronicler and the chronicled – also, implicitly, maligned.

San Francisco by Bernard Plossu (ICP Museum)

"This book is a work of journalism," declares Shilts·in a documentational appendix, There has been no fictionalization."15 Like Rieux, he is anxious to deny invention, to demonstrate that everything in his chronicle is a transcription of his own observations, copious interviews with others, and public documents. Like Rieux, who incorporates the journal of Jean Tarrou for access to events the narrator did not directly experience, Shilts relies on the diary of graphic designer Matthew Krieger for insights into the illness of his lover Gary Walsh.

Early in The Plague, before the epidemic forces the authorities to seal Oran off from the outside world, Rieux sends his ailing wife to a sanatorium beyond the city. At the end of Camus' novel, just as the quarantine is being lifted from his ravaged city, Rieux learns that his wife has died in exile. As chronicler, the widowed doctor claims to be a faithful representative of his fellow citizens, but his preoccupation with the plight of lovers separated by the plague is surely a product of his own poignant and singular situation. Similarly, though Shilts suppresses his personal identity and affects the impartial voice of History, his book is clearly the product of a particular sensibility. From its title to its final pages, And the Band Played On is an impassioned indictment of the indifference, vanity, and naïveté that facilitated the catastrophe. Shilts quotes with scorn the characterization of AIDS as the "the gay plague, "16 but his account of the disease makes it seem just that, as though the virus is as in love with homophilic men as they are with others of their orientation. Shilts acknowledges and emphasizes that the disease also strikes others, but the plight of gays receives the elephant's share of his attention and compassion.

Some critics have faulted the book for its slighting of other sorts of victims; Diane Johnson and John F. Murray, for example. noted in The New York Review of Books that "most of his examples are taken from homosexuals, encouraging the impression that AIDS is mainly a homosexual disease."17 AIDS did in fact affect gays disproportionately, especially in the early years that Shilts chronicles. But behind the mask of Olympian omniscience is an author who himself came out of the closet, and, though he reports on the hardships of the Haitians, blood recipients, and intravenous drug-users, it is understandable that he empathizes with the gay victims whose lives he vividly dramatizes. A clinically detached chronicler might not write with such rage about the internecine squabbles within the largely gay Castro District that delayed effective action against their microbial enemy. "At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there is always a propensity for rhetoric,” says Tarrou to Rieux, who, writing after the pestilence, eschews the rhetoric and aspires to a zero degree of writing.  Shilts is less scrupulous  about restraining  his language,  and,  amid  the mass of statistics, writes in a style that one reviewer ridiculed as "overheated Sidney Sheldonesque prose. "19 Despite the pose of third-person chronicler, Shilts narrates with fervent urgency, from within a community in peril.

In the drab and dreadful universe that Camus depicts, the possibilities of heroism are severely constricted. Yet, recognizing that readers crave heroes, Rieux nominates the perversely named Joseph Grand, a low-level municipal clerk who does his job and dreams of writing perfect sentences: "Yes, if it is a fact that people like to have examples given to them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include the 'hero,' the narrator commends to his readers, with to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a  seemingly absurd ideal. "20 Shilts likewise chooses his heroes from among the meek: the health professionals who, often defying directives from more eminent leaders, persisted in their struggle against the new disease, and those victims of AIDS who managed to die with grace. While his book is often scornful of celebrities such as Robert Gallo or Margaret Heckler, it is the unsung sufferers who agreed to be interviewed whom Shilts salutes in the final sentences of his "Acknowledgments": "When I'd ask why they'd take the time for this, most hoped that something they said would save someone else from suffering. If there is an  act  that  better  defines heroism, I have not  seen  it.”11

What Shilts has seen is the way crisis magnifies the grandeur of ordinary people. Recounting the arduous dedication of volunteers to the Gay Men's Health Crisis, Shilts quotes author Larry Kramer: "There are no heroes in the AIDS epidemics," but he concludes the  paragraph with a rejoinder from  Paul Popham, president of the GMHC: "There were heroes in the AIDS epidemic, he  thought, lots of them."22 Like Camus, Shilts admires the health workers who persist in their task without either pomp or victory. He is particularly impressed with Selma Dritz, the assistant director of the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. He so admires her stubborn refusal to ignore anything marginal to her mission of saving lives that he twice precedes her name with the adjective "no-nonsense, "23 an epithet that might apply as well to Camus’ Rieux.

Within The Plague, a sharp contrast to the selfless dedication of characters such as Rieux and Grand is represented by Cottard, an opportunist who revels in others' misery because the quarantine enables him to profit from black-market contraband. Shilts' version of the egotist is Gaetan Dugas, the Canadian airline steward referred to as Patient Zero, for being a primary source of contagion in North America. Aware that he has contracted AIDS, Dugas refuses to curtail his hedonistic promiscuity, even allegedly gloating to some of his 2,500 sexual partners:  "I've got gay cancer.  I'm going to die and so are you."24

"There was venality, and there was also courage,”25 declares Shilts, who writes with righteous wrath about the bathhouse managers who placed profits before lives and scientists who pursued careers rather than truth. Despite its guise as impartial chronicle, And  the Band Played  On is an exercise in moral indignation.  Yet its narrator is as wary of moralism as is Rieux, who keeps his distance from Paneloux, the Jesuit priest who preaches two crucial sermons strategically and symmetrically positioned - in Parts II and IV of Camus' five-part novel. In the first, Paneloux rails against the sinners of Oran, portraying the plague as a scourge from God, an instrument of retribution for the depravity of the entire community. By the time of his second sermon, Paneloux's theodicy has been shaken by the experience of watching a blameless child die in agony, and he preaches that the plague is as unfathomable as the deity we must love without understanding. Shilts also depicts high-minded homilists who pretend to see a moral pattern to the plague of AIDS. "When you violate moral, health, and hygiene laws, you reap the whirlwind," proclaims the Reverend Jerry Falwell. "You cannot shake your fist in God's face and get away with it.”26 Elsewhere, invoking a Darwinian, rather than an Augustinian, moral code, Patrick Buchanan declares: "The poor homosexuals - they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution. "27 Unlike Camus' Paneloux, neither Falwell nor Buchanan alters his attitudes within Shilts' book, and, though Shilts is highly critical of behavior that spreads the epidemic, And the Band Played On is the closest to the non-judgmental stance toward suffering that Rieux expresses in response to Paneloux: "No, Father. I've a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture."28

Though it purports to replicate verbatim extended stretches of dialogue and to represent the thoughts of its characters, And the Band Played On is of course not a novel. Camus invented Rieux, Tarrou, Grand, Paneloux, and Cottard, but Harry Britt, Selma Dritz, Michael Gottlieb, Cleve Jones, Bill Kraus, and Gary Walsh existed independently of Shilts' book. While Camus is virtually neo-Classical in his decision to intensify his five-act drama by confining it to one cloistered city, Oran, within less than one revolution of the earth, Shilts' story is global and ranges among San Francisco, Kinshasa, New York, Paris, Atlanta, Vancouver, Copenhagen, Washington, London, and other  locales for most of a decade. Rieux tells his tale in retrospect, after the plague has dissipated and the gates of Oran have swung open again, while Shilts writes in media res, in the muddled midst of a deadly pandemic that would surely expand before it receded.

But both Camus and Shilts personify their plagues, depicting them as animate enemies  aroused from sleep. Shilts explains that by the end of 1980: "Slowly and almost  imperceptibly,  the killer was awakening."29 In the final line of his chronicle, Camus' Rieux reminds us that any  victory over the plague  is only provisional: “that the plague  bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”30

Shilts' view of human arrogance toward natural adversity seems shaped not only by his research into the often cavalier or inept responses to AIDS but also by his reading of The  Plague. His account of Pneumocystic pneumonia, a disease that frequently results from a failure of immune systems, sounds remarkably like the final sentence  of the Camus novel. Like Rieux, Shilts provides admonition against overconfidence, since the disease will never be definitely defeated: “. . . Pneumocystic pneumonia flared sporadically, eager to take advantage of any opportunity to thrive in its preferred ecological niche, the lung. The disease, however, would disappear simultaneously once the immune system was restored. And the little creature would return to an obscure place in the medical books where it was recorded as one of the thousands of microorganisms that always lurk on the fringe of human existence, lying dormant until infrequent opportunity allows it to burst forth and follow the biological dictate to grow and multiply.”31

The day would come, Rieux reminds us, when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, the  plague,  merely dormant ,  never dead, would strike again. It strikes again when Rieux relives the collective ordeal of Oran by writing about it. But just what sort of enlightenment is brought by that account or by the plague itself remains elusive. "A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will  pass away,"  admits  Rieux, in a passage that Shilts chooses as epigraph to Part V of his book. "But it doesn't always pass away, and from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away."32 Protagoras' confidence that "Man is the measure of all things" posits a universe that is intelligible to and governable by human beings. Both Camus' plague and Shilts' AIDS arrive as a challenge to the humanist's presumption;  they are inscrutable and invincible.

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and  good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding," Camus explains, in a passage from The Plague that Shilts appropriates  as the epigraph  to Part VI: “On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point, but they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”33 Shilts, like Camus, presents himself as a clear-sighted writer in a world where most prefer to close their eyes. He reveals how denial and temporizing by scientists, physicians, politicians, and victims squandered many lives: ''One had the feeling that many concessions had been made to a desire not to alarm the public," observes Rieux about official policy toward the plague, and the description is so applicable to the initial reaction toward  AIDS as well that Shilts employs it as the epigraph to Part IV.34

As a reporter, Shilts  is  especially critical of the failure of writers to dispel the  widespread  ignorance about the growing crisis. It is not just a partisan pride in the anomalous coverage provided by his own paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, that prompts Shilts to note that: “In New York City, where half the nation's AIDS cases resided, The New York Times had written only three stories about the epidemic in 1981 and three more stories in all of 1982.  None made the   front page. Indeed, one could have lived in New York, or in  most of the United States for that matter, and not even have been aware from the daily newspapers that an epidemic was happening, even while the government doctors themselves were predicting that the scourge would wipe out the lives of tens of thousands.35

In six hundred and thirty pages densely packed with statistics and suffering, Shilts documents the evil that came from ignorance. And the Band Played On is offered to open our eyes or, to shift the metaphor, to stop the band so we might hear the sounds of torment.  Camus leaves us with his plague in temporary remission, but in Shilts' final pages, AIDS is merely gaining momentum. Neither disease is near a cure. Yet both epidemics and both books leave us enlightened:  about the limits of human understanding but the need to act on what we know. William Styron spoke for many American admirers when he praised Camus for his tonic recognition of a bleak cosmos:  "Camus was a great cleanser of my intellect, ridding me of countless sluggish ideas and, through some of the most unsettling pessimism I have ever encountered,  causing  me to be aroused anew by life's enigmatic promise.”36  Stronger on enigma than promise, Shilts nevertheless created a book designed to arouse.

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Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he has taught since 1976. He is the author of The Restless Ilan Stavans: Outsider on the Inside, The Translingual Imagination, Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text, and Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, which received the New York Society Library Award for Biography, as well as hundreds of essays and more than a thousand reviews. Among his other honors are the Gemini Ink Literary Excellence Award and the San Antonio Public Library Foundation’s Arts and Letters Award. He lives in San Antonio.

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1 Albert Camus, The Plague,trans.Stuart Gilbert, New York. Modern Library, 1948, 6 ff.
2 Ibid.,p. 272.
3 Ibid., p. 125.
4  Ibid., p. 222.
5 Ibid., p. 229.
6 Albert Camus, "letter lo Roland Barthes,"  11 January  1955, in Lyrical and Critical Essays,ed. Philip Thody,  trans.  Ellen  Conroy Kennedy,  New  York:  Vintage,  1970, p. 339.
7 Francesco Pctrarcha ,  "Letters  to  Socrates, May or June 1349" in Rerum famliarium, Vol. 8.7, trans.
Aldo S. Bernardo, Albany: SUNY Press, 1975.
8 Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic,
New York: St Martin's, 1987, p. 18.
9 Ibid., p.411.
10 Ibid.,P·482.
11 Randy Shilts, "Talking AIDS to Death,” Esquire, June  1988, p. 142.
12 Camus, ThePlague,p.6.
13 Ibid.
14 Shilts, And the Band Played  On, p. 509.
15 Ibid.,p. 117.
16 Ibid., p. 97.
17 Diane Johnson and John F. Murray, “AIDS Without End,” The New York Review of Books,Vol.  XXXV, No. 13, p. 57.
18 Camus, The Plague, p. 107.
19 Mark Caldwell, "The Literature  of  AIDS: Sensationalism, Hysteria, and Good Sense," Dissent, No. 37 (1990), p. 342.
20 Camus, The Plague, p. 126.
21 Shilts, And  the Band  Played  On, p. xii.
22 Ibid., p. 558.
23 Ibid,pp.  186, 255.
24  Ibid., p. 165.
25 Ibid., p. 318.
26 Ibid ., p. 347.
27 Ibid ., p. 311.
28 Camus,  The Plague, pp. 196-7.
29 Shilts, And  the Band  Played  On, p. 49.
30 Camus,  The Plague, p. 278.
31 Shilts, And the Band Played On, pp. 34-S.
32 Camus,  The Plague, p. 217.
33 Ibid., p. 337.
34  Shilts, And the Band  Played  On, p. 113.
35 Ibid., p. 191.
36  William Styron,  "Time Out Of Mind," Lear's, August  1990, p.74.

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