Until recently, the only literary reference to “St. James Infirmary” that anyone had ever mentioned to me is the closing scene of Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors, which involves a morgue visit that seems pretty clearly to be inspired by “SJI” on some level (although I do not believe the song is ever specifically mentioned).
So I was quite intrigued to get a note from a reader not long ago, a student in White Plains, New York, named Dan Pasternack. He said he was a fan of “SJI” himself, dating back to a time he’d heard it performed at Preservation Hall on a visit to New Orleans. “I was stunned,” he continued, “to find the song appear in Albert Camus’ 1947 book The Plague, playing in a crowded bar and then on a character’s record player.”
Turned out he was reading that book for a class assignment, and I got him to send me the paper he wrote, in which he actually deals a bit with the “SJI” cameo.
The Plague, as those of you who are more literary-minded than I am no doubt already know, is a novel about a small city in a French colony in North Africa that must cut itself off from the outside world due to, yes, a plague. Not surprisingly, there’s a claustrophobic and introspective feel to the narrative, as the citizens of this town, Oran, deal with their isolation and with the fact that their fellow citizens are dying and they could be next. How does “SJI” fit in? That’s explained after the jump. (more…)