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An excerpt from The Plague

A word that conjured up in the doctor's mind not only what science chose to put into it, but a whole series of fantastic possibilities utterly out of keeping with that gray and yellow town under his eyes, from which were rising the sounds of mild activity characteristic of the hour; a drone, rather than a bustling, the noises of a happy town, in short, If it is possible to be at once so dull and happy.

This whole sentence just eludes me. Could you please help me parse it?

In terms of syntax, I don't know where is the predicate. I think the subject is "a word," which is then followed by a relative clause beginning with "that" and another relative clause starting with "from which."

As to the meaning, what does "but a whole series of fantastic possibilities utterly out of keeping with that gray and yellow town under his eyes" mean?

Also, what is "the sounds of mild activity characteristic of the hour”?

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  • for the sake of French linguists, "... La peste. Le mot ne contenait pas seulement ce que la science voulait bien y mettre, mais une longue suite d’images extraordinaires qui ne s’accordaient pas avec cette ville jaune et grise, modérément animée à cette heure, bourdonnante plutôt que bruyante, heureuse en somme, s’il est possible qu’on puisse être à la fois heureux et morne." – James K Feb 3 at 8:10
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    I was going to write an answer but since two good answers have surfaced I won't bother. The immediately preceding sentence should be included in the quote. As the answers point out this is not a complete, grammatical sentence, but non-sentences are quite common in literature. If you regard it as part of an apposition with the preceding sentence, it makes more sense. – Eddie Kal Feb 3 at 8:11
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For those that don't know the context, the previous sentence ends something like:

...the word that still echoed in the room: the plague.

I have divided up the passage into several clauses, and added a few words to indicate how they fit together.

A word

that conjured up in the doctor's mind

not only what science chose to put into it
but [also] a whole series of fantastic possibilities

[these possibilities were] utterly out of keeping with that gray and yellow town under his eyes.

from the town were rising the sounds of mild activity characteristic of the hour;

[the sounds were] a drone, rather than a bustling,
the noises [were] of a happy town, in short,

if it is possible to be at once so dull and happy.

This is not a sentence: there is a subject, but no predicate. The rest of the passage starts off as a relative clause linked by the relative pronoun that, and then takes a few detours. From a literary perspective, it sketches out a scene beautifully, but in terms of sentence construction it's a house of cards.

The sentence construction is the work of the translator: the sentence in Camus' original version, page 43, contains exactly the same scene but is a lot easier to read.

"but a whole series of fantastic possibilities utterly out of keeping with that gray and yellow town under his eyes" means that he is imagining the terrible consequences that did not fit with the boring town that he is looking at.

"the sounds of mild activity characteristic of the hour” imagine waking up in a small town, and hearing the noises all of the little things people do when shortly after they wake up, before they settle into the routine of the day.

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It looks like the author has become so carried away with his description that he (or his translator) haven't actually written a sentence!

I'd understand this as "It was a word that conjured up..."

"Out of keeping" suggests a contrast. The fantastic possibilities in his head didn't fit with the dull appearance of the town.

And you might expect a town to make different sounds at different times: during the day there might be sounds of factories, in the evening there might be traffic sounds as people return home. The sound is described as being a "drone" (ie continuous, without variation) and mild (not harsh) It is the result of activity in the town and characteristic of the time of day.

The word, by the way, is "Plague" and as a whole it is about the contrast between the emotive content of that word and the happy but boring life of people. "The word "plague" is such a powerful one because of the connotations of fear it carries." (note from Schmoop study guide)

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