Three-quarters of the way through the novel I’ve always thought is Camus’ finest, its two main protagonists go for a swim after dark in the waters beyond the harbour of their coastal city, which is in the grip of bubonic plague. The city is Oran, in north-west Algeria; the date is sometime in the 1940s. The plague, which gives the novel its name, has sealed Oran off from the outside world. The Mediterranean water into which the men plunge breathes like a fur-covered animal, Camus tells us. In it is stored the warmth of the day just ended. The two men, Dr Bernard Rieux and Jean Tarrou, both prominent in the fight against the plague, are knowingly breaking the curfew by slipping past the guards they themselves have helped set up, and heading for the sea. They’re not acting out of defiance of the authorities, but to enjoy for a moment what it is they are trying to re-establish: moral and physical well-being. What, they ask as they swim alongside each other under the stars, is the point of fighting for something that can’t be enjoyed?
Whenever I think of The Plague (1947), it’s this swim that first comes to mind. It’s a high point in the novel, the only moment of escape from the living entombment inside Oran. Rieux and Tarrou are powerful literary creations, fully fleshed out, complex. They’re no saints, but two individuals doing their best to live by what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’. And it’s because of well-rounded characterization – of good people such as Rieux and Tarrou but also of others who can’t live by Lincoln’s angels, or choose not to – that I’ve always found The Plague the most rewarding of Camus’ novels, the most human and the most forgiving.
I first encountered it at school. It was a set text on my French A-level syllabus. By way of preparation, our teacher – my own father, as it happened – introduced us first to Camus the man of ideas. As my father presented them, these
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