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Most people in the UK probably remember 1972 for the miners’ strike which, twelve years later, was re-enacted in a much bloodier and more bitter way. The strike was of course the first act in a much larger drama which included the shock waves generated by OPEC quadrupling the price of oil and the introduction of the three-day working week at very end of 1973 which led to the downfall of Edward Heath’s Conservative Government in early 1974.

While I watched the drama slowly unfold, I must confess that 1972-73 was, at least for me, a rather good year. As a second-year undergraduate at the University of Leeds, I enjoyed a year without exams, an opportunity to broaden out and pursue variety of interests both within and outside academe. It was a year of relative freedom which, in some respects, never came my way again!

One event that sticks in my mind during this halcyon period (and there were many) was a lunchtime seminar on the novelist Albert Camus organised by two final-year female undergraduates. The seminar, which involved both the Department of French and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies was, I seem to recall, well-attended and lively. During the year I got to know the architects of this event much better. They were an entrepreneurial pair who, despite the restrictions of the Junta, spent their holidays on the Greek islands, spinning out their drachmas by sleeping on beaches and selling their blood. Eventually I was invited round to their flat for a meal. A few weeks earlier, they had invited the Vice-Chancellor, Edward Boyle (formerly Minster of State for Education in Harold Macmillan’s government) during one of his frequent walks around the campus who had enthusiastically accepted!

My involvement with French existentialism had an interesting trajectory. It began when I was given a copy of Albert Camus’s
The Fall (French: La Chute ) in the summer of 1970 (thank you Ruth) and probably peaked in 1980 when I spent part of my holiday with Audrey on the island of Poros reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (French: L'Être et le néant ).

The Plague (French: La Peste ), which was published in 1947, is regarded by many to be an existentialist classic, despite Camus’s own rejection of that all-too-easy, go-to label. According to Wikipedia: “the novel tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to vacationers to fugitives, all help to show the effects the plague has on a populace”.

Although the novel has been interpreted by some as an allegorical account of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II, it can be more widely understood as a literary exploration of ‘The Absurd’, a philosophical idea advanced by Camus and given expression in other novels (e.g.
La Chute ) as well as various essays (e.g. Le Mythe de Sisyphe ).

In a pivotal exchange, Camus writes:

“It comes to this,” Tarrou said almost casually; “What interests me is learning how to become a saint.”
“But you don't believe in God.”
“Exactly! Can one be a saint without God? – that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today”

According to Greg Watson:

“The immediacy of death is the most striking feature of The Plague. Camus strips away the abstractions and sentimentality that we might have in viewing death. Some may die peacefully. Other may die with a vengeance, fighting even at their last moments.

“As the plague in the story begins to claim lives, its residents are forced to witness the deaths of even young children. The character of Father Paneloux reminds the residents of Oran that they “must trust in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children.” And that the plague offered no “island of escape” between loving God or hating Him.”

March 2020. Plus ça change.


Book of the Month

Albert Camus