The city I live in is still sometimes called the city of no illusions. Except for walks with the dog, I haven’t left the house in weeks. Time is sluggish in Buffalo, but the daffodil buds have begun to fatten, compelled by the passing days. It’s the start of our first quarantine spring, and every week the words pile up. I’m on a deadline to finish my translation of Albert Camus’s The Plague, a project that was commissioned well before the pandemic. April brings life and fiction into lockstep—in upstate New York, and in the plague novel on my desk, spring is just the start of the story, rising with a certain panic.
“Fat clouds ran from one horizon to the other,” Camus wrote, “covering the houses with shadows that passed and gave way to the cold, golden light.” In The Plague, the sky is a protagonist, as are the walls, and the people are caught in a tug of war between them, a sinister alternation of endlessness and barriers. As the character Tarrou says, they are trapped “between the sky and the walls of their city.” Walking in my own streets, I’ve noticed that people’s moods do change based on the weather—for the first time, neighbors are standing on street corners, looking up at the clouds. Yesterday, I crossed the street to avoid the shadow side. Then I noticed almost all the other pedestrians had done the same, moving up the block, six feet apart, under the same city-sized bubble of sky.
Because the park is crowded, I go to the cemetery, and several people I know have started to do the same. It’s strange to occasionally run in to a friend among the aisles of graves, as if this were a normal place to wander, like a supermarket or a busy street. In the midst of the pandemic, the paths of the dead have been reintroduced into the rest of the city’s green space. This is the one place in Buffalo where there are no sirens, where everyone is already out of danger. There are blooming trees in the cemetery, and deer with a genetic mutation that turns their fur white. But I come here just to watch the drama of movement—the cloud shadows sliding over the glistening fields.
These are vast sweeps, warm fronts covering hundreds of miles, but they are also predictable, an oracle of bright green pixels on the radar screen. I’ve always liked to check the weather in moments of uncertainty. As the weeks of isolation pass, I find my taste for speculation is gone. The unknowns of the coming months have worn it out. I’d like to remember the grass blades, the slow spring sunshine, the two almonds of a deer hoof, pressed in the mud of the stream. I’ve missed so much; I don’t want to lose the raw clarity that grief sometimes lends to the world. Standing among the trees, with their neon clusters of newborn pollen, I worry that if I don’t choose how to remember this time, then this pandemic will become something subliminal, suppressed into my muscles, encoded into my body like a habit.
But do we really get to choose what we remember—or only what we write down? In The Plague, the narrator Rieux includes a description of the weather in almost every section of his chronicle. He marks time with the sky like some kind of mariner, sailing across a swath of minutes, notching hours in a cloud clock whose hands are the winds and the sun. And in one sense, he was following tradition. Many early plague chroniclers also noted the weather, since winds and vapors were believed to be vectors of disease. The record of Oran’s devastating 1849 cholera epidemic was no exception. “The atmosphere was broiling all summer long,” begins the archpriest of Oran’s cathedral in his account, “Le Choléra,”
thick mists, passing almost constantly, had made the temperature even more trying, and despite the lateness of the season, they still persisted; the air was drenched with humidity, and a truly torrid heat was sapping energies, softening courage, irritating minds, pushing everyone toward imprudence, making way for a terrible scourge.1
This “unhealthy humidity” makes the doctors of the town despair of being delivered from the epidemic. As the archpriest’s chronicle shows, meteorology in a plague narrative is not just description—it’s also a source of suspense, since the whims of the skies were thought to influence the progress of disease. In several of the nineteenth-century medical sources Camus consulted as he researched his novel, humidity was cited as a factor that propagated the plague bacillus, as was “miasma” or “bad air.” We now know that the relationship between climate and plague transmission is complex and sometimes contradictory, but in the 1800s, popular opinion followed a terrifyingly simple trajectory: miasma, disease, death.
For Camus, opening The Plague in spring creates drama as the rising heat and humidity bring the potential for illness. The season is beautiful and ominous. On the same day that Dr. Rieux discovers that the reserves of plague serum are exhausted, he reports that “from all the surrounding areas, spring had arrived at the markets. Thousands of roses fanned out in vendors’ baskets along the sidewalks, and their sugary smell floated throughout the city.” The air is not just atmospheric here, it’s also deeply dissonant. Like the plague doctors who filled their beaked masks with flowers, the roses at the market are masking the rise of something more sinister. Rieux watches the sky because he’s afraid the rising heat will make people sicker. Soon everyone else is watching the weather, too. On one of the first hot days in the novel, the connection between plague and weather becomes part of the public perception:
The colors of the sky and the smells of the earth that made up the passage of the seasons were, for the first time, meaningful to everyone. Everyone understood, with horror, that the heatwaves would help the epidemic, and, at the same time, each person could see that summer was settling in. Above the city, the calls of swifts in the evening sky became shrill. They were no longer in tune with these June evenings that make the horizon recede in our country. … It was clear to people that spring was exhausted, that it had lavished itself on the thousands of flowers bursting open everywhere, and that it would doze off now, collapsing slowly under the double heaviness of the heat and the plague. For all our fellow citizens, this summer sky, these streets paling under the shades of dust and boredom, had the same threatening aspect as the hundred dead who weighed down the city each day.2
As the North African summer looms, it becomes harder to distinguish between the weather and the symptoms of disease. The shadows cast by the hot sun become “shades,” ghosts of the season’s dead. The flowers of April and May burst, scatter and collapse like plague victims, sinking into the season’s exhaustion. Dr. Rieux has the impression that “The entire city had a fever.” There’s a brutal lushness to this heat, a virulence that awakens both human desire and microbial life. Summer is the harsh season, and soon “under the red July sky the city, packed with couples and shouts, drifts into the panting night.”
The Weather in Plague
It’s a little-known fact that Camus worked briefly as a meteorologist. For almost a year, from 1937-38, he wore a lab coat at the Algiers Geophysics Institute and catalogued measurements of atmospheric pressure from hundreds of weather stations across North Africa. The data had been piling up, and despite the arrogance of their imperial ambitions, the men who ran the Institute couldn’t attract enough funding. They didn’t have the money to hire a scientist trained for this “exacting and, in effect, stupefying task.”3 Nonetheless, Camus’s supervisor, Lucien Petitjean, was pleased with his work. By the end of his time at the Institute, Camus had plotted curves for 27 years of barometric pressures from 121 weather stations. He also made calculations, averaging monthly meteorological data. This work must have given him a granular picture of the weather, one that was so dry and clinical it was at odds with his experience of the natural world. “Like in all sciences of description (statistics—which collects facts—) the biggest problem in meteorology is a practical problem: that of replacing missing observations,” he wrote in his notebook. “Temperature varies from one minute to the next,” he clarified. “This experiment shifts too much to be stabilized into mathematical concepts. Observation here represents an arbitrary slice of reality.”
Soon Camus went to work for a newspaper, Alger Républicain, leaving the Geophysics Institute behind. But his sensitivity to fluctuations in the weather stayed with him, especially when he decided to write about a plague. For the novel, he drew on a scientific source with literary connections—a 1897 book called La défense de l’Europe contre la peste. The author was none other than Adrien Proust, epidemiologist and father of the writer Marcel. Dr. Proust’s volume is full of weather, and he carefully examines how the climate of different cities has affected their history with the plague. “The seasons exercise an influence over the development or the spread of these epidemics,” he writes, signaling that “the temperature, the winds have a certain effect.” He describes the dry heat of Egypt, the humidity of Algeria and the way certain storms might even accelerate disease.
Did the doctor’s son pick up on this apprehension when he created his own literary obsession with weather reports and measuring barometric pressure? In Search of Lost Time is full of human barometers attuned to changes in the weather, and the narrator’s father is first among them. The scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that for the narrator, Marcel, and for his father, these day-to-day alterations in weather are more than meteorological. “What does the narrator mean in calling himself an animated barometer?” she asks in “The Weather in Proust.” To be a barometer involves being able to gauge the weather, to measure it against past and present, to hold a kind of memory within yourself that might come back to haunt you in the future:
For the narrator, waking from sleep to find changed weather is a way of being “born again” … And paradoxically, the very ordinary seriality of weather offers a kind of daily, ground-tone pulsation of the mémoire involuntaire … “Atmospheric changes, provoking other changes in the inner man, awaken forgotten selves”; “we relive our past years not in their continuous sequence, day by day, but in a memory focused upon the coolness or sunshine of some morning or afternoon.”
Sedgwick’s brilliant passage reveals a link between the workings of involuntary memory and the idea of a human barometer. To Proust, and to his father figures, each day’s weather could be a trigger of involuntary memory, a point of comparison between today’s spring self and the lost self of a previous spring. The weather is a daily reminder of similar moments in past seasons, a “ground-tone pulsation” of cool mornings where our present experience snags on our memories of the past. How many of us, during COVID, experience these kinds of moments ourselves, even in the form of longing, dissonance? How many of us felt the softness of a spring afternoon and had to force our bodies to think of the pandemic, to stay wary?
In April 2020, I spoke with a group of 35 medical professionals in New York City who were reading The Plague as hospitals were filling with COVID patients. To them, it was clear that the character of Dr. Rieux was expressing more than an individual perspective—as he chooses to write his chronicle, one doctor said, he becomes the voice of collective trauma. In his years at the Algiers Geophysics Institute, Camus himself had become something of a human barometer. And who better to carry that knowledge in his fiction than Dr. Rieux, sensitive chronicler of both weather and illness? By giving his narrator a collective voice, Camus sets himself apart from Proust’s luxurious individualism. But Camus also left himself with a problem—how to express emotions, mourning, desperation and maintain collectivity? One of his answers was to turn to the weather in plague as a form of collective experience, because everyone in the city is trapped under the same sky. In the most harrowing moments of the book, when Rieux is grappling with the deaths of those around him, he allows his internal feelings to merge with the weather, burying personal experience within natural phenomena that are visible to everyone in the city. These moments are like tiny memorials where Camus anchors human grief in the movements of the sky.
With the first death, the weather reflects a grim unease:
The day after the concierge’s death, large clouds filled the sky. Brief deluges of rain battered the city; a stormy heat followed these brusque showers. Even the sea had lost its deep blue, and under the misty sky, it took on shades of silver or iron, painful to see.
At the moment the word “plague” is first spoken, Camus places it in direct contrast with the April sky:
The doctor was still looking out the window. On one side of the pane, the fresh spring sky, and on the other side, the word that still resonated in the room: plague.
After the death of a child, the exhausted Rieux looks up and sees the remaking of a bed:
The heat fell slowly through the branches of the ficus. A whitish pillowcase was slipping over the blue sky of morning, making the air even more suffocating.
After his wife dies, Rieux’s mother waits for his reaction, but he is busy studying the sky:
She looked at him but he stubbornly stared through the window as a magnificent morning rose over the harbor.
These moments represent extreme feeling, but they also achieve their emotional pull through restraint. When the lens of the book expands to take in the sky, it encompasses a vast grief, translating a sadness that’s too wild for the organized grid of a city and the ordinary language of politeness. Expressing loss as weather is a way of putting it where everyone can see it—somewhere unfinished, unresolved, unforgotten. After Rieux’s best friend dies in the eleventh hour of the epidemic, he learns that the administration will dedicate a monument to the victims of the plague. But that managed civic healing isn’t where Rieux wants to locate his grief. Instead, he climbs to the terraces overlooking the city and the sea, to the place where he felt closest to his friend. While he’s standing there, he lets the weather remind him of the night he talked with Tarrou:
The great cold sky sparkled over the houses, and, close to the hills, the stars hardened like flint. This night wasn’t so different from the one when he and Tarrou had come to this terrace to forget about the plague. The sea at the foot of the bluff was just a bit louder than it had been. The air was still and light, relieved of the dirty gusts that brought the lukewarm winds of autumn.
The thing about being a historical chronicler is that you’re always straddling the line between writing for the past and being needed by the future. But there’s no guarantee that future readers will have experiences that call to mind what you have written. Walking around my city, lines from The Plague kept appearing, like the fat buds of flowers, the cold, golden light, the lukewarm wind. We can’t forget what Camus claims to offer us in this chronicle—“his knowledge of the plague and his memory of it, his knowledge of friendship and his memory of it, of knowing tenderness and having, one day, to remember it.” This existence marked by grief is what Camus calls “a life without illusions.” Will we experience future Aprils and think of our quarantine walks, of the sunbursts after days of cloud-cover? We are constantly translating the world into memory, but I seem to have calibrated my internal barometer to match the emotional weather of The Plague.
On a cold day last May, as the north wind blew down from Canada and a white sky stubbornly resisted the lengthening arc of the sun, our friends and neighbors decided to battle their cabin fever by writing descriptions of the sky in chalk on the pavement. It was a brief window into how others would recall these strange days. Cataract sky can’t shake clear, my husband wrote. I stood there looking up and imagined a future where I might feel a certain heaviness on spring days when the sky is white velvet, an involuntary trace of the ways this pandemic has collectively changed our lives. In a country where grief often goes unacknowledged, I hope that this year isn’t lost time, that we don’t fall back on illusions in these surface streets. Maybe the weather will keep us from turning a blind eye.
Image credit: J. M. W. Turner, “Storm Clouds at Dusk, above the Sea”