La Peste, Albert Camus's fable of the coming of the plague to the North African city of Oran, was published in 1947, when Camus was 33. It was an immediate triumph. Within a year it had been translated into nine languages, with many more to come. It has never been out of print and was established as a classic of world literature even before its author's untimely death in a car accident in January 1960. More ambitious than L'Etranger, the first novel that established his reputation, and more accessible than his later writings, The Plague (La Peste) is the book by which Camus is known to millions of readers.
Today, The Plague takes on fresh significance. Camus's insistence on placing individual moral responsibility at the heart of all public choices cuts sharply across the comfortable habits of our own age. His definition of heroism - ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency - rings truer than we might once have acknowledged.
His depiction of instant ex-cathedra judgments - "My brethren, you have deserved it" - will be grimly familiar to us all. Camus's compassion for the doubters and the compromised, for the motives and mistakes of imperfect humanity, matched with his unwavering grasp of the difference between good and evil, casts unflattering light upon the relativisers and trimmers of our own day. And his controversial use of a biological epidemic to illustrate the dilemmas of moral contagion succeeds in ways the writer could not have imagined: in New York, in November 2001, we are better placed than we could ever have wished to feel the lash of the novel's astonishing final sentence.
Camus started gathering material for the novel in January 1941, when he arrived in Oran, the Algerian coastal city where the story is set. He continued working on the manuscript in Le Chambon-sur- Lignon, a mountain village in central France where he went to recuperate from one of his periodic bouts of tuberculosis in the summer of 1942. But he was soon swept into the resistance, and it was not until the liberation of France that he was able to return his attention to the book. By then, the obscure Algerian novelist had become a national figure: a hero of the intellectual resistance, editor of Combat (a daily paper that was hugely influential in the postwar years), and an icon to a new generation of French men and women hungry for ideas and idols.
Camus fitted the role to perfection. Handsome and charming, a charismatic advocate of radical social and political change, he held unparalleled sway over millions of his countrymen. In the words of Raymond Aron, readers of Camus's editorials had "formed the habit of getting their daily thought from him". There were other intellectuals in postwar Paris who were destined to play major roles in years to come: Aron himself, Simone de Beauvoir and, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre. But Camus was different. Born in Algeria in 1913, he was younger than his left-bank friends, most of whom were already 40 when the war ended. He was more "exotic", coming as he did from Algiers rather than from the hothouse milieu of Parisian schools and colleges; and there was something special about him. One contemporary observer caught it well: "I was struck by his face, so human and sensitive. There is in this man such an obvious integrity that it imposes respect almost immediately; quite simply, he is not like other men."
Camus's standing guaranteed his book's success. But its timing had something to do with it too. By the time the book appeared, the French were beginning to forget the discomforts and compromises of German occupation. Marshal Pétain, the head of state who initiated and incarnated the policy of collaboration with the Nazis, had been tried and imprisoned. Other collaborating politicians had been executed or else banished from public life. The myth of a glorious national resistance was carefully cultivated by politicians of all colours, from Charles de Gaulle to the communists; uncomfortable private memories were overlaid with the airbrushed official version, in which France had been liberated from its oppressors by the joint efforts of domestic resisters and Free French troops led from London by De Gaulle.
In this context, Camus's allegory of the wartime occupation of France reopened a painful chapter in the recent French past, but in an indirect and ostensibly apolitical key. It thus avoided arousing partisan hackles, except at the extremes of left and right, and took up sensitive topics without provoking a refusal to listen. Had the novel appeared in 1945, the angry, partisan mood of revenge would have drowned its moderate reflections on justice and responsibility. Had it been delayed until the 1950s, its subject-matter would probably have been overtaken by new alignments born of the cold war.
Oran, the setting for the novel, was a city Camus knew well and cordially disliked, in contrast to his much-loved home town of Algiers. He found it boring and materialistic and his memories of it were further shaped by the fact that his tuberculosis took a turn for the worse during his stay there. This involuntary deprivation of everything that Camus most loved about his Algerian birthplace - the sand, the sea, physical exercise and the Mediterranean sense of ease - was compounded when he was sent to the French countryside to convalesce. The Massif Central of France is tranquil and bracing, and the remote village where Camus arrived in August 1942 might be thought the ideal setting for a writer. But 12 weeks later, in November 1942, the Allies landed in North Africa. The Germans responded by occupying the whole of southern France (hitherto governed from Vichy by Pétain's puppet government) and Algeria was cut off from the continent. Camus was thenceforth separated not just from his homeland but also from his mother and his wife, and would not see them again until the Germans had been defeated. Illness, exile and separation were thus present in Camus's life as in his novel, and his reflections upon them form a vital counterpoint to the allegory.
Camus put himself directly into the characters of the novel, using three of them in particular to represent his moral perspective. Rambert, the young journalist cut off from his wife in Paris, is initially desperate to escape the quarantined city. His obsession with his personal suffering makes him indifferent to the larger tragedy, from which he feels quite detached - he is not, after all, a citizen of Oran, but was caught there by chance. It is on the eve of his getaway that he realises how, despite himself, he has become part of the community and shares its fate; ignoring the risk and in the face of his earlier, selfish needs, he remains in Oran and joins the "health teams". From a purely private resistance against misfortune he has graduated to the solidarity of a collective resistance against the common scourge.