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:
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