French literary anniversaries, part 3: Camus
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
In this week’s TLS, Robert Zaretsky reviews Albert Camus’s Algerian Chronicles, a collection of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s journalism, both early and late, in a “brilliant translation” by Arthur Goldhammer. Zaretsky writes that Algeria’s right to independence from France was complicated in Camus’s mind by the fact that he was himself one of a million French colonists – “the dilemma he could never resolve”. The book’s publication marks the centenary of Camus’s birth (November 7, 1913).
It’s probably safe to assume that it was mainly Camus’s work as a novelist and playwright that won him that Nobel Prize in 1957, “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times": L’Étranger, La Peste and La Chute in particular. (Does anyone concern themselves much with the plays these days? The theatre doesn’t seem to have been his natural medium.)
In common with many readers, I have always found it easier to read (and admire) Camus than Sartre – the two will forever be indissolubly linked, thanks to their active presence on the post-war Left Bank. Camus was the humanist, Sartre the ideologue, Camus the sensualist, Sartre the intellectual and so on. Camus had the better look: the upturned coat collar and the fag stub (although my favourite photo of the author has him wearing improbably high shorts, below, with the poet René Char).
But what of Camus’s fiction now? I for one won’t be reading L’Étranger (The Outsider) again, brief though it is; the last time I read the book it left a rather unpleasant taste, right from its notorious opening two sentences: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas”. Reviewing a new translation of the book in the TLS last year, Shaun Whiteside mused: “. . . how strange this novel now seems. Camus’s Algiers of seventy years ago is a bizarre non-lieu, a European city peopled by Europeans, where shady anonymous ‘Arabs’ lurk menacingly in the background”. It did, however, inspire a good song by The Cure.
I have just reread La Peste (1947; The Plague). According to its author, “La Peste may be read in three different ways. It is at the same time a tale about an epidemic, a symbol of Nazi occupation . . . , and, thirdly, the concrete illustration of a metaphysical problem, that of evil . . . “. The symbolic interpretation doesn’t persuade me: the allegory is so vague – are we really to believe that the rats bringing the bubonic plague to the Algerian coastal town of Oran are in fact Nazis occupying France? I prefer to read it on a literal level, as an account of human suffering under terrible conditions, but also of the strength of the moral and physical courage of some, as well as the stoicism of others: the saintly doctor, Rieux, who doesn’t have time to worry about his sick wife who has been sent away on a health cure, and who visits an aged asthmatic at 10 at night, and his associate Tarrou who accepts his fate with dignity. It remains a powerful book, and almost painful to read in places: the description of the death from the plague of a young boy in particular. At times it’s as if Camus is presenting a world without the possibility of redemption, while the nature of evil could be said to be explored through the figure of Cottard, a petty crook profiting from the crisis and happy to see its continuation.
But again it’s hard not to be struck by the Europeanness of Camus’s Oran: a Jesuit priest delivers a sermon in which he places the blame for the plague on its victims; because of the plague, “everyone” in Oran has forgotten about Christmas this year. Arabs are conspicuous by their absence. This was the world Camus mainly knew.
Camus’s biographer Olivier Todd wrote that “La Peste’s calm and ample style was radically different from the terse and dry tone of L’Étranger. It was similar to a lake after a torrent”. The book was favourably received, although not in Camus’s own publication Combat, ironically, where Maurice Nadeau criticized the author’s notions of secular sainthood. Fifty-two thousand copies were sold within a few months (according to Todd, Sartre, on a lecture tour of the US, “publicly praised La Peste and its author’s talent, but privately he declared that Camus was no genius”!)
Against that, Sartre called La Chute (1956, The Fall) “the finest and least well understood of Camus’s works”. Its English translator Robin Buss said that “for many, it is the best and the most original thing [Camus] wrote”. A bleak autobiographical meditation set in Amsterdam, it remains worth reading.
As is the posthumously published Le Premier Homme (The First Man, 1994), a novel reconstructed by the novelist’s daughter Catherine Camus from manuscript pages found scattered across the road after the car crash that killed him on January 4, 1960). In fact, it’s hard not to see it as Camus’s best work, a moving reconstruction of the history of colonial Algeria from 1830, when the French first arrived, seen through the eyes of a poverty-stricken family of settlers (the author drew on his own family’s harsh experiences).
An exhibition, Albert Camus, citoyen du monde, has just opened in Aix-en-Provence. Writing about it in Le Monde (October 8), Macha Séry explains how the original curator Benjamin Stora was thrown off the project last year because of his critical views about colonial Algeria, which didn’t chime with those of the Aixois old-timers who were nostalgic for French Algeria and happened to be close to the city’s mayor Maryse Joissains-Masini.
Séry writes: “. . . what’s astonishing is the extent to which Albert Camus, the best-selling French author outside France, remains unappreciated in the Hexagon [France]”. She reveals that, unlike his near-contemporaries Sartre, Boris Vian and Guy Debord, he has never been dignified with an exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale. Which is “incredible, a real mystery”, according to the leading French publisher Antoine Gallimard (another member of the Gallimard clan, Michel, was at the wheel of the fancy Facel Vega when he and Camus were killed).
Complex, combative, morally tormented, Camus, it seems, continues to divide opinion.