Losing the Light

Michael Wood

  • L’Eté by Albert Camus
    Gallimard, 192 pp, €18.50, February 2010, ISBN 978 2 07 012927 0
  • Albert Camus: Solitaire et Solidaire by Catherine Camus
    Lafon, 208 pp, £39.90, December 2009, ISBN 978 2 7499 1087 1
  • Albert Camus: Elements of a Life by Robert Zaretsky
    Cornell, 200 pp, £16.50, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 8014 4805 8
  • Albert Camus: Fils d’Alger by Alain Vircondelet
    Fayard, 396 pp, €19.90, January 2010, ISBN 978 2 213 63844 7

The last piece in L’Eté, a collection of Camus’s essays first published in 1954, ends on a characteristic note of risk and grandeur: ‘I have always had the impression of living on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness.’ The high seas and the happiness frame and reduce the threat, perhaps even make it part of the glamour, part of the flourish. In his non-fictional prose Camus is the man who comes through, finds resources, defeats despair. He returns to Tipasa, in a famous essay bearing that title (‘Retour à Tipasa’, also in L’Eté), touches base with the Roman ruins and the sunlight and sea of his native Algeria, and finds again the ‘strength … which helps me to accept what is, once I have recognised that I could not change it’. ‘At first innocent without knowing it,’ he says firmly, ‘we were now guilty without wanting it.’ But we can live with our historical condition if we are lucky, if our innocence has a home in memory, or is preserved for us in a particular place in the material world. ‘And beneath the glorious light of December, as happens only once or twice in lives which, as a result, can view themselves as blessed, I found exactly what I had come to look for and which, in spite of time and the world, was offered to me, really to me alone, in this deserted site of nature.’ And again: ‘In the middle of winter, I learned at last that there was in me an invincible summer.’

Catherine Camus quotes these words on the last page of her lavish picture biography of her father: without illustration, alone in the middle of a large white space. On the facing page is a colour photograph of two men in a restaurant after a meal. Camus is smiling, a finger touching his chin; the other man, Michel Gallimard, seems about to smile. No scene could be more relaxed. The previous page shows a car wrapped around a tree and a gravestone. Both men were killed in an accident in January 1960; Gallimard’s wife and daughter survived. We don’t have to feel the accident corrects the quotation, and Catherine Camus’s suggestion is surely the reverse: the quotation revises the accident, points to the written spirit that death can’t kill. She is right about a whole aspect of Camus’s work. If his characters rarely find solutions they often find exaltation, as he himself does in his essays: words to die with if living is impossible. Even an assassin, in the Russia of 1905 depicted in Camus’s play Les Justes, knows that ‘there is no happiness in hatred,’ and another, about to throw a bomb, says: ‘I hate tyranny and I know we cannot do otherwise. But it is with a joyous heart that I chose this, and with a sad heart that I continue.’ There is a triumph in lucidity, although you have to believe in words a little more than many of us do to get the full effect.

Catherine Camus also quotes, from a notebook, a slightly different version of the sentence about happiness: ‘I have always had the impression of being on the high seas: threatened at the heart of a royal happiness.’ The high seas are only verbal, perhaps metaphorical, perhaps temporarily abandoned, since the photographs on this page and the facing one show Camus on a boat on a lake, with his second wife, Francine, and their twins, Catherine herself and Jean. The happiness is visible, but quiet, domestic, the reverse of royal perhaps. The risk is off the page.

One of the great charms of this book is how much is in it, the sheer luxury of documentation, from exercisebooks to postcards to passports, from theatre programmes and posters to manuscripts and letters and maps, and there are photographs everywhere, from all the dates and locations of Camus’s life. But this charm is inseparable from another: Catherine Camus’s own delicacy in saying so little, letting us guess and suspect so much. She identifies images, she quotes skilfully, and she leaves us to it. There is perhaps a clue to her tact in her wonderfully enigmatic opening remark: ‘Albert Camus is not a father, but my father is Albert Camus.’ I take it she means he is a father (her father) but only occasionally, and we see that figure in the photographs I’ve mentioned and some others – notably a shot of him inside a cot with the two children, happiness scarcely threatened. She may also mean to glance at what Robert Zaretsky in his critical study calls Camus’s ‘serial infidelities’ and Alain Vircondelet in his new biography refers to as ‘donjuanisme’; but if so this is her only glance, apart from a mention of Camus’s ‘relation intime’ with the actress Maria Casarès. Vircondelet, less discreet and more worldly, suggests everything was fine because Camus’s wife was effectively a sister to him.

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[*] La Mort heureuse (Gallimard, 176 pp., €5.60, January, 978 2 07 040246 5).