There are too many myths about Camus. One of the most persistent, first propagated in Britain by Cyril Connolly’s Introduction to the 1946 translation of L’Etranger, was that he ‘played a notable part in the French Resistance Movement’. The much-photographed figure in a trench coat, with Humphrey Bogart features, certainly looked like Hollywood’s idea of an underground hero. In fact, Camus derailed no more trains than Sartre. What he did do, from the winter of 1943-4 onwards, was help the Resistance circuit ‘Combat’ with its clandestine newspaper of the same name. But this had been started three years earlier by Henri Frenay, and even when Camus joined it he only gradually assumed a leading editorial role.
A second myth was that his 1947 novel, La Peste, was simply an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. This is a canard which is hard to avoid: I’ve even been guilty of repeating it myself. To the book’s first readers, it seemed obvious. The ‘plague’ was the enemy; those who fought it were members of the Resistance. But even at the time the metaphor seemed faulty: Sartre and others pointed out quite sensibly that disease is everyone’s impersonal enemy – whereas the Occupation was a complex phenomenon, involving temptation, indifference, treachery and moral choice. Only a strict Buddhist, unwilling to kill even bacteria, would have faced in the plague city the ethical conundrums which beset Resistance workers who knew or suspected that if they killed a Nazi the authorities would take savage revenge on civilian hostages. On reflection, it’s obvious that Camus, who knew a lot about guilt, was aware of this. So those of us who read La Peste as a straightforward allegory were being both too clever and too simple-minded – which goes for Sartre as well.
A third myth, still current, is that Camus was an existentialist. This is partly an offshoot of his being so often coupled with Sartre. The blurb of Joseph Laredo’s new, rather too creamy translation of L’Etranger even alleges that Sartre was co-editor with Camus of the post-war Combat. But the more time passes the easier it becomes to see their essential differences. Even in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus’s only work of anything like ‘pure’ philosophy, published in 1942, his reaction to the ‘absurdity’ of a bleak, indifferent universe was no existential ‘leap’ into scurrying political activity: it was an exhortation ‘not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments’ – the articulate man’s version of the lumpen ‘mustn’t grumble’. Perhaps, somewhere behind it, was an echo of his workworn mother.
Another myth: that Camus was what’s now quaintly called a ‘Cold War intellectual’. In 1951, the heyday of Left Bank neutralism or fellow-travelling, when revolution still seemed to many a desirable goal, and the Russian Revolution a hopeful beginning, Camus published L’Homme Révolté, an uneven survey of the advocates of revolt, reaching a conclusion not unlike that of George Savile, Marquess of Halifax, the 17th-century ‘Trimmer’: ‘When the People contend for their Liberty, they seldom get anything by their Victory but new Masters.’ This, naturally, drew down thunderbolts of Sartrean abuse, which made permanent the breach between Camus and their author. Even now, Patrick McCarthy regards L’Homme Révolté as not merely Camus’s ‘worst book but one that did him great harm’ – ‘yet another chapter in the “God-that-failed” saga’. That, I think, is unfair.
Unlike Arthur Koestler, Camus was not performing a public autocritique of his past as a Communist, but trying to put utopian politics in its place. ‘Politics,’ he insisted, ‘is not a religion; if it becomes one it becomes an inquisition.’ Only those who believe in the primacy of politics, and dismiss other priorities as ‘reactionary’, could possibly regard L’Homme Révolté as a Cold War tract. This, of course, has not prevented allegations that Camus was being subsidised by Nato or the CIA.
One final myth bears a family resemblance to the ‘Cold Warrior’ taunt. In 1957, at the height of the Algerian War, Camus the pied-noir was awarded the Nobel Prize. Heckled in Stockholm by an Arab student, he angrily denied that he was siding with the French paras, but he attacked FLN violence too: ‘I have always condemned the use of terror. I must also condemn a terror which is practised blindly on the Algiers streets and which may any day strike down my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.’ Even so judicious a critic as Conor Cruise O’Brien, writing 13 years later, saw fit to comment: ‘The defence of his mother required support for the French army’s pacification of Algeria.’ It was not so simple. In pre-war Algeria, Camus had long championed the Arab underdog. He believed in a negotiated settlement, and had backed Mendès-France and Ferhat Abbas while the colons called for his blood. But he was appalled by carnage – from either side. And, as his last novel La Chute made very clear, he realised the inescapable contradictions of his personal plight. The car crash that killed him in 1960 came too soon for him to see the sequel to Algerian independence: but history, he already knew, is not prodigal of happy endings.
Since then, as Patrick McCarthy notes, Camus’s reputation ‘has not fallen but young Frenchmen have almost ignored him’. This may be because his period is now in history’s ‘dead ground’, concealed by the bulk of more recent events, not yet distant enough to become visible again. Sartre, who died more recently, is still the subject of disputes and memoirs: Camus seems to belong to a faded golden age of post-war Saint-Germain-des-Près, the world of Juliette Gréco and Gérard Philipe and Boris Vian, of old francs and traction avant cars, of Marcel Carné films and Jacques Prévert poems, the days when the New Look was new. To read Camus in the Pléiade edition, that flimsy-paged monument, is to confront a marble statue. Can it still be brought to life?
Herbert Lottman did his best in 1979, with a fat biography reissued in paperback last year. An American expatriate in Paris, he talked to many people who remembered Camus, did most of the right reading, and produced a very workmanlike job. No one writing on Camus could afford to ignore that mass of information: but what seemed lacking was any muscular grasp of Camus’s inner life. The plots of his novels, the outlines of his ideas, gave little hint of the man’s real qualities – his toughness, his torment, his mixture of gloom and zest. The same is true, I’m afraid, of Lottman’s new book about Parisian literary politics; and, unlike the Camus biography, this is rather thin.
So there was room for a new ‘critical biography’. Patrick McCarthy’s is a worthy successor to his earlier study of Céline. The ground he covers is much the same as Lottman’s: he’s talked to many of the same people, and read the same books. He has the advantage of access to more recent memoirs, including those of Maria Casarès: but his real strength is his intellectual and emotional involvement, remarkable in someone who was only 19 when Camus died. This comes out most clearly in his discussion of Algeria. When Camus was growing up there, the extrovert attractions of sun and sea had added piquancy for two reasons. One was his tuberculosis, which cut him off from careers in football or teaching, and gave him an outsider’s envy and energy. The other, which can also be sensed today in South Africa, was the colonialist’s vigour and underlying fear: ‘Usurpers in this land, the Europeans had to become its legitimate owners. So they faced the deserts and the droughts. Yet they remained less authentic than the Arab who became an object of fascination and jealousy.’ The words are Patrick McCarthy’s: but the sentiments, as he shows, pervade the depths of L’Etranger.
McCarthy’s analysis of that book is very shrewd. Its anti-hero Meursault, who shoots an Arab for no apparent reason after hearing that his mother has died, turns, as McCarthy shows, into at least one and possibly two other characters: from ignorance and indifference, he shifts to an awkward awareness of having ‘destroyed the harmony of the day’, and then to the role of ‘the imprisoned innocent’ – neither nearly so convincing as the Meursault we first meet. Where McCarthy fails, I think, is in not comparing Meursault with his near-homonym Mersault, in the posthumously published early novel La Mort Heureuse. ‘Meursault’ suggests a leap to death, ‘Mersault’ a leap into the sea – a delight for Camus; and the ‘happy death’ is that of Mersault, despite the fact that he too has committed murder. Camus is torn, as McCarthy and Lottman amply demonstrate, between the rival paths of ‘vice’ and ‘virtue’. This, perhaps, is what makes the ‘heroes’ of La Peste a little unconvincing. It’s certainly what makes La Chute so powerful and subversive a book.
There, the central figure is richly complex. Jean-Baptiste Clamence is a juge-pénitent, a compulsively talking former do-gooder who reveals himself as a hypocrite, and even takes credit for the frankness of his self-denigration. ‘Clamence’ explicitly denotes clamans – the false John the Baptist crying in the wilderness: it also, I believe, has overtones of clemency, though in this partial self-portrait Camus in no way spares himself. He set the book as far as possible from the scenes of his equivocal sun-baked epiphanies – not in Algeria but in what he saw as the dank depressing northern world of Amsterdam.
McCarthy rates La Chute very highly. So do some other critics, including Conor Cruise O’Brien. What they admire, I presume, is the fierce energy of its moral debate, the ambivalence of its explicit statements, the sense of multiple mirrors reflecting opposite aspects of an elusive truth. Anguished, yet organised, it’s certainly ‘a good novel’; and its ambiguities are more satisfying than the too noble lineaments of La Peste. That, of course, is a splendid read and a best-seller. But, envers et contre tous les critiques, I still regard L’Etranger as Camus’s most original work.
Some, including McCarthy, have seen in it – as in Camus’s other books – a precursor of ‘the new novel’, by which traditional French moralist writers were so long eclipsed. This is one of the points suggested in Professor Fitch’s clever and jargon-ridden monograph. Discussing a sentence mulled over by Joseph Grand in La Peste, he characteristically says: ‘It is as though it were openly to exhibit syntagmatically the various levels of the palimpsest that was the original manuscript, much in the manner of the French New Novel, such as Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie for example, where the same passage recurs time and again but each time in a slightly modified form. In this sense, the diachronic, historical genesis of the text is made present and perceptible in its entirety, in other words synchronically, or, to change registers, the temporal is thereby transposed into the spatial ...’ If it weren’t from a university press, I’d suspect this book of being a parody written by the Collège de Pataphysique.
Of course, there is continuity between Camus and Robbe-Grillet, if only in the hypnotic, spellbound gaze they turn on external objects. The often fragmentary narration, the deliberate uncertainties, the dislocation of expected responses – all these are common to both. More obviously, both write in a similar tone, recording rather than reflecting, and often picking up, like a too-sensitive microphone, unsuitable sounds. But, personally, I believe that the ‘new novel’ will prove in the end to have been a cul-de-sac, a seductive voie sans issue, a fine playground for professors, far away from most people’s central concerns. Is it more than coincidence that private stylistic experiments flourished most freely in France at the height of Gaullism? Perhaps not. Perhaps, after the politicised literature of the late Forties and early Fifties, aestheticism had to surge back. There’s no doubt, indeed, that in Camus’s case the dominance of politics on the Left Bank literary scene was a curse and a possible snare.
Essentially, as D’Astier de la Vigerie angrily told him, Camus was a moralist. ‘You shun politics and take refuge in morality,’ he said – as if that were the end of the argument. What was more, Camus’s cast of mind was religious. His last two books drew their titles from Christian mythology; his third-year dissertation at the University of Algiers was about St Augustine; in La Peste, although he repudiates the sermons which welcome the plague as divine retribution, he gives them immense relish and force. I can’t help feeling that Camus could have echoed that vexed remark about God: ‘Le salaud! Il n’existe pas!’ As St Anselm plausibly insisted, anyone who can say that must be a believer, despite himself.
Which brings me back, finally, to L’Etranger. Camus, a good talker, offered many glosses on his work, as on the contradictions of his love-life. Meursault, he declared, was an attempted portrait of ‘the only Christ we deserve’. It sounds a pretentious confusion. What it implies is surely irremediable guilt. Camus was racked all his life by conflicting allegiances: to his mother, and yet to his new friends; to his pied-noir roots, and yet to the Arabs; to his pacifist instincts, and yet to his macho hunger for action; to his wife and children, and yet to his need for sexual reassurance and his love for Maria Casarès; to his ideals, and yet to the pitiless truth. Life was short, often squalid, ultimately pointless: even its physical delights merely made death a crueller joke. If there were no benevolent deity – if the answer to appeals for help, as at the end of Camus’s play Le Malentendu, was a flat final ‘Non’ – then Meursault’s indifference became completely natural. The best one could hope to be was Sisyphus, with his joyless stoicism: the worst was this stony-eyed, numb-hearted, unapologetic killer.
I don’t mean to suggest that Camus was never happy: both Lottman and McCarthy produce plenty of evidence for high spirits, gusto and fun. But what he brought before us, more sharply and starkly than Sartre’s La Nausée, and far more convincingly than anything of Céline’s, was the rock-bottom reductio ad absurdum of a man naturally religious in a world he has deprived of any god. The last myth about Camus was that he could live at peace without a myth.
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