Bogey Man

Richard Mayne

  • Camus: A Critical Study of his Life and Work by Patrick McCarthy
    Hamish Hamilton, 259 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 241 10603 6
  • Albert Camus: A Biography by Herbert Lottman
    Picador, 753 pp, £3.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 330 26262 9
  • The Narcissistic Text: A Reading of Camus’s Fiction by Brian Fitch
    Toronto, 128 pp, £12.25, April 1982, ISBN 0 8020 2426 2
  • The Outsider by Albert Camus, translated by Joseph Laredo
    Hamish Hamilton, 96 pp, £5.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 241 10778 4

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.

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