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.

But who or what is the Camus who is not a father? He is the man with the trench coat and the eternal cigarette, existentialism’s private eye; an actor and a director of actors; a crusading journalist in Algeria and France; leading contributor to the Resistance magazine Combat; editor at Gallimard; contributor to L’Express; friend of Sartre and Beauvoir, and then their loyal, always reliable foe; supporter of neither side in the Algerian War, not the FLN and not the French government, but a believer until the end in the possibility of a real bipartisan peace and a liberal, non-punitive regime in his native country – well no, not till the end, just until everyone else had given up. His position was ‘more affective and idealist than political or militant’, Vircondelet says, and wonders whether Camus might have ‘missed the turning of History’. ‘Does he really believe in this fraternal truce?’ Zaretsky, more carefully, suggests that ‘Camus’s belief that it was not too late to salvage a fully democratic and egalitarian French Algeria, while well founded in the 1930s, bordered on nostalgia by the mid-1950s.’ This is what Camus’s admirers are saying; his enemies thought he was a stooge for the pieds noirs, slyly pretending to be above the fray, seeking the best for both sides.

Camus was also the author of three masterpieces of fiction – L’Etranger, La Peste and La Chute – and a number of plays and adaptations, not least a version of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, which dominated the very idea of the stage in Paris in 1959. All of these versions of Camus are pictured in Catherine Camus’s book, sometimes smiling, even laughing, but without exception looking thoughtful. If you don’t believe thought can be pictured – Barthes says that in the movies actors have to sweat to prove they are thinking – take a look at a photograph of Camus. He is thinking, no doubt about it; he makes Rodin’s Thinker look like a man who is only pretending to have a mind.

At least two of the figures inhabiting Camus’s mind would have no truck at all with the invincible summer and the royal happiness. The first is the affectless, stolidly intelligent protagonist of L’Etranger, along with various other crap-cutting characters who resemble him. He would not want to redeem the car-crash, he thinks that accidents are a happy norm, and that the simulation of a rational order in the world is a sort of social conspiracy that resembles a groundless religious conviction. His favourite phrase is ‘I don’t care,’ even more desolate in its French form, which says that everything is or was equal: ‘cela m’était égal.’ He also says things like ‘I was interested to see a trial,’ even when the trial is his own; and ‘Even if you’re the accused man it’s always interesting to hear people talking about you.’ He kills an Arab on a beach near Algiers in a fit of sun-stricken distraction – ‘c’était à cause du soleil’ is the only explanation he offers at his trial – but is sentenced to the guillotine for not knowing how old his mother is and not weeping when she died, as well as for not even wanting to believe in God. These are crimes against society in the world of the novel, and society was lucky the fellow happened to kill someone and provide the occasion for a trial. It’s true, as Conor Cruise O’Brien reminds us, that he does seem to have killed an Arab rather than a person, but it’s also true that he may care more about the Arab than does the settler society that prosecutes him. It’s true too, as Zaretsky shrewdly suggests, that the killer is even more of an ‘other’ than his victim, and especially unnerving to popular opinion because he keeps telling truths he doesn’t know how to – or doesn’t wish to – arrange more tactfully. Does he regret (is he sorry for) killing the Arab? Not much. But then he has ‘never been able really to regret anything. I was always caught up in what was going to happen, today or tomorrow.’ ‘I never had a real imagination,’ he remarks at another stage. ‘All healthy creatures,’ he says, remembering his mother and without any intention to shock, ‘have more or less wished the death of those they love.’ He’s just thinking aloud, even if Camus is glancing at Dostoevsky and Oscar Wilde.

His main impression of the court that tries him is that it’s ridiculous, but he’s alert enough to remind himself that this impression is stupid, ‘because what they were looking for here was not the ridiculous but the criminal’. And finally, to return to the sunny, self-rescuing Camus, our murderer resents ‘the insolent certainty’ of the process that will lead to his death, the absence of pardon or appeal or escape, ‘the ridiculous disproportion between the judgment at the basis of it and its imperturbable unfolding from the moment when this judgment had been pronounced’. Everything could have been different, and he is going to die because it isn’t, because none of life’s normal, probable accidents will intervene. When this man experiences the desire to ‘affirm that I was like everyone, absolutely like everyone’, he expresses Camus’s favourite double proposition: he is like and unlike everyone because he unapologetically says what everyone else denies. And when Camus said later – the remark is quoted in Catherine Camus’s book – that L’Etranger was ‘the story of a man who … agrees to die for the sake of the truth’, it was this kind of truth he had in mind. It’s extraordinary to think that Camus abandoned the elegant if rather wordy novel La Mort heureuse to write the remorselessly terse L’Etranger. He not only changed the protagonist’s name from Mersault to Meursault – introducing death into the proposition, as Agnès Spiquel says in her preface to a new reprint of the unfinished project – but he also founded a whole new level of literary language, what Barthes later called ‘writing degree zero’, at the opposite pole from his own manifest lyrical preferences.[*]

The other chief figure who would resist the summer and happiness is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the sly, profuse speaker of La Chute, the self-proclaimed judge-penitent who latches on to anyone he can get to listen to him in his favourite bar in Amsterdam – the Mexico-City – and tells them his lamentable life story. He is the ancient mariner of post World War Two Europe, and his goal is partly to boast about how awful he has been in his apparent decency and kindness, and partly, like Meursault, to hold up a mirror to everyone who thinks he or she has not been the same. ‘Don’t wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.’ This is probably Camus’s most perfect book, because his natural and learned eloquence is given full rein and also rigorously subordinated to his project: the exposure of all eloquence on the subject of virtue, Camus’s own and also that of his friends and ex-friends on the left, as sheer hypocrisy, self-promotion disguised as political and moral concern.

It’s not surprising that this garrulous, disreputable person should dissent from Camus’s positive views. It is surprising that Camus himself, in lyrical mode and in the same piece that ends with the sentence about the high seas, should do the same. The essay is called ‘La Mer au plus près’ (‘The Sea at Its Closest’) and begins with four pages in italics, lightly separated from the rest. Like La Chute this opening tells the story of a fall, a loss of Eden, only this time the Eden is real. ‘I grew up in the sea,’ the passage begins,

and poverty was sumptuous to me, then I lost the sea, all luxury seemed grey to me, deprivation intolerable. Since then I wait. I wait for the returning ships, the house by the sea, limpid daylight. I am patient, I am as polite as I can possibly be.

The politeness described in the next paragraphs is indistinguishable from the performance of the hypocritical Clamence in La Chute, and indeed uses some of the same examples. The writer smiles, applauds, admires, forgives offences and ‘excels himself’ at funerals. He never misses the grave when he pitches a flower towards it, his piety is precise, his head bowed at just the right angle. His whole life is a matter of ‘hiding my distress or dressing it up in the right fashion’. But he has a secret solace, he knows what he has lost, and for this reason despair doesn’t know him, ‘le désespoir m’ignore.’ ‘Those who love each other and are separated may live in sorrow but it is not despair: they know that love exists. This is why I suffer my exile with dry eyes. I am still waiting. A day will come, at last …’ What is striking here is the repetition of the argument about threatened happiness and summer in midwinter, but upside down. Now there is only winter and threat, and the impersonation of the good citizen. Summer and happiness are memories, and it is not at all clear that a deep and denied despair doesn’t lurk in the intricate assertion of its absence. The sea is literal, of course, or nearly; a figure for Algeria and the Mediterranean life so far from Paris. But it also represents an expansive, sometimes turbulent innocence, a time before the fall into the complications and betrayals of mid-20th-century history: into recriminations among French men and women after the Liberation, into the Cold War, into the terrible run-up to the Battle of Algiers (Camus is writing in 1953). It was of this time that he said one had to respect the regulations of darkness (‘se mettre en règle avec la nuit’). His sense that under such conditions, with such a lost Eden in mind, real life itself becomes a show, an impeccable performance of supposedly responsible living, not only makes his lyrical self an accomplice of Clamence, but ties it to Meursault as a version of the orderly correctness that dogged truth-teller cannot master. In this mood Camus might not object to a slight rephrasing of his profession of maritime faith: ‘I always gave the impression of living on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness.’ The change wouldn’t contradict the actual profession, only complicate it by naming its twin.

Zaretsky’s brief, astute book takes particular moments of Camus’s life – his acting days in Algeria, his Resistance work during the war, his agreements and disagreements with other intellectuals in France immediately after the war, his final silence on the Algerian question – and provides them with context and commentary, sometimes linking them to longer lines of history and culture, to early 20th-century Ireland, for example, to the Greece of Thucydides and the tragedians. One of the most intriguing sections involves Camus’s stances during l’Epuration, the time of the purges after the Liberation. Ordinarily opposed to the death penalty, he agreed that Pierre Pucheu, minister of the interior in the Vichy government, should be executed. ‘Too many men have died whom we loved and respected,’ he wrote in Les Lettres françaises, ‘even for those of us in the midst of this battle who would otherwise wish to pardon him.’ Camus argues rather oddly that Pucheu’s crime was his ‘lack of imagination’, while it is ‘in the full light of our imagination’ that we can have him killed. A few weeks later he decided he couldn’t have anyone killed, ‘even by abstention’, and he signed a petition against the death penalty for the pro-Nazi writer Robert Brasillach. Not because he had any time for the person. ‘It is not for him that I join my signature to yours’ – he is writing to Marcel Aymé – ‘it is not for the writer, whom I consider of no significance. Nor for the individual, whom I disdain with all my might. If I had even been tempted to be interested in him, the memory of two or three friends who were mutilated or gunned down by Brasillach’s friends while his newspaper encouraged them to do it would have prevented me.’ Memory and imagination suggest the man should be killed, while something like principle, kicking in again after an abeyance, suggests the opposite. Brasillach was executed early in 1945.

Zaretsky evokes ‘the intellectual and personal shortcomings in Camus that Sartre rightly identified’, but is too kind to linger over what they are. The above instance, along with several other cases evoked both in this book and Vircondelet’s, suggests a courage and clarity of stance (even if the stance has to change), accompanied by a fuzziness about the grounds of the stance itself. We can admire the first elements and worry about the second. Zaretsky comes closest to naming the problem when he paraphrases, apparently with approval, Camus’s saying ‘we always take a step forward when we substitute a human problem for a political problem.’ This is certainly true if the political problem is a mere abstraction or a bit of chicanery, but just false, even deluded, if the political problem is serious. In such a case the political problem is the human problem, we can’t deal with one without dealing with the other, and if we think we can we are on the verge of the most terrible of liberal fantasies: a world without politics, that is, a world with only our politics. Camus was accused, by Barthes among others, of making such a substitution in La Peste, turning the German Occupation into a randomly invading disease rather than a historically and politically grounded event. There is something to this charge, since there are confirmations of it in Camus’s own writings: ‘I want to express by means of the plague the suffocation we have all suffered from.’ Vircondelet endorses this as if it were a compliment: ‘The Nazi threat has become the one that lives in the heart of men.’ But La Peste is not a simple allegory, and its stunning conclusion suggests that the disease was a version not of the Occupation but of the range of pathologies the Occupation brought to life. These pathologies may sleep when the epidemic is over, but sleep is not death, and if they return, if ‘the day comes when, for the unhappiness and instruction of men, the plague reawakens its rats and sends them to die in a happy city,’ their return will have all the historical specificity we need.

Vircondelet’s biography is fluent and friendly, covers old ground with plenty of fresh verve. His chief trope is named in his subtitle, ‘fils d’Alger’: ‘Algeria models his thought, fashions his behaviour, forms the basis of his way of living.’ The book’s three parts are all based on one of Camus’s favourite figures of speech, ‘les matins du monde’, the time when light was new and no one was corrupted. ‘This morning of the world’ appears as early as La Mort heureuse, and in L’Eté we have ‘in the morning of the world’ and ‘The world began again there [in Algeria] every day.’ An old beggar in La Chute eloquently says: ‘Oh monsieur, it’s not that one is a bad man, but one loses the light.’ The first part of Vircondelet’s book, which narrates the end of Camus’s life, is called ‘Return to the Mornings of the World’, the second part, which takes him up to 1939 and his departure from Algeria, is called ‘In the Mornings of the World’, and the third part, which recounts the rest of the life, is called, with a certain pathos, ‘Far from the Mornings of the World’. A passage quoted from a notebook confirms the pathos: ‘Now I wander among the debris, I am without a law, drawn and quartered, alone and accepting that fact, resigned to my peculiarity and my infirmities. And I must reconstruct a truth – after having lived all my life in a sort of lie.’ This is the man of sincerity who feels his real sincerity may be still to come.

Both Zaretsky and Vircondelet tackle the difficult moment when Camus, after having received the Nobel Prize, said: ‘I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before I will defend justice’ – later converted by the press into ‘between justice and my mother, I choose my mother.’ Vircondelet calls this an ‘ultimate truth’, while the editor of Le Monde, Hubert Beuve-Méry, commented at the time that he always knew Camus would say something stupid. Yet the remark is not stupid, nor does it suggest political and moral fraud, as Beauvoir thought it did. It suggests, as the phrase about human and political problems does, both a loyalty to what’s human and a flight from politics. If justice means what it so often means in Camus (and indeed in historical life) – that is, an abstract allegiance or the fitting of my punishment to your crime – then he is right to defend his mother first: he is giving his version of Forster’s hope that if forced to choose he would have the courage to betray his country rather than his friend. But if Camus means – or if what he said turns out to mean – that as far as he is concerned genuine justice must always give way to private life, we can understand his personal dilemma, but we can hardly applaud his formulation, since no colonist or privateer or free-market liberal ever said anything different. When accused of shifting to the right in politics Camus bravely said he hoped we would all move there if it was the morally appropriate place to be, and there is real freedom of spirit in such a claim, especially when made in France in the 1950s. If it’s not the appropriate place to be, though, your new friends will only help you to new lies, and the company you keep will once again matter more than it should.

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