By William Hughes
“Every author in some degree portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.” - Goethe
One of Algeria’s greatest sons, the late Albert Camus, is back where he rightfully belongs--center stage! Thanks to Elizabeth Hawes’ delightful and vibrant book, “Camus, A Romance,” (1) and Robert Zaretsky’s scholarly and insightful tome, “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life.” (2). Camus, a talented writer and philosopher, has again risen from the literary ashes. His clarion call for “limits” in the pursuit of otherwise laudable causes; and for truth-telling in the realm of political injustice and social inequities, is as relevant today, as it was during his turbulent lifetime.
Camus was a French-Algerian. He was born in 1913, and raised in the city of Algiers, in a run-down neighborhood. His father, whose ancestral roots were French, was killed fighting in WWI for France against the Germans; while his mother, of Spanish stock, was half-deaf, uneducated and rarely spoke. Is the latter, the origin of the importance of “silence” in Camus’ persona? Zaretsky thinks it played a relevant part and I agree with him.
Algeria, in Camus’ days, was a French colony, although its Arab population, was in the majority. Life was hard for the budding writer and for his family, but for many of his Arab contemporaries, discrimination, starvation and illiteracy were often their lot.
When I was in high school, at Calvert Hall, a Christian Brother institution, in downtown Baltimore, I remember mostly counting the bricks on a wall located across the street, I was so terribly bored! One of the exceptions was in my “literature” class with Brother Gregory at the the helm. He truly loved what he was doing and it showed. When he read something aloud from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens or Washington Irving, the room lit up for me. Brother Gregory, bless his memory, was an inspiring teacher.
Enter into Camus’ life, one Louis Germain. He was an elementary school teacher. Hawes labeled him as Camus’ “first surrogate father.” Both authors detailed Germain’s importance to Camus’ eventual career and to his intellectual development as a philosopher. Not only his mentor, Germain became Camus’ life long friend and trusted advisor. He helped get him into the “lychee,” and later accepted at the University of Algiers.
After graduating from the university, in 1937, Camus became a reporter. In 1939, he documented a famine in the mountainous area of Kabylia, Algeria, not too far from its capital city. His damning report for the “Alger-Republicain” newspaper, was entitled, “Misery in Kabylia.” Camus’ editor was Pascal Pia, another mentor and significant figure in his success as a literary icon.
Both biographies highlighted incidents such as the above in Camus’ experiences. Why? They seemed to have shaped, and, in some cases, reaffirmed, his political and philosophical views. Seeing first hand the evil effects of French colonialism, and the world’s indifference to it, left an indelible mark on the psyche of Camus. Later, that influence would be revealed in his books, like: “The Rebel,” “The Fall,” ”The Plague,” and “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
Camus championed the notion of the “absurd” in his writings. The novel, “The Stranger,” his first acclaimed work of art, which catapulted him to fame, is probably the most cogent example of what exactly that concept meant to him. This made Camus’ death in an automobile accident, in 1960, even more poignant.
Hawes described Camus’ fate of dying in a car crash, “the ultimate absurdity for the man who named the absurd. [He] had in his pocket a round-trip ticket travel by train with his family, but he had been persuaded at the last moment to drive to Paris.” The driver was speeding, the car went off the road, striking one tree and then another. The impact broke “Camus’ neck,” and killed him.
One of Zaretsky’s book best strength is how he takes “The Stranger,” and the other major literary efforts of Camus, and brilliantly dissects them for the reader. While doing so, he lets you know exactly what was going on in Camus’ life at the time each of them were written. For example, when “The Stranger” was published, in 1942, WWII was raging in Europe, and huge parts of France were occupied by the German Army. Camus joined the “French Resistance” and was also the editor of its legendary news organ, “Combat.” He was then only 29 years old.
Nevertheless, Camus remained an “outsider” in France, as both Hawes and Zaretsky showed. He was an “outsider” to humanity itself, also. Why? He’d contracted a killer disease--tuberculosis!
Camus’ experience of French Algeria, where the Arab is the “other,” also impacts his views. The themes: “outsider,” “the other,” and “separate,” runs through Camus’ thoughts and are reflected in many of his novels, essays and plays.
Zaretsky sees this, particularly, in Camus’ short story, “The Guest.” It was published, in 1957, only months after he won the “Nobel Prize” for literature, and around the same time that he had briefly addressed the horrific events then raging in Algeria. Nationalists were violently responding to the French heel on their neck. That conflict, where some of the male victims had their “genitals cut off” and stuffed in their mouths, and “women’s breasts were sliced off,” by the enflamed nationalists, lasted from 1954 to 1962. Tens of thousands of “Arabs and Berbers were killed” in retaliation by the French military. Zaretsky said the slaughters, on both sides, were perpetrated, “in a grisly fashion.”
With respect to “The Guest,” Zaretsky wrote: “Yet Daru [the protagonist of the story and a French Algerian] discovers he is also a ‘stranger’ in what he always believed to be is own land. He had spent his life feeling like an ‘outsider’ anywhere but in Algeria but is now also ‘exiled’ from his native land. And awful truth dawns on Daru: the historical, cultural, and linguistic division between the ‘pied noirs’ [the settler class of which Camus belonged] and the Arabs [the indigenous people]--both of whom are simultaneously hosts and guests to each other--is too great to bridge.”
Getting back to Hawes. What I loved about her chronicle of Camus is how she gets so very personal, indeed, intimate, about his life. Her book is, in a real sense, about her love affair, her “crush” on a man, that she only knows from a distance--from his writings.
Hawes’ book is passionate, enlightening and terrific fun to read. She even tracked down Camus’ surviving children, Catherine and Jean, and interviewed them about their father. Hawes ended her ode to Camus--visiting his grave, at Lourmarin cemetery--not far from his last home, in France. I say: Take Hawes’ book with you to the beach for a read this summer. You won’t regret it.
There is much more in both of these fine books: Such as the many writers that influenced Camus’ craft, namely: Saint Augustine, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Balzac, Synge, Mann, along with the Greek Tragedies; the fact that Camus’ first wife was a drug addict; his love of soccer and his womanizing; Camus’ visit to New York City; his love of acting, directing and the theatre; his brief membership in the Communist Party; Camus’ views on the Hungarian Revolution; his take on the bloody dictator Josef Stalin, the Soviet Labor Camps and the Purges; and of course, Camus’ earthshaking break with another literary titan--Jean-Paul Sartre.
It is on this controversial subject, where Zaretsky shines again. I think it’s the professor in him. During the frantic days of the “half-liberated, half-occupied Paris,” Sartre was assigned the “task of protecting the vacated “Comedie Francaise.” When Camus went there, he found Sartre, “napping,” and jokingly cracked to him: “You’ve placed your seat in the direction of history.”
In 1952, the two clashed openly over a scathing review of Camus’ book, “The Rebel,” which appeared in, “Les Temps Modernes,” a magazine controlled by Sartre. This was also after Sartre had made it clear that he was “siding with” the Stalinists. (2) Camus’ response to the review went directly to Sartre himself.
Zaretsky quoted from Camus’ famous letter: “I am growing tired of seeing myself, and especially of seeing veteran militants who ‘never ran from struggles’ in their own times, receive countless lessons in effectiveness from critics who have done nothing more than point their ‘seats in the direction of history.’”
Finally, I submit that both Hawes and Zaretsky deserve credit for adding to our knowledge of Camus’ legacy, and to his importance to our perilous times. Let’s face it, we live in an era where screwball ideologues are running amuck. Dissenting voices can find no better model for taking on these crazed warmongers than looking to Camus--one of humanity's finest moralists.
1. “Camus, a Romance,” Elizabeth Hawes, Grove Press, 2009, 319 pp, $25.
2. “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life,” Robert Zaretsky, 2010, Cornell U. Press, 181 pp, $24.95.
©2010, William Hughes, All Rights Reserved.