Mea culpa. In my morning mail I find a magazine with yet one more review of a book that I predicted was born to blush unseen, Patrick McCarthy’s Camus.1 This one is by Alfred Kazin, no less. So there seems to be something of a Camus revival after all. The editors of COMMENTARY had suggested that I pronounce a few heartfelt words, they were aware that I had known Camus and shared his turf, so to speak, in Algiers and Paris during and after World War II. Actually, our acquaintance was slight. In his famous battle with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir & Co., I was on his side and said so, but it was they who had been my friends. There was something off-putting about Camus, he always had his dukes up, as someone said. He had fathers, brothers, lovers, but very few friends. Anyway, I demurred at first on the grounds that it was all covered with cobwebs and no one would care. Aside from a handful of archeo-Tolstoyans, neo-Gandhians, and hapless college students, who reads Camus nowadays?
This was like standing in a gale and wetting one’s finger to see if there’s any wind. McCarthy’s book had already appeared in London, and some of the resultant dithyrambs are proudly reproduced (together with a handsome photograph of Albert Camus by Cartier-Bresson) on the Random House jacket. Thus I learned that the prestigious Professor Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard, in a review published in England, had admired “McCarthy’s mix of sympathy and critical distance,” and judged his book to be “a balanced and probing examination of Camus’s life and works”; and that the Guardian reviewer thought “McCarthy’s special achievement [was] to have found the persuasive way back to Camus’s writings from his charismatic career. . . . He gives us the myth and the writer as superstar, but also an array of sharp critical tools with which to keep that myth under review.” Here I confess to some bemusement with “myth” and “critical tools,” but more to my purpose at the moment is another quotation from the book jacket, a grand and sweeping one from Conor Cruise O’Brien (who committed a Camus of his own about twelve years ago) to the effect that McCarthy’s book is “the best comprehensive study of Camus in English—and probably in any language,” and that “if it is translated into French [it] might prove to be the turning of the tide of fashion.”
This struck me as improbable: McCarthy in French, and commanding the tide. But why not, after all? Foreign historians and film-makers have played a conspicuous part in the reexamination of the French war record that has been going on so intensely since Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity was banned (as offensive to the national sensibility) from French television. Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton on Vichy, David Pryce-Jones on the Occupation, Herbert Lottman on the Left Bank2—these people have badly shredded the legends and pieties of the Resistance; and since this, precisely, was the period from which Camus emerged as Voice and Conscience of the new France, it would be interesting to know more about what he was actually doing at the time. Unfortunately, McCarthy tells us little. Even Herbert Lottman (Albert Camus, 1979), our richest source of fact about Camus, is relatively terse on the Occupation period. But this, in any event, is not the sort of revisionism that O’Brien had in mind. He is suggesting that if France could only see Camus with the help of Patrick McCarthy, then the fallen hero might return to public favor.
Stranger things have happened. For all I know some ingenious linguist may at this very moment be bent to his task, laboring to translate this muscular prose, non sequiturs and all, into a language whose genius, the French grammarians keep telling us, is clarity. A dubious proposition, perhaps, that famous clarté française, now that we are struggling with Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, but to put McCarthy into any other language it would be helpful for a translator to know why he has written this book and what he is trying to say. I submit, pace O’Brien, that this would be no easy task.
The story McCarthy tells of Camus’s life is a foreshortening of what we already have in Lottman; the abbreviation leads to troublesome gaps and leaps, but the general outlines are clear; and anyway we would be suspicious of a biographer who found nothing to mystify him—and us—in the life of a man like Camus. It is when McCarthy summarizes Camus’s thought, or offers his own, that the trouble begins. Not because he challenges or alters the conventional view of Camus as a religious temperament lost in a godless world, a moral absolutist and a leftist disaffected with the Left, but because this view remains curiously unrelated to Camus’s “existence,” to use the period word; because he gives the shortest possible shrift to Camus’s ideas (not merely as they were entertained but as they were lived, which is what matters for the literary artist) and lacks all “feel” for the role they played in shaping the work he left us.
The analysis of The Rebel, for example, is mind-boggling in its simplism. It reads like the marginal comments of not one but a whole committee of professors on an exceptionally incompetent term paper. The comments may be pertinent or not, but they are invariably peremptory, almost stenographic, in form; and McCarthy hardly bothers to tie them together. So we learn that Camus, having set out “to show how Western culture since the French Revolution inspires men to murder,” worked hard and read widely but finally failed because “the gaps in his reading are apparent and the reading itself blurs his intuitive understanding.” We are never told what McCarthy means by Camus’s intuitive understanding, or how it was blurred; or how Camus arrived at his pessimistic conclusions—not about Western culture in general but rather about its nihilistic and “rebellious” tendencies. “Andre’ Breton quarrelled with his interpretation of Lautréamont, Sartre told him he knew nothing about Hegel, and even friends disputed what he said about Bakunin.” So the disaster is irremediable. McCarthy explains it with one of his characteristically rapid formulations: “Much of Camus’s art is caught up with concision and the lamentations of L’Homme révolté [The Rebel] do not suit him.” “Caught up” here seems to mean “requires” or “dependent on.” In other words, Camus should write short, not long.
McCarthy himself is so fond of writing short that he often escapes us. In his concluding chapter, for example, he tells us that Camus believed that “heroic declarations were not enough because man is fundamentally evil or empty.” And what had taught him this profound truth? “The age of Dachau.” For this all those people had to die? The passage is so typical that it deserves to be quoted at greater length: “[The] pseudo-heroic rhetoric [of terrorists who do nothing but gossip about their ever so sensitive souls] plagues Camus’s plays and spoils whole chapters of La Peste [The Plague]. Yet the age of Dachau also taught him that heroic declarations were not enough because man is fundamentally evil or empty.” But whence that “because”? If man were not fundamentally evil or empty, would heroic declarations have been enough? For what? And did Camus really hold those views about man’s nature? Or did he come to feel, as in La Peste, precisely, that evil and emptiness were a function of man’s situation since he had lost his faith in God, and that they could be alleviated, at least, by moral action? These points may be arguable, but my point is that McCarthy never argues. He fires away. “Although Camus wrote a great deal,” he tells us in his introduction, “only a small part remains alive. He was a bad philosopher and has little to tell us about politics. His plays are wooden even if his novels are superb.” Well, the French word for superb is superbe, the translator should have no trouble with that, even if McCarthy’s “even if” hangs a sort of question mark around it; and even if he never once in the course of this book gives us the impression that he is moved by these novels, or tries to tell us why they deserve to be called superb.
So I had some problems making sense of McCarthy and I think the French would, too. But the key issue for a publisher would be whether there is a chance of “turning the tide,” as O’Brien put it. At the moment, from this distance, the prospects look poor. Gallimard has enshrined Camus in a Pleiade edition, the ultimate in decent burials, and these books are bought, I am told, at a moderate pace, despite their considerable cost. The plays are rarely if ever performed. But statistics prove nothing, one way or the other. The obvious fact is that neither Camus nor his intellectual adversaries of the 40’s and 50’s are what the French call actuels. Wages, prices, and trade balances are actuels, and so is structuralism, language, and psychoanalysis. The terrain has shifted, the jargon and the rules of engagement have changed, the intelligentsia have been largely if not definitively freed from the postwar nightmares, including the totalitarian temptation, at least in its Communist form; so that it is not merely McCarthy who would need to be translated but Camus himself. This can happen, of course; it is probably bound to happen; but not as an effect of O’Brien’s tide of fashion. Camus now belongs to History and Literature. It remains to be seen on what terms.
Meanwhile, McCarthy’s Camus has been widely if not uncritically greeted in this country. Aside from the learned journals and Sunday book sections, we’ve had a solid and intelligent essay by Frederick Brown in the New York Review of Books (November 18, 1982), a brilliant analysis by Norman Podhoretz in the New Criterion (November 1982) of Camus’s work and the political issues underlying both the work and the reactions of critics like O’Brien and McCarthy—a shrewd and penetrating reading that sheds light and gives pleasure—and the aforementioned Kazin in the New Republic (November 29, 1982), “tender[ly] remember[ing] Camus for his opposition to capital punishment, for his opposition to every form of totalitarianism and every pretense behind it,” and commending McCarthy for “bringing out the bare, hard facts of Camus’s life and the many reasons . . . why, in his struggles with fashionable literary opinion, Camus increasingly felt himself to be a failure.” And V.S. Pritchett, briefly, in the New Yorker. E tutti quanti. There will be others, but these are the big guns, blazing away from different angles.
So Patrick McCarthy’s Camus—the work of a professor at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, according to the book jacket—is no mere academic exercise. It has become an event. “Are we in for a Camus revival?” asks Podhoretz. “Indications are that we may be.” I can only bow my head.
The fact remains that reading about Camus is one thing and reading (or performing) his work is another. The revival that Podhoretz is talking about may very well begin with critics and historians and a renewal of interest in a writer’s life and times; but then a broader public must become involved, as happened in the case of Kipling, for example, a few years ago. Failing that, the fire goes out. For the moment we do seem to have a renewed interest (in this country, at least) in Camus’s itinerary, but not really in his work. There is no consensus, as we shall see, on what deserves to survive; and Camus’s biographers have given us a man, a Modern Instance—one that stirs us rather more, as we come to know him, than anything Camus wrote.
To be sure, McCarthy himself makes no such distinction: “The revival of interest in his work” (my emphasis), he tells us in the concluding paragraphs of his book, “has come in the late 70’s. . . . When the [French] Communists and Socialists split in September 1977, Jean Daniel, who had hardly spoken to Camus in the years before his death, began mentioning him in the Nouvel Observateur. Camus’s rejection of left-wing Utopias suddenly seemed fruitful; his suspicion of the Communists was more correct than many had thought.” Does this mean that McCarthy has changed his own mind about flunking Camus out in philosophy and politics? Not really. He goes on to suggest that Camus’s new admirers are merely using him for their own purposes (as if posterity ever did anything else), and he particularly deplores the fact that they are “employing L’Homme révolté [The Rebel] which still seems his worst book.”
For Norman Podhoretz, be it said in passing, The Rebel is the best, not the worst, of Camus—and he gives us some solid and persuasive reasons for his opinion, which McCarthy never does. In fact, says Podhoretz, “the Camus who should be revived is the one to whom justice is finally being done in France . . . not the travesty urged upon us first by O’Brien and now by McCarthy in the name of art but in the actual service of their anti-anti-Communist passions.” This would be a consummation devoutly to be wished—if justice were indeed being done to Camus in France.
I cannot see that it is. For one thing, the passions that Podhoretz is talking about, whether anti, or anti-anti, or even anti-anti-anti, do not seem to me to be raging on the banks of the Seine. Communism (that is, the ideology of Lenin and Stalin and their epigones) has long ceased to be an intellectual problem in France, as opposed to a practical political one. The Communist party itself, after the events of May ’68, the general adoption of the term goulag to designate the Soviet political system, and finally the defection of just about everyone who knows how to read and write, seems to have given up on the intellectuals as a bad job. For another, although Paris is still filled with contemporaries of Camus like Daniel, or former youth who remember reading and being troubled by The Rebel back in the 50’s, when non-Communism was barely tolerated among the intellectuals and anti-Communism taboo, the focus and even the language of the political debate seem (ungratefully) to have left Camus behind.
It is not just the old story of having been right too soon, or for the wrong reasons, although I do believe there is something in that. The trouble, rather, is that Camus worried apocalyptically about the End of History and the Master-Slave Dialectic and the Legitimacy of Terror. He was haunted by Shestov, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche. He wrote The Rebel, perforce, without first taking the precaution of assimilating Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Althusser, Foucault, and Lacan. Nor, perforce, has he anything to say about what Raymond Aron derisively calls archeo-socialism, the ideology of M. Mitterrand & Co. All this makes Camus rather remote from Paris at the moment; and, as the French say, the absent are always wrong.
Even in his lifetime, after the Nobel Prize in 1957, there was a notable decline of interest in Camus’s work, although The Fall (published in early 1956) had sold very well. According to the schedule he had inscribed in his notebooks, he had now completed the preliminary business of putting his ideas in order, and his real work could begin. Only, it couldn’t. The war in Algeria weighed heavily on him. He was harassed by personal problems, blocked. Ironically, when things finally began to look up and he was writing again, it was too late.
When he died in an automobile crash early in 1960, in a car driven by his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, Camus was looking forward not only to his magnum opus but to a new home in the south of France and to a whole new life, a program that would at last redeem him and free him from . . . what? I believe (not only on the basis of The Fall but from what he was saying to his friends and in his notebooks at the time) that it was from a deep sense of fraud. The word—for a less upright character—would seem excessive; not for Camus. It was not a fraud that he had deliberately perpetrated but one for which he felt responsible, especially since it had brought him fame and fortune. Call it a misunderstanding, after the title of his play (which Stuart Gilbert translated as Cross Purpose): mistaken identity, aggravated by a peculiar out-of-jointness and sense of doom; it had nagged at him. even as he basked in his glory as the exemplar and spokesman of France’s postwar renascence, as a hero of the Resistance and editor of Combat; even as his plays were being produced by the likes of Marcel Herrand and Jean-Louis Barrault, not to speak of his mistress, Maria Casarès; his novel (The Plague) breaking all sales records; his essays (The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel) figuring at the center of the controversies roiling the atmosphere of a Paris that had once again, and in part thanks to him, become the literary-intellectual capital of the world; and finally there was the bolt from Stockholm, the Nobel Prize, which struck him as carrying the joke a bit too far.
As always, he pulled himself together. He went to Stockholm and made a fine speech. But he kept protesting, mostly sotto voce, that a mistake had been made, it was all premature, his real work had not really begun. And why not Malraux? Camus felt that he had not so much chosen all those roles; he had been cast in them and played them as well as he could: now Byron, now Nietzsche, now the young Gandhi; in Algiers he had even had some success as a professional on the stage; but his big role, the one that counted most, was precisely the one he had not mastered. And this, surely, was the major reason for the profound depression that settled over him during the last years of his life.
McCarthy, who takes so dim a view of Camus as a thinker, does not hesitate to refer to the “greatness” of the novels—but, once again, ours not to know the reason why. “They are exceptional, if bleak, insights into the modern condition,” he tells us; and their characters are “depicted with irony, ambiguity, and understatement.” That seems to satisfy McCarthy, as motivation for his judgment of the novels, for he does not deign to give us more—unless it be his brief discussion of the narrative techniques of The Plague, which are alleged to constitute an innovation. Because Camus did not believe in God, he invented the non-omniscient narrator. Q.E.D. Anyway, McCarthy’s case is stated, if not made. But Camus himself, alas, knew better. He knew that as a literary artist he had accomplished little or nothing of enduring value, whatever the critics and the sales figures said. Not yet.
Camus grew up, it should be remembered, in a grimly professional tradition; his elders were monsters of productivity like Gide, Proust, Martin du Gard, Montherlant, Bernanos, Romains, Giraudoux, and too many others to mention. In the background were Balzac and Zola and Papa Hugo. Even a maniacal watchmaker like Flaubert ended up with a sizable oeuvre. But as a writer of fiction, Camus had not only produced very little; he had not yet found a distinctive voice. Each of his novels seemed to represent a new departure in style and tone, so that his problem (like that of any young novelist) still lay ahead: to settle down, find his voice and form, and tell his story. But circumstances had always intervened, illness, poverty, the war, politics, journalism, so that in 1954, when he wrote a preface for a volume of early pieces republished (in 1958) to capitalize on his fame, he wistfully confessed that he was still looking forward to “the day when a balance will be established between what I am and what I say.” A curious passage, this, and very moving. It is quite free of the posturing and drama of The Fall, the novella in which (a year or so later) Camus indulges himself in a sort of Dostoevskyan self-abasement, but it is deeply revealing. “On that day,” he continues, “and I scarcely dare write these words, I will be able at last to build the work I have dreamed of.”
Camus’s new life was to begin with an autobiographical novel which he called Le Premier Homme (The First Man). This would take him back to his Algerian origins and give him that longed-for chance to explain himself and his people to the metropolitan French who, having at last retreated from Indochina and relinquished control of Morocco and Tunisia, were beginning to think the unthinkable about Algeria. Was not the French presence there also doomed?
We now know, of course, that it was. But this was far from clear in the 50’s. What made Algeria different was that it had been, since 1830, a land of French settlement. The pieds noirs, as the settlers were called, were deeply rooted and a million strong. Only a very small number of them were colons, or landed proprietors, on the “colonialist” model propagated by the Left. By Camus’s time, most of the Europeans in Algeria were urban and many—including Camus’s family—were very poor. Nor were they all of metropolitan French origin; at least as many had come from Spain, Corsica, Malta, and Italy. If one adds the Jews (who were given easy access to French citizenship by the Crémieux Decree, late in the 19th century), it becomes obvious that the non-Muslim population of Algeria rather resembled the American melting pot. Although doomed (by a lower birthrate) to remain a minority, it was a people, a folk, with its dialects, traditions, and values, almost as difficult for the mainland French to understand as the Arabs.
Presumably, Le Premier Homme would have been bathed in that Mediterranean sunlight that Camus celebrates in his early lyrical essays, the sights, sounds, and smells of Noces and Eté to which he returns so nostalgically even in his philosophical work; and in that peculiar moral atmosphere, sensuous, silent, a little humiliated by the intensities of desire and pleasure, that Camus called pudeur. But now there was a new and terrible urgency about his project; at stake as the war news worsened was something more than his own career. The pied noir, Camus felt, was an invisible man, somewhat in the meaning that Ralph Ellison gave that term. He had to be made visible if he were to survive.
McCarthy works hard and to good effect—and so does Lottman—at conveying a sense of what it was like for Camus to grow up in the Algiers of the 1920’s and 1930’s, between his home in proletarian Belcourt and his schooling in the middle-class lycée and, later, at the university. Between Brooklyn and Manhattan, so to speak—deeply attached to his people and above all to his mother, but propelled by his brilliance and by the excellent French public-school system to leave his origins behind; so that it should not surprise us that Norman Podhoretz, the author of Making It and Breaking Ranks, shows an instinctive grasp for the tensions that racked Camus during his celebrated polemic with Sartre and the Temps modernes group, when he was torn between his natural feelings on one hand and the dogmas of the intellectual Left on the other.
Although the pieds noirs ostensibly reflected the political divisions of metropolitan France, and voted as Radicals, Socialists, Communists, Republicans, or whatnot, they inevitably gave these various tendencies what we would call a “hard-hat” orientation: conservative, national, almost tribal. The result of combining French ideas and piednoir sensibility could be disconcerting and even (as in Edmond Brua’s famous parodies of Corneille in the dialect of Bab-el-Oued) very funny. But this was one form of the Absurd to which Camus remained immune. Briefly a Communist in the 30’s, and then (out of his deepening pacifism) a reluctant supporter of Munich, he gradually came to admit the necessity of resisting the German Occupation. But he saw little point and had no stomach for armed struggle until Leclerc’s troops were approaching Paris, and when he was catapulted into his role as a Resistance hero, in circumstances almost as accidental as those that put Charlie Chaplin at the head of a workers’ demonstration in Modern Times, he felt (as so often in his public life) that he was both the victim and the beneficiary of a misunderstanding.
This must have tried his modesty, such as it was, and his delicate sense of probity; and we know that he resented the demands that were made on his time. But his public persona was far too controlled, dignified, “Spanish,” for humor. Life could and should be dealt with ironically, but it was no laughing matter. In this respect he was like André Malraux: a naturally portentous man. He could be playful and amusing with his friends, but in public his brow was always furrowed, his demeanor always grave. “After thirty one is responsible for one’s face.” This is a typical Camus aphorism, not necessarily original but memorable and neat. I can’t remember whether he wrote it or said it or both, but it was well before thirty that he acquired his worried look.
He acquired it, one supposes, worrying about his “existential” situation, as it came to be called. Camus’s name for it was the Absurd, the subject of his first important philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus.
In one sense, Camus’s preoccupation with the Absurd simply reflected the current intellectual fashion: God was dead, the universe was bereft of purpose and moral law, and man was adrift in an adventure which is bound to have an unhappy ending, as he put it. These themes were more or less assigned, so to speak, if you were a a bright student of philosophy and letters, a protégé of Jean Grenier and an avid reader of La Nouvelle Revue Française. In another sense, however, they spoke very personally to Camus, as we shall see, first because of his poor health and the situation of his family; and then because as he moved out into the world, the roles of Sisyphus—the seducer, the actor, and the conqueror—suggested themselves naturally to him, as did the “happy” Sisyphus of the final line of the book. He was shaping his life as he could.
McCarthy scolds Camus for the inadequacy of The Myth of Sisyphus as a work of philosophy, and indeed it is not difficult to fault it on that score. But reading Sisyphus as if it were a formal treatise is no more rewarding than to read The Rebel as if it were “political science.” These are literary essays in the tradition of Montaigne, Pascal, Chamfort, and—closer to Camus—of Jean Grenier and Simone Weil. They are written with an easy authority and verbal felicity, but also with passion; and they speak directly to Camus’s own concerns. This is why they were so effective and had a palpable influence on their time.
The Rebel, especially, must be counted as one of the crucial events in the long, slow process of decontaminating the French intelligentsia after the war. Camus’s analysis of the history and spirit of revolutionary thinking seems quirky, incomplete, and abstract today, as indeed it did to many—even in France—at the time. The disciplines of the social sciences, economics, anthropology, sociology, are foreign to Camus; nor does it occur to him to examine the psychology of his rebels and revolutionists (among whom, following the literary fashion, he gives prominent place to such sports of nature as Lautréamont and the Marquis de Sade) in anything but moral and philosophical terms. Still, within its own limitations, this book was an act of lucidity and courage. It is not clear to me that the anti-Communism of The Rebel is what brings McCarthy’s wrath down upon it, as Podhoretz alleges, but Podhoretz is certainly right in arguing that this is the Camus who deserves to be revived.
If any. The question remains. The more I remember Camus and read of him, the more avid I become for details, insights, anything that will help me retrace and understand his journey from Belcourt to Paris and Lourmarin and finally to that stretch of wet highway near Villeblevin where he died. Nothing much came of the few times we met, but I keep recalling bits and pieces of talk and the way he had of squinting to keep the cigarette smoke out of his eyes, a sort of tough-guy pose. Clearly, it’s not the writer I’ve been looking for, but the man.
Not that the one excludes the other, but the fact is that we are often embarrassed or exasperated or bored by the writer, never by the man. It so happens that I’ve been reading myself back into that period, for reasons of my own, turning hundreds of pages in books that have been sitting untouched on my shelves for all these years. The pages flake and crumble—the French used such poor paper during and right after the war—but I am surprised and pleased at how much remains readable, even lively and exciting, today. But, alas, not much of Camus. It pains me to say this. Moreover, I find myself turning away from the philosophical essays (his best work) to his most mediocre writings, the short pieces of L’Envers et l’Endroit, for example, simply because the writer is more in command in the former and Brother Camus more visible in the latter.
In any event, it’s hard going. The mind is always vigorous, the posture noble, the prose harmonious and lucid in the traditional French way. Plenty to admire, in short, but so little to savor! So lifeless and cold! This must be the effect of what Barthes called “zero-degree writing.” You keep your eyes open as long as you can, propping your temples with your fingertips, and then reach for The Fall—an embarrassingly melodramatic book but filled with Camus’s person—or you pick up a Queneau, a Ponge, a Michaud, or even (my secret life!) a Marcel Aymé, to stave off sleep or despair.
The trouble is, we’ve been through these arguments so many times. So much of what he says seems, today, to go without saying. But let us grant that he says it with nobility and power, and at a time when it clearly did not go without saying. Before and after The Rebel, a book that Richard Wollheim in the Cambridge Review did not hesitate to compare to Rousseau and Hobbes, Camus took his role as a secular saint very seriously, at the risk (and finally at the cost) of isolating himself from all the ideological gangs whose aim, he said, was not to convince but to kill.
One of the stories from his childhood that stuck in his mind was about his father coming home and vomiting, after having witnessed a capital execution. In his arguments with D’Astier, Jeanson, and Sartre he insisted that his rejection of violence as a means did not lessen his commitment to justice as an end. Indeed, it was a weakness of his position that, in line with the tradition of the French Left, he conceded that the revolutionaries did in fact have justice on their side, regardless of the means they used. But the core of his position, the leitmotif of his political attitude from beginning to end, was an integral pacifism, from which he departed only once or twice—in great anguish—but never for long
His biographers, McCarthy especially, seem to feel that in his battle with the Temps modernes crowd Camus got much the worst of it, and that this was a major cause of the depression that so darkened those years. But how does one tot up the score? At the time of the break over The Rebel, Sartre and his gang were veering sharply toward Stalinism, precisely when the moribund old monster was hanging the Rajks, Slanskys, and Petkovs of the Popular Democracies, so-called, inventing the fantastic “doctors’ plot” and unleashing a policy of open anti-Semitism in the socialist Fatherland itself. Solzhenitsyn and the “dissidents” were still frozen and voiceless, as far as the West was concerned, but the 50’s were the period of the first worker revolts in the East: Berlin, Poznan, Budapest. Yet issue after issue of Les Temps modernes appeared with an interminable essay by Merleau-Ponty or Sartre or one of their acolytes chopping logic to prove that the Communists were all the more necessarily right because they were so obviously wrong. If this be victory, it was a pyrrhic one; and as the internal and external menace receded and the European recovery took shape, the sophistication and natural skepticism of the intellectuals reasserted themselves. It took time. Debates of this kind are never entirely resolved. But who can deny that it is Camus’s position, on the whole, that now prevails?
Unfortunately, France was beginning to “decolonize,” and what we now call the North-South issue was waiting in the wings to offer Camus’s homme révolté another incarnation, for a time at least. All these political preoccupations, together with his personal problems and who knows what secret suspicion that it was too late, that the die was cast, kept him from settling down to what he stubbornly insisted was his true vocation. If Camus felt defeated, and we know from his notebooks and correspondence that he often did, it was not because Sartre had questioned his competence as a philosopher, or because he had failed to turn the Parisian intellectuals around with a single book. It was because he sat on innumerable committees, held down a job and an office at the Nouvelle Revue Française, wrote editorials for Combat and L’Express—not to speak of his incessant involvement in the theater, his need for sociability and erotic adventure and, increasingly, his intervention on behalf of the victims of the Algerian war. He was a prime example of what his friend, Bloch-Michel, called la civilisation de l’agenda; and it is a wonder under the circumstances that he managed to write any fiction at all.
What he did write is troubled and oddly obscure. Here and there the lucidity and easy authority of the essayist reappear, in a reflection by Dr. Rieux (The Plague) or in one of Jean-Baptiste Clamence’s tirades (The Fall); but on the whole the novels take us into a world where Camus is still feeling his way, as it were, and where his intentions have given rise to endless interpretation. But this is not merely to say that like any novelist, Camus created characters who are mysterious and problematical, as was the case with Meursault, the hero of The Stranger, the book that not only brought Camus to the attention of the French public but remains his most convincing performance as a literary artist. However we interpret the behavior of Meursault, we see him as a meaningful instance; he is part of a privatized, affectless, and disquieting world that we recognize as real. Nothing of the sort happens, however, in the two novels that Camus managed to finish in the 50’s. In The Stranger, it was the fictional hero and not the author who was tragically unable to make himself understood. In The Plague and The Fall, it is the other way around. The characters explain themselves interminably, but what the author is trying to tell us remains unclear.
Of the two, The Fall is the more engaging book, a dramatic monologue by a lawyer who has made a career out of defending the weak and the poor, and who now proclaims his vaunted virtue to have been hypocritical and false, although the true cause of his guilt and the sincerity of his repentance remain so well hidden in the convolutions of his confession that Camus’s critics (most of whom agree that the lawyer, Clamence, represents Camus himself) have never ceased to propose new and different explications de texte. The latest of these, by Norman Podhoretz, suggests that Camus felt guilty about failing to oppose Sartre’s pro-Soviet position with a forthright pro-American one, for fear of breaking ranks with the Left and sacrificing his reputation as a secular saint.
Podhoretz’s reading of Camus’s novels is so incisive and brilliant that his idea about The Fall almost sweeps one away, until one remembers that Camus’s deepest and most consistent political instinct was to reject the dichotomy that seems—more than a quarter of a century later—so logical and inescapable to Norman Podhoretz. He did not believe that an anti-Soviet position necessarily implied a pro-American one, as his adversaries kept insisting. His whole point, in fact, after Korea, Berlin, and the onset of German rearmament, was precisely the opposite: that it was urgent to oppose the polarization of East and West—and if this was utopian it is not to be confused with the sort of Utopia that Camus denounced (as leading inevitably to totalitarianism) in The Rebel.
Still, there is a sense in which I believe Podhoretz is right, and indeed that he is “on” to something very deeply buried in Camus’s feelings. “What I am suggesting,” he says, “is that Camus believed in his heart [my emphasis] . . . that the cowardice and hypocrisy of which he accuses himself in The Fall, are the cowardice and hypocrisy involved in his failure to side as clearly with the democracies as Sartre was siding with the Communists.” But to be pro-American meant a good deal more, at the time, than being on the side of the democracies, which Camus certainly was. It meant accepting a policy, a “NATO” outlook, the world according to John Foster Dulles: an entirely different matter, and quite foreign to Camus’s way of thinking about politics. Besides, if we are reduced to surmising what is in Camus’s heart, why limit ourselves to the East-West option? Why dismiss so easily the notion that he was satisfied and at peace with himself on the issue of Algeria? He had had the courage—if it required any—to withhold support from the FLN. But few French intellectuals, even among those who declared themselves for Algerian independence, were enthusiastic about the FLN. He had denounced FLN terrorism which struck down innocent civilians and might, he said, bring harm to his mother. “I believe in justice but I will defend my mother against justice.” Such a statement managed to shock everyone at once. It made the usual ritualistic bow to insurgency. But who is to say, with the war becoming increasingly tribal, that he really believed that justice was entirely on the FLN side?
Whatever he believed, he found it impossible to do or say anything to help his people. It was a hard thing to be Albert Camus in the 1950’s. If he had any talent or predisposition to guilt—and who hasn’t?—there was no lack of reasons. “One is always a bit at fault,” as Meursault had said, in The Stranger.
All his life Camus was haunted by the idea that he was the victim of some sort of mistake, a fatal misunderstanding. In Sisyphus he extends this idea to humanity as a whole, but it was a very personal thing with Camus, as if the universe—even as it delighted him with the beauty of the little Algerian fishing village of Tipasa, then awarded him the Nobel Prize and made him rich—had it in for him. Precisely when and how this notion took possession of him we do not know, but his childhood and youth are so filled with intimations of it that only the most obvious need to be mentioned here.
Item. He had a sun-drenched sensual impoverished happy miserable Mediterranean childhood in the home of Grandmother Sintès in Belcourt, Algiers, an area of docks, warehouses, workshops. Camus never knew his father, who was killed early in World War I. His mother, jealously kept from all suitors by Uncle Etienne, the crippled old barrel-maker described in The Exile and the Kingdom, never remarried. She had to work as a servant and could not properly protect Camus and his older brother against her shrewish, slightly demented, and occasionally brutal old mother. Nor could they, of course, protect her.
Item. Camus did well in school, and the world opened up to him. One of his public-school teachers saw to it that he went on to the lycée. Then the excellent essayist, Jean Grenier, who happened to be in Algiers at that time, took the boy under his protection. Camus had enormous talent, appetite, charm. Everything seemed possible. But then, at the age of seventeen, he learned that he had tuberculosis and might die of it. With luck and care he might keep the disease at bay, but there was practically no prospect of a definitive cure.
Item. In pursuing his education, Camus went to live with an uncle in town, leaving the Belcourt of his boyhood behind. The distance between him and his mother seemed to grow—far greater than the streetcar ride from town. Even as a child Camus had had difficulty communicating with his mother, who was a little deaf. But she was never far from his thoughts. Catherine Camus was a woman of Spanish origin, sweet-tempered, inarticulate, practically illiterate, but with a natural beauty and bearing that seem to have survived the laborious and rather humiliating life she had to accept, after losing her husband.
The idea of malentendu, misunderstanding, first turns up in Camus’s notebooks and then, in The Stranger, in a newspaper clipping that Meursault finds under his mattress in the prison cell where he has been waiting to be tried, ostensibly for the murder of an Arab but really (as the prosecutor develops his case) for failing to show the proper grief and piety on the occasion of the death and burial of his mother. The newspaper clipping is only briefly mentioned in The Stranger; it is one of those disconnected clues that one finds in Camus’s fiction; but after various permutation it turns up again in his work as a play, Le Malentendu, the first of Camus’s plays to be presented (in June 1944) to the Parisian public. It is the story of a son who, after many years abroad, returns to his native land and stays at a hotel run by his mother and sister, who make a practice of murdering their guests in order to raise enough money to escape their dreary life and go abroad. Since he chooses not to reveal his identity immediately, the son is murdered; and when they learn who their victim was, the women commit suicide.
The play was received very badly—practically hissed off the stage—despite the fact that it was produced by Marcel Herrand and starred Maria Casarès. The audience may or may not have been aware that Camus was trying to make an “existentialist” point, namely, that some sort of misunderstanding is built into the nature of things. But Jan, the hero, could easily have revealed his identity to his mother and sister; and if he failed to do so (for perfectly fatuous reasons), what had that to do with the nature of things? It was an accident, pure and simple, as far as the audience could see. In other words, the play was not only about a misunderstanding. It was one. Camus had mobilized Marcel Herrand, Maria Casarès, and the prestigious theater of Les Mathurins, and built his whole enterprise on the basis of a dramatic flaw so obvious that any third-rate critic in Paris could (and did) point it out.
Why do I make a point of all this? Not merely to establish that Camus’s torment over his mother (and his motherland) ran deep, and can be related to his self-castigation in The Fall. He had other reasons to fuel his sense of guilt, as we have seen. But why did Camus, a highly controlled and rational writer in his essays, become so illogical, not to say incoherent, when he undertook a work of imagination?
Practically every major piece of fiction or drama that Camus wrote involves some sort of malentendu. The Plague, which is based on the bizarre idea that an epidemic can serve as an adequate allegory for a political situation like the German occupation of France, is an especially striking example. Camus labored for years on a book that simply refused to “work,” for the obvious reason that political drama disappears in a situation where people are united against a natural disaster and their problems are seen as technological or administrative in their nature. And similar oddities can be pointed out in The Fall, in Caligula, and even in The Stranger, a carefully elaborated apologia by a narrator who staked his life, as it were, on the belief that in the universe of the Absurd you never explained and never complained; in short, made no apologia.
It would be presumptuous, no doubt, to suggest that the question I have raised can be answered simply, once and for all, but it seems to me worth noting that Camus the artist operated in a manner radically different from that of the essayist, or the man of action. As an artist, quite visibly, he became a sleepwalker. To demonstrate this in detail would require another full-length study, but for present purposes there is no need. Not only did Camus’s dreams and obsessions take over in his imaginative works, but they did so with his full approval, so to speak, unhindered by concern about what Jean Grenier or Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre might think, because art was by definition for Camus the domain of the instinctual, where one came home to one’s deepest self.
Free at last! But coming home meant confronting his feelings for his mother and for a human community—his own—which was about to be destroyed in the name of justice. For a hero of the French Left and a secular saint it was an onerous freedom.
So he longed for it and feared it and when he finally resolved to undertake The First Man, the beginning of an autobiographical work that would force him to explore his origins and think things through, he did so in utter dread. Fear and Trembling! Because he knew that it would tell him and the entire world (and his mother waiting for him in Algeria) who he really was. The boy from Belcourt, Brother Camus.
1 Random House, 359 pp., $17.95.
2 Vichy France and the Jews, by Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton (Basic Books); Paris in the Third Reich, by David Pryce-Jones (Holt, Rinehart & Winston); The Left Bank, by Herbert R. Lottman (Houghton Mifflin). To these should be added, from inside the German establishment, the memoirs of Gerhard Heller, chief of the literature section of the Nazi propaganda ministry in Paris. These have recently been published in German; Heller figures prominently as well in the Pryce-Jones and Lottman volumes.