On Albert Camus

Anniversary retrospective
Albert Camus reading a newspaper

A brief round-up of retrospectives on the Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, who was killed in a car crash fifty years ago today:

On Camus' lasting influence on popular culture:
No doubt Camus would have derived at least a moderate pleasure from his celebrity status. In his favorite photograph of himself, taken by Cartier Bresson, he’s wearing a trench coat (supposedly a gift from Arthur Koestler’s wife) and smoking a cigarette, and he loved it when his friends told him that he looked like Bogart in the picture. One wonders if French critics’ love affair avec Bogie didn’t begin with that photo. After all, as Susan Sontag wrote in her famous 1963 essay, “No modern writer I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love.”

But, as Sontag asked rhetorically, “Was Camus a thinker of importance?” Her answer was an emphatic no: “Sartre, however distasteful certain of his political sympathies are to his English-speaking audience, brings a powerful and original mind to philosophical, psychological, and literary analysis. Camus, however attractive his political sympathies, does not.” In his 2007 book, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James, in effect, replied to Sontag: “the widespread notion that Camus’ mind was not really very complex is the penalty he paid for being blessed with good looks, a Nobel Prize, too many women, and too much fame.”

As Sontag herself was to understand, the attractiveness of political sympathies changes, and with them a writer’s reputation. Less than two decades after her essay on Camus, it was Sontag who was saying things like “communism is fascism, with a human face”—essentially what Camus had been saying since his break with the French Left after the publication of L’Homme revolte (The Rebel) in 1951. In the words of Olivier Todd, “Camus was correct too early.” [Read More]

On Camus' journals:
The last collection of Camus’s notebooks (1951-1959) were withheld from publication in France for nearly 30 years after his death, and did not appear in English until 2008. The publisher’s blurb says this: ‘Camus’s final journals give us our rawest and most intimate glimpse yet into one of the most important voices of French letters and twentieth-century literature. The first two volumes of his Notebooks began as simple instruments of his work; this final volume, recorded over the last nine years of his life, take on the characteristics of a more personal diary. Fearing that his memory was beginning to fail him, Camus noted here his reactions to the polemics stirred by The Rebel, his feelings about the Algerian War, his sojourns in Greece and Italy, thinly veiled observations on his wife and lovers, heartaches over his family, and anxiety over the Nobel Prize that he was awarded in 1957.’ [Read more]

On Camus' death:
Then, 50 years ago today, at the age of 46, [Albert Camus] died in a car accident near Sens, in a place named Le Grand Fossard in the small town of Villeblevin. Wikipedia tells me that "in his coat pocket lay an unused train ticket. He had planned to travel by train, with his wife and children, but at the last minute accepted his publisher's proposal to travel with him. The driver of the Facel Vega car, Michel Gallimard — his publisher and close friend — was also killed in the accident." In the car was the manuscript for The First Man (Le premier homme) an autobiographical work about his childhood in Algeria and was published in 1995. [Read More]

On Camus and solidarity:
“Misery taught me that not all goes right under the sun or in the story; the sun taught me that the story is not everything.” Camus was born in a poor quarter of Algiers to a father who soon died in battle and an illiterate, deaf mother, worn through by perpetual work, whose only bond with her son was love. His early life was a tension between opposites: ugly, insistent poverty and the serene, indifferent beauty of the sun and sparkling sea; silence and the seductive pleasure of words; resentment and the release of sport. His family held him back; he rebelled, successfully – but in escaping, he found he was also exiled, never again to feel an easy fit between himself and his surroundings. His work would circle among these themes for the rest of his life, fluttering here and there like a bird that finds no perch.

“Man is the only creature who refuses to be who he is.” As a writer and a Frenchman, Camus could not simply have feelings – he had to explain them. Though his explanations gained him an international audience (and the Nobel prize), they became a self-defeating exercise. The absurdity of humanity’s desire for reason and happiness in the face of the world’s “unreasonable silence” was worth pointing out – but Camus was too genuine to stop there, lean back, and light another cigarette. He could not, like Sartre, content himself with having made everyone uncomfortable – he was uncomfortable himself, because he knew that “there is something that still means something.” But what? [Read More]