Albert Camus already belongs not only to France but to the world, and his untimely death on January 6 of this year has removed from us a great literary figure and a man of considerable moral authority deeply concerned with the spiritual dilemma of our age.
Arthur Koestler voiced the opinion of many readers when at the time of the publication of La Peste he wrote: ‘In France; the three vital writers are Andre Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Of these the greatest is Camus’. And Andre Gide, that most discerning of French critics, had earlier said: ‘It is Camus who has raised our boldest hopes’. Camus has often been compared with Sartre, who is perhaps more brilliant in certain fields. As a dramatist Sartre outstrips Camus in boldness of conception, but as a novelist he lacks the classical simplicity and the universality so characteristic of L’Etranger (The Outsider), La Peste (The Plague) and La Chute (The Fall).
Camus died at the height of his creative and intellectual powers. His recent stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed won the acclaim of all the critics, and the production of this play which he undertook personally was an artistic triumph.
His death is a blow not only to French letters but also to the cause of humanity. All who love justice will appreciate the nature of the fight in which Camus was engaged, and mourn the loss of a writer of rare integrity and moral courage who devoted his great gifts to ‘the service of truth and liberty’, a duty which he declared on receiving the Nobel prize ‘constitutes the greatness of the writer’s profession’. During the war, he edited the Resistance newspaper Combat which continued for some years after the liberation of his country. Through his magnificent editorials, full of fervour for a regenerated France, Camus exercised a powerful influence on the French nation. He was one of the finest journalists of his time.
Camus was a man of great distinction, combining the force of intellect with sensitivity, understanding and charm. I feel privileged to have met him late in 1958. I remember vividly the almost disconcerting simplicity of his manner as he sat talking to me behind his desk in the office of Gallimard where he was a member of the editorial staff. What impressed me most was his quiet concentration and his air of calm sincerity. His conversation contained no facile phrases, his manner no calculated charm. One felt in him an inner strength which, one assumed, was the result of victories gained over poverty in youth, over ill-health, spiritual discouragement and the often unjust criticism of literary and political opponents.
It would be doing Camus an injustice to present him as a model of unsophisticated sincerity. Indeed, one discerned in him a certain sceptical penetration (after all, he is the author of The Fall), and his conversation was sharpened by those touches of irony which in his work curb the generous idealism of the humanist.
‘Do you know’, he asked, ‘the compliment that most annoys me? It is to be called “a completely sincere writer” (C’est l’honnêteté)’.
Camus showed interest in Australia, and recalled that he had long ago read D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo. He agreed with me that there could be a certain similarity in feeling and approach to living between the sea-and-sun-loving inhabitants of the Algerian and Australian littorals. He was, of course, interested to hear how his plays had been received in this country. Among other subjects, we talked of the strong reaction of those admirers who, having accepted Camus as the leader of a humanist rebellion, had seen in The Fall an apparent volte face if not an actual failure. Smiling quietly, he said: ‘An artist — if I am an artist — must renew his inspiration. After L’Etranger many critics said, “He can’t go beyond that”. But I wrote La Peste, which is very different. And now I am apparently expected to continue in the same direction. . . . My critics were wrong however to consider La Chute a denial of my belief in lucidity. Clamence’s lucidity was the wrong kind, for he failed to face up to the consequences of self-illumination’. As an admirer of Camus, I myself was pleased that he could produce a book like The Fall. Revealing as it did an unsentimental view of man, it affirmed in my opinion his competence to judge human nature and penetrate beneath the surface of life.
We will perhaps need more time to place this author’s work in true perspective. At the moment, our appreciation of what he stood for makes it a little difficult to focus on his work the cold light of objective criticism. To a certain extent, his situation resembles that of Duhamel, writing between 1919 and 1930, in that Camus’ reputation, like that of the older author, might have been enhanced by his ability to give significance to the heightened experiences of those who lived through the terrors of a second World War.
There is something else which makes it difficult to determine the exact literary merit of Camus’ work; it is the combination in him of philosopher and artist. Some critics have dealt too exclusively with the intellectual content of his writing. It seems to me that unless one understands the twofold nature of his inspiration, the lyrical as well as the intellectual, it is impossible to assess its true value. One slight book that gets close to essentials is Albert Camus ou L’Inuincible Ete, by Albert Maquet, who sets this significant quotation (from L’Ete) on the title page: ‘Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un invincible été’. The lyrical power of Camus’ genius is apparent everywhere in his novels and this power was nourished by the sensuous feeling for nature which permeates his early essays.
With The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel Camus gained a considerable reputation as a philosophical writer. These essays in my opinion will be forgotten long before L’Etranger, La Peste, La Chute and Les Justes. The Rebel is important, but after several brilliant chapters on the historical aspect of revolt, the author reaches the somewhat paradoxical and unsatisfactory conclusion that revolt must be tempered with reason and humanity. It is a great pity however that many of the English-speaking critics and reviewers didn’t read these works more carefully. Had they done so, we might have been spared some of the more gauche misinterpretations of Camus’ ideas about ‘absurdity’ and ‘metaphysical revolt’. For him, the idea that man’s limited existence is ‘absurd’ was a presupposition, a point of departure, as it were, in his thinking. A realisation of this fundamental ‘absurdity’, however, did not exclude optimism, but it was an optimism without illusions.
It has been fascinating to follow the evolution of Camus’ thought, a process marked at all stages by a firm resolution to see things clearly, honestly. I suppose that one of his greatest contributions has been the effort to translate into his life and work the ideal of lucidity he so passionately held.
Of his imaginative works, The Plague maintains its reputation as the most important novel to come out of post-war France. Camus combines in it a high degree of technical skill with great psychological insight. This allegory describing the reactions of a community to a common disaster has more than ordinary significance to his European contemporaries. It is against this background of calamity that he first develops the theme of lucidity central to all his works. In The Outsider, the novel which first won him a world-wide reputation, he has created a new type of literary ‘hero’, the ‘outsider’, a man at variance with the code of the society in which he lives. Meursault is a type who perhaps foreshadows the era of universal nihilism when the man in the street, face to face with I.C.B.M.’s and atomic bombs, begins to doubt the meaning of life. In Dostoevsky’s time only the privileged were sufficiently aware to be nihilists.
As a dramatist, a field where Camus has achieved marked success, I venture to think that he reveals some weaknesses. In Caligula and Cross-purpose there is rather much emphasis on dialectic. So these plays are too abstract, and leave the spectator disconcerted rather than moved to horror or sympathy by the action of the protagonists. Les Justes, though intellectual, is infinitely more human. This analysis of the motives of a group of terrorist rebels poses the important question, ‘Can one be a revolutionary and retain a sense of human values?’ There is no doubt that Les Justes is a masterly piece of work and one of the great achievements of contemporary drama. I was interested to find in talking to Camus that he himself considered it his best play, and Dora, the only real woman he has created, one of his favourite characters.
L’Exil et le Royaume seemed to me to mark a movement away from the thesis towards the more psychological type of novel, and Camus’ answer to the question, ‘What work are you engaged on at present?’ confirmed the impression I had gained. ‘I am planning to write a real novel’, he said, ‘a novel which will no longer be a demonstration of my ideas. I doubt whether I am capable of writing such a work, but L’Exil et le Royaume was a kind of preparatory exercise in this direction’. That novel, unfortunately, will not see the light unless, of course, the manuscript was in an advanced stage. . . .
In his all too short life Camus has achieved that miracle of the truly great writer: the union of feeling and reason expressed in words of imperishable beauty. Many have said, ‘In spite of two world wars, in spite of the threat of destruction, there is still reason for hope’, but who has voiced in such words as these the stubborn optimism to which we all must cling?
Quand j’habitais Alger, je patientais toujours dans l’hiver parce que je savais qu’en une nuit, une seule nuit froide et pure de février, les amandiers de la vallée des Consuls se couvriraient de fleurs blanches. Je m’émerveilles de voir ensuite cette neige fragile résiste à toutes les pluies et au vent de la mer. Chaque année, pourtant, elle persistait, juste ce qu’il fallait pour préparer le fruit.
(from Les Amandiers)