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Camus, Albert 1913–1960
A Nobel Prize-winning French existentialist novelist, essayist, and playwright, Camus is best known for The Stranger.
In La Chute [The Fall] Albert Camus renounces the paradoxical and arbitrary optimism of his preceding books, the hope born of despair to which Le Mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth...
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- Critical Essays
Camus, Albert 1913–1960
A Nobel Prize-winning French existentialist novelist, essayist, and playwright, Camus is best known for The Stranger.
In La Chute [The Fall] Albert Camus renounces the paradoxical and arbitrary optimism of his preceding books, the hope born of despair to which Le Mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus], La Peste [The Plague] and L'Homme révolté [The Rebel] testify. He does not deny his past attempts to tailor to man's measure the enormity that overwhelms him, but he relaxes for a moment, to catch his breath a bit, and mildly complain. Not so happy as to want to prove his happiness to himself in order to be less uncomfortable, Sisyphus, suffering and in despair, looks for a change of position so that his grief may be lulled to sleep or dismissed. Thus, La Chute came into being, the most beautiful book that Albert Camus has written since Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Since L'Etranger [The Stranger], too, the real subject of which was already the guilt of the innocent.
Claude Mauriac, "Albert Camus," in his The New Literature, translated by Samuel I. Stone (George Braziller, Inc.: from The New Literature by Claude Mauriac; reprinted with permission of the publisher; copyright © 1959 by George Braziller, Inc.), Braziller, 1959, pp. 103-17.
[Step] by step [Camus] became almost wholly a moralist, a definer and upholder of formal values.
Looking back on his work as a whole, one can see that even his fiction consists of short moral anecdotes. The extraordinary success of his first "récit" and most unqualified artistic success, The Stranger, surely rests not on the kind of powerfully sufficient image of life that is the imaginative artist's challenge and delight, but rather on an explicit idea of life. The Stranger, in itself Camus's one "nihilist" work of fiction (and succeeded by the antinihilistic The Plague), owes its great popularity to the fact that it speaks for widespread feelings of alienation from social cant. Vivid and acridly ironic as many details in the book are, the hero of The Stranger represents the bitterness of the early Camus rather than the bewildered and self-pitying clerk that Meursault is supposed to be. The beautiful last pages, in which the condemned man welcomes death as freedom, can only be read as Camus's own austere philosophical testament. The very titles of his books—The Stranger, The Rebel, The Fall—denote stages in one man's struggle for moral clarity, while the curt simplicity and tense balances of his style represent, in fact, that need to embody a position, to fix a value, which is typical of those for whom a moral, once defined, is a lesson to be followed. It is typical of Camus, who, I think, did not read English, that he was instinctively drawn to Emerson, the author of so many moral "gems" and epigrammatic conclusions about life, and that he was always quoting Emerson's admirer Nietzsche, whose writing is probably the most brilliant example of this genre that we have had in modern times.
The moralist is always one who tries to prescribe for life, for whom man has a destiny that he can put into words. The background of Camus's concern with this is significant: it is his awareness of death, of war, of the afflictions rained on our generation by totalitarianism…. All his life Camus felt himself surrounded by death—his death and that of a whole generation….
Albert Camus wrote like a condemned man. To me, it is this desperate emphasis on the value of life that is the key to his moral urgency….
I read these essays [Resistance, Rebellion and Death] with constant agreement and respect and yet with pity, for Camus's life was harder than even he thought it was. Camus thought that truth will live for man if only he defines it closely and truly enough. But truth is never something that man controls. And the very closeness with which Camus tried so hard to condense the truth is one of the most poignant things about his life. There was a fundamental distrust that he could not conquer, a space across which his imagination could not carry him. He hugged life close, as he hugged his style close. And so the felicity and brilliance of these essays remind one all too sadly of the world that has to be conquered with each sentence—but which, with each sentence accomplished, is as quickly lost.
Alfred Kazin, "A Condemned Man: Albert Camus" (1960), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1962 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 291-96.
I still think that the theme of revolt is what is most basic in Camus' writings, infusing them with enduring and dramatic substance. Revolt is man's creative protest against an absurd world. It is both a statement about the nature of reality and an attitude towards it, stressing the individual over abstractions, nature over history and respect for a sense of limit….
This idea of revolt was inspired in part by the classical tradition Camus was so fond of, with its emphasis on unity and the rhythms of nature. But, I believe, it owes more to his analysis of contemporary political realities, particularly revolutionary ideologies. He observed that modern revolutions invariably end by reinforcing the power of the state and justifying bloodshed. Revolutionaries begin by demanding justice, Camus noted, and end by establishing a police force….
Camus considered the two main forms of revolt to be political action and artistic creation, and some of his best writing deals with the relationship between the two. Both must correct creation by transforming it in light of imaginatively discerned ideals. Both must rise to the defense of human happiness and the preservation of life. In an age such as ours, when tyranny threatens on all sides, the artist cannot remain silent. And while it is difficult to maintain one's equilibrium on the narrow ridge between the ivory tower and the political arena, between solitude and solidarity, it is precisely there that "the creative attitude which reconciles aesthetic demands with the duty of brotherhood" is born and nourished. Camus envisaged a kind of cross pollination between art and politics that would make of both witnesses to man's freedom and dignity.
Bernard Murchland, "Between Solitude and Solidarity," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), October 23, 1970, pp. 91-5.
[Albert Camus'] A Happy Death is not very good literature. Its author seems to have known that. While he lived, he preferred not to expose the book to the suffrage of the common reader, and we must assume that he did not much care for it himself. Within a year after he finished writing it, he completed another novel that he did publish and that has since come to be regarded as a modern classic. That book, The Stranger, is a unified, concentrated, finished work. In contrast, A Happy Death is an unlicked bear cub of a book. Some of its episodes are interesting, some of its ideas are promising. But the story does not have the energy that reveals itself to us as form and that marks a work of art as complete. For that reason, the novel's interesting episodes are mere wandering stars, and its promising ideas—never properly developed—are artistically and philosophically jejune. Of course the name of Albert Camus retorts a kind of glory on this sketchy novel—that is inevitable. But A Happy Death does not return the compliment. It is what it is, lumpish, ill-conceived, unfinished….
How was that wonder accomplished, that within a year after the slack and self-indulgent novel we are discussing, so unanswerable a work as The Stranger was composed—out of the same spiritual energies and on the basis of the same materials with which Camus fashioned A Happy Death? Put most simply, in that time Camus had learned the manners of art, what in varying contexts we call distance, objectivity, or transcendence, the attitude of disinterestedness that bespeaks the craftsman's love of the work rather than his need for therapy, comfort, or glory. In those terms The Stranger is indeed unanswerable because it is self-sufficient. On the whole it makes no excuses; on the whole it has no author. It expresses the necessary transformation of its creator's petty or noble preoccupations, their sublimation in a structure of meanings that apply to us as persons in proportion as they are themselves impersonal. The art of the present time cries me, me, me. It is related to the ethos of A Happy Death, and represents the moment before we attain to art.
Emile Capouya, "The 'Death' That Preceded Camus's Birth as a Novelist," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 15, 1972; used with permission), April 15, 1972, pp. 63-5.
A happy death is a death following a life lived intensely and without resignation, and a life lived guiltlessly. This was Camus's ideal. Admiring the people of Algiers, he once said he wanted to see if he could stand to exist armed solely with what he knew to be true. But unlike them he was not a real pagan, nor was he a believer.
So, on the basis of his own kind of tabula rasa—no Cartesian exercise, but rather an anguished and poetic outcry—Camus moved toward the writing of [The Stranger], the first panel of a fictional triptych completed by his brilliant and disillusioned [The Fall], with [The Plague] as allegorical and affirmative centerpiece.
The hitherto unpublished manuscript of [A Happy Death], written in his early twenties and before World War II, was an important milestone on Camus's way, and it is interesting to compare it with [The Stranger].
[A Happy Death] does not succeed as fiction. The characters are stick figures, the psychology is naive, and the scenes generally lack immediacy….
In [A Happy Death],… the tendency toward poetic prose that Sartre had discerned in [The Stranger] and which he thought was "probably Camus's personal mode of expression" unfortunately runs riot. And so we get (picked more or less at random from the text) many such phrases as "splendid harvest of happiness," "delicate and tender game of life" and "thrill of passion and desire."
Camus did not need to learn his lesson twice. Accordingly, for [The Fall] he also selected a (radically different) style that would suit his theme and simultaneously impose artistic discipline, again with apt success….
There are several drafts of [A Happy Death] extant, none of which Camus intended to publish. The grounds, then, on which it now appears are forthrightly stated on the first page of the French edition (Volume I of the projected [Cahiers Albert Camus]): "Simply because when one loves a writer or studies him in depth, one often wishes to know everything about him."…
In any event, Camus was of course loved, and he is certainly worth "studying in depth." As a philosophical novelist, he was not an especially able philosopher, nor did he possess remarkable narrative powers, yet he is assured some place among the French classics. An eminently attractive figure, he seems perhaps more typically than any other writer to have felt the shifting currents to which his generation was subjected. His prewar essays beautifully express a love of life for its own sake; the first two successful novels and the plays reflect a struggle to maintain ideals in the face of cataclysmic events; his last book is the consequence of a postwar humanistic European's very painful self-examination.
Peter Sourian, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 11, 1972, pp. 4, 32.
La mort heureuse, volume 1 in a projected series of Cahiers Albert Camus, is a first novel, written between 1936 and 1938, about a hero called Mersault, which Camus, for reasons unexplained, never attempted to have published. Instead he went on immediately to write his celebrated story, L'Etranger, reworking some of the episodes of La mort heureuse to make them fit his second hero, Meursault. If we are fond of dubious linguistic speculation, we can meditate on the possible significance of the change from the syllable mer (sea, with an implied background of mère, mother) to meur (die; Meursault = the imperative, meurs sot! die fool!). As it happens, sea, mother, death, and the sancta simplicitas of the Absurdist consciousness are four major themes in Camus and are common to both his early heroes, so that the second name would have been equally appropriate in the first book. Both novels deal roughly with the same subject matter, drawn for the most part from Camus's life as a young man in his native Algeria, but they give it sharply different emphases.
The instinct that made Camus refrain from beginning his career as a novelist with La mort heureuse was quite sound. He would have been recognized at once as a born writer, since the book contains passages of great brilliance, but it would have produced only a muffled impact because, as M. Sarocchi freely admits in his commentary, it does not fully coalesce as a work of art, and the influence of certain immediate literary models is rather too obvious. L'Etranger … is not a complete success either, but its good features are sufficiently sustained and coherent to mark a new development in French literature. To compare the two books is to see how Camus, who was nothing if not a dogged exploiter of his own possibilities, moved on from being a man of talent to become a major writer with something original and permanent to say….
Mersault is … fleetingly aware of [a] theme that is implicit in Gide, Malraux, and Montherlant, but never clearly isolated by them: this is the Absurd, the gap or uncertain connection between the consciousness and all phenomena, whether pleasurable or unpleasurable.
When Mersault turns into Meursault, in L'Etranger, this feature becomes dominant, and the murder he commits (now displaced to the center of the book) is an Absurdist act, unconnected with anything so crudely collective as money and brought on by the blurring of the consciousness through the blinding beauty of the world at midday. Meursault's killing of the Arab poses the whole question of his relationship with society and leads into the marvelously satirical treatment of the functioning of the law. L'Etranger is one of the first modern books—perhaps the very first—in which the Absurdist awareness of the absence of any settled moral truth is worked into all the details of the story.
John Weightman, "Stranger in Paradise," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), June 15, 1972, pp. 6-8.
A Happy Death is not a finished piece, nor did Camus ever attempt to publish it. It is an awkward first attempt at fiction, the failure of which Camus knew only too well. At 23 Camus had written lyrical essays of great beauty, but he had not yet learned the discipline of the novelist; he could not step away from his work. A Happy Death is intensely personal: a canvas on which Camus tried to splash all that was precious to him—on which he tried to express, in one series of images, his whole existence….
A Happy Death must be accepted then for what it is. If one brings to it an understanding of the later Camus it is an invaluable piece of writing. Here we see more of Camus, the individual, than in any other writings but the lyrical essays, and we see dimensions which were muted even there….
We remember Camus as "the conscience of his age," the tortured liberal humanist of The Rebel. But here we see, full-blown, the passionate artist and solitary who was constantly struggling against that societal conscience.
David Osborne, "Clumsiness and Disorder," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), July 22, 1972, pp. 25-6.
At the time of his death Camus had become more than a writer to his many readers; he was a moral conscience for thousands of young people in Europe and the United States, as he is still today. He was the model of a committed writer; he had been through everything to gain his ticket to modernity: the Communist party and his break with it, the encounter with Existentialism, a Nihilism that still permitted him to speak with exaltation of the human lot, the dangerous life of the Resistance, a crusade for justice that seemed to lift him above the battle of conflicting political ideologies…. From the experimentation in form and language that has been one of the hallmarks of modern literature, Camus remained aloof, deliberately pursuing a kind of classicism that takes us back, beyond the realistic novel of the nineteenth, to the récit, the short moralizing tale, of the eighteenth century. More and more, toward the end, he began to feel uncomfortable with much of the art of our time, and he even expressed condemnation of its artistic aims. His most explicit attack is in a late essay, "Helen's Exile," which seems to me not to have been noticed enough by his commentators. Helen is the ancient symbol of human beauty, and modern artists, in Camus' view, have exiled her from our midst to pursue an art of tortured expressionism. Are we really incapable of those antique and sumptuous images of beauty? Imprisoned in our gray northern cities, we relegate the feast of the senses to the southern sunlit civilizations.
In retrospect, with all his work laid open before us, Camus quite clearly never gave up his North African heritage; and for him that meant the heritage of the Mediterranean and the ancient Greeks. In temperament he remained something of a provincial, a colon, an Algerian Frenchman. Even in politics, despite his radical beginnings, there was a streak of conservatism in his nature—though this conservatism can be easily misunderstood and was in fact deliberately misrepresented by his left-wing opponents.
William Barrett, in his Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1972 by William Barrett; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 28-9.
Camus saw as the "task" of his generation—or what we could call its survivor mission—that of "keeping the world from destroying itself." But much of the force of this public vision derived from very personal experiences in the Underground during World War II…. Camus' stand on survival emerged from [a] particular way of applying his imagination—as evolved through his individual-psychological experience—to the holocausts of his time….
Caligula is Camus' most vivid rendition of the absurd survivor, and one of the most important plays ever written about the aberrations of the survivor state….
For Camus lucidity means not only clarity, consciousness, and truth, but (as suggested by its Latin roots) a state of being luminous, fused with light, and thereby transcending the rote and prosaic without recourse to false gods. Yet this lucidity and (in Camus' words) "the extra life it involves, depend not on man's will, but on its contrary, which is death."…
The insurgent survivor is epitomized by Camus' two most celebrated heroes, the rebel and the plague physician. Camus meant his rebel or insurgent survivor to be more radical than even a conventional revolutionary because he is more fundamentally critical, subversive and formative. There is no revolution to be, once and for all, achieved; there is permanence only in questioning and insurgency. The insurgent survivor rebels, to be sure, against injustice, murder, and suffering; against victimization of any kind. But he also rebels, Camus tells us, against the core of human existence, the fact of death. His "rejection of death," however, is his "desire for immortality and for clarity." What he rejects, in other words, is meaningless or formless death; what he seeks through his rebellion is transcendence by means of ever-renewed human forms. "If nothing lasts, then nothing is justified," he reasons, so that "To fight against death amounts to claiming that life has a meaning, to fighting for order and for unity."
At bottom, then, the insurgent survivor is a form-seeker and a form-giver. His quest "to learn to live and to die, in order to be a man, to refuse to be a god," goes a step beyond absurdity into form….
As a giver of forms the insurgent survivor must perforce become a healer…. [The] survivor's special knowledge of death, and simple formulation of duty to life, provide rebellious courage and healing power….
We gravitate naturally to the mocking and mocked antihero who, whether a mere figure of our impotence or a man thrust into greatness despite himself, evokes not our cosmic order (as a tragic hero does) but our cosmic disorder.
In this literature death and madness are respected; what is savagely mocked is the 'sanity' of everyday life which dissolves both the significance of death and of man's quest for immortality. The central point about mockery is that it confronts the phenomena involved, our situation and ourselves.
Robert Jay Lifton, "Survivor As Creator," in American Poetry Review (reprinted by permission of International Famous Agency; copyright © 1973 by Robert Jay Lifton), January-February, 1973, pp. 40-2.