A Happy Death
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, as I shall argue in a moment, 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.
Actually, the French title, La mort heureuse, does not mean “A Happy Death,” which would be a particular instance, but “Happy Death,” a more general expression with something of the force of “The Art of Happy Dying.” Camus always prefers the definite article, because his constant urge is to universalize on the basis of his particular experience; hence La Peste, La Chute, L’Homme révolté, etc. Richard Howard is a prolific and fluent translator, but he tends to disregard the finer points of accuracy, as if they didn’t matter in the over-all effect. Doing my duty as a pedant, I have compared page 1 of his rendering with the original and have found no fewer than nine instances in which he departs from the strict meaning of the French. Fortunately, Camus the fiction writer, as opposed to Camus the journalist or editorialist, is always full of human substance and does not depend on refinements of style, so that a certain amount of literary quality can be allowed to leak away without the whole being seriously impaired. Still, it would have been better if Mr. Howard had been absolutely faithful to the author’s intentions.
It may seem strange that a young man of twenty-three, who had lived all his life in the provincial backwater of French Algeria in an uneventful period before the drama of the colonial revolt, should have written his first novel about death and the problem of making it happy. For once, perhaps, the fact can be adequately explained by a combination of personal circumstances and literary influences. On the one hand, Camus’s academic career had been interrupted by tuberculosis, which in those days was still a killer disease; on the other, among the dominant French novelists of the time were André Gide, André Malraux, and Henry de Montherlant, all three of whom were didactic in flavor, since their common theme was how the individual could best accomplish his particular destiny with pagan forth-rightness.
Gide advocated physical enjoyment and sexual freedom in Mediterranean sunlight; Malraux presented political adventurism and eroticism in exotic settings; Montherlant was a flamboyant, bisexual hedonist with a similar passion for non-French backgrounds. It seems obvious from La mort heureuse that Camus has assimilated something of each of them. Chapter 1 sounds like a direct echo of Malraux’s La condition humaine, some of the lyrically descriptive passages are reminiscent of Gide’s Les nourritures terrestres and L’Immoraliste, and Mersault is conscious of his masculinity much in the manner of Costals in Montherlant’s Pitié pour les femmes.
At this distance in time, it has ceased to matter that Gide and Malraux were normally classed as left-wing writers, whereas Montherlant was thought of as a right-wing anarchist with slightly fascist leanings. All three now appear as post-Nietzschean individualists whose basic urge is personal self-realization in tragic, or near-tragic, activism. Although each sooner or later evolved a form of collective ethic, it remained weaker than their egotistical drive. Little wonder, then, that the young Camus, being steeped in the literature of his immediate seniors and feeling his life to be threatened by tuberculosis (as Gide’s had been), should have tried to evolve a fiction that would turn death into a positive achievement rather than a passive defeat.
Of course, the only way to die positively is to control the life leading up to death. Mersault, like Camus himself, belongs to the category of the “poor white,” living in a charming geographical setting but without any freedom of movement, since he is obliged to earn his living. He exists in rather sordid circumstances; his mother has died after a long illness, leaving him alone except for his intermittent girlfriend, who is attractive but rather shop-soiled. Unlike Gide, or Gide’s heroes, he is not in a position to embrace the good life of spontaneous self-fulfillment on the basis of a sound bourgeois income from unspecified investments.
Camus, because of his situation, was bound to be more realistic about money than Gide, and so he makes Mersault get a supply by killing Zagreus, an invalid friend with a nest egg. The guilt of the murder is mitigated by two circumstances: the invalid himself has a revolver and a suicide note already prepared, in case he should find his diminished state unbearable; also, as he explains to Mersault, before he became a cripple he had been a Nietzschean hedonist who amassed his fortune by rather unscrupulous means, because he believed that wealth was necessary for self-realization. By killing Zagreus, Mersault both puts him out of his misery in spite of himself and follows his philosophy. The murder is accepted as suicide, but chance intervenes in the form of a cold that Mersault catches on the way back from the murder, and which undermines his health during the rest of the story.
Having got money, Mersault at first travels, no doubt because this was the primary way in which Gide, Malraux, and Montherlant expressed their freedom. But since Camus is already in the Mediterranean, his hero cannot go there; instead, he sends him off on a journey to Czechoslovakia and Germany that he himself had made, and which is described in similar terms in an essay in the volume L’Envers et l’Endroit. In the novel, the expedition is fairly pointless because Mersault does not have any significant adventures, apart from one encounter with a prostitute. To travel abroad is to fall out of one’s native setting, unsatisfactory though it may be, and to lose one’s personality in a void which is the pure awareness of contingency. Moreover, Mersault has gone from Mediterranean sunlight to dark countries where he can have no sensual contact with nature. The venture is a kind of nightmare, from which he quickly returns, via Italy, to the sunlit world of North Africa.
Here his quest for the good life proceeds roughly in two stages. For a while, on a hillside above the sea, he shares a house with three girls, in a state of camaraderie amoureuse. He does nothing except loll about, sunbathe, joke with the girls, and contemplate the glorious vista. This is, as it were, the apotheosis of ordinary living. The girls are ordinary girls, he is an ordinary man, they perform ordinary, everyday actions in a marvelous climate and—as the writing so beautifully suggests—the mere fact of existence is haloed with poetry.
But collective lyricism in a small group is still not quite what he is looking for. He has a love affair with another girl, and indeed marries her, but although he is fond of her, he feels an urge to be alone, presumably to savor the quality of life in its most piercing form. He buys himself a lonely house on the seashore and occasionally goes fishing with a solitary fisherman. All this time, his tuberculosis has been developing. One day, when he is feeling rather better, he is promted to bathe in the sea. This final communion with the elements brings on a conclusive attack. His wife comes to nurse him, and he dies serenely in broad daylight, with full consciousness of the beauty of the world.
The book has some obvious weaknesses. The drama is all at the beginning in the splendidly realized murder scene, the point of which is explained in subsequent flashbacks. After that, Mersault never fully engages with society again, and in fact spends most of his time experiencing soul states in complete or relative solitude. His possession of the money, for which he has killed Zagreus, does not enable him to do very much more than he could have done with his leisure hours, had he remained in his job. His hedonism is of a passive, contemplative type, which makes it difficult to believe that he would have committed a murder in order to satisfy it. Although perfectly described, this murder is really out of character, a point which makes one suspect that, as M. Sarocchi suggests, it was prompted by the opening chapter of La condition humaine, where the assassination, being political, is quite differently motivated.
Also, in this first novel, Camus has not quite realized that his particular representative character is not simply that of a hedonist capable of appreciating life in its simplest forms, as in the following passage:
Day after day, Mersault let himself sink into his life as if he were slipping into water…it was enough to make a few essential gestures—to rest one hand on a tree-trunk, to take a run along the beach—in order to keep himself intact and conscious. Thus he became one with life in its pure state, he rediscovered a paradise given only to the stupidest or most intelligent animals. At the point where the mind denies the mind, he touched his truth and with it his extreme glory and his extreme love.
This is the theme of “natural” living, in the Gidean, neo-Rousseauistic sense. But Mersault is also fleetingly aware of another 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. Sartre’s La Nausée is, to my mind, a greater achievement, a classic formulation of the philosophical anguish of the Absurd, but it does not raise any major moral issue and therefore seems not to have appealed to the same wide audience.
L’Etranger, whether it has exercised its influence directly or whether it just happened to be a first effective crystallization of diffuse, post-Nietzschean Absurdism, has by now established itself as one of the most characteristic works of world literature in the mid-twentieth century. There seems to be something of Meursault in practically all young people nowadays, whatever their country of origin. At the same time, the limitations of the book are plain to see: Camus sentimentalizes his hero’s position to some extent; the dead Arab is no less a victim than Meursault; the law may be an ass, but nevertheless it has to function, and it is “right” to condemn the murderer, and even has some merit in doing so, since the killer is a white man and the victim an anonymous native. Camus does not fully present all his characters as being caught in the uncertainties of the Absurd; he prefers some to others and withholds the benefit of the Absurd from those he dislikes, a very common contemporary practice. Nevertheless, L’Etranger is an epoch-making novel, whereas La mort heureuse is no more than an interesting and uneven piece of writing.
We know from Camus’s early essays that he had already at this time evolved a conscious, dualistic philosophy, which he summarized in the formula “There is no love of life without despair about life.” It is appropriate to both novels, since they are fraught with tragic lyricism, but it is given a rather different application in each. In L’Etranger, Meursault is going to an unhappy death by execution and is full of rage at being cut off from an existence which, as he now realizes, may have been a blur of suffering and enjoyment, but represents the only human good. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, he has offended society, and society, the many-headed monster of which before he was only dimly aware, is exacting its revenge.
In La mort heureuse, Mersault dies happily of tuberculosis, while the sunlight floods the landscape which has given him such pleasure. His serenity cannot be interpreted simply as an effect of physical weakness, since that would make nonsense of the didactic title. But why should the Absurd of early death by illness be more acceptable than the Absurd of death by execution? Perhaps because, since it is a pure effect of chance, no one can be blamed for it except the impersonal universe. However, this is not a very good argument, because if society behaves as it does because men are as they are, human events too are ultimately part of the impersonal universe, as Camus was to go on to suggest in La Peste, before rehabilitating the moral problem in La Chute.
I suspect that Mersault, just as much as Meursault, could have raged against the dying of the light, that his happy death is an arbitrary choice on the part of the author and that this may be an additional reason why Camus was doubtful about publication. Fortunately, Camus himself was not called upon to prove the possibility of a serene, tubercular death; he was granted the “absurd” privilege of a sudden one.