A Happy Death
by Albert Camus, translated by Richard Howard, Afterword and Notes by Jean Sarocchi
Knopf, 192 pp., $5.95
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 …