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The Rebel

Camus

by Patrick McCarthy
Random House, 359 pp., $17.95

During the last three or four years of his life, after the publication of The Fall, Albert Camus had a writer’s block which he was desperately trying to overcome when he died in an automobile crash in 1960 at age forty-six. Many events contributed to his inability to write. There had been the famous debate with Jean-Paul Sartre over terror in the USSR, from which, in the verdict of many Parisian intellectuals, he came away the loser. Then the French-Algerian war broke out, and his unwillingness to espouse the cause of Algerian independence diminished still more his reputation among the left. Awarded the Nobel prize just at the moment when the press was demanding that he state a clearcut position on Algeria, he found himself in the position of an old actor suddenly afflicted by stage fright, trying to speak his lines while a hostile audience was making for the exit.

That audience has never stopped deserting him. To be sure, his works have been consecrated in a Pléiade edition, his notebooks have been published, and Camus criticism continues to be a thriving academic industry. But the intelligentsia that came of age during the 1960s had, by and large, little sympathy for moralists, least of all for one who respected his own ambiguities, who shrank from collective action, who detested violence, all the more so for having so much of it inside him, and who increasingly brought his irony to bear upon the innocence that revolutionary ideology encourages in militant minds. The thrashing given to Anatole France by surrealists after World War I and the eclipse Andé Gide suffered with the appearance of Retour de l’URSS in 1936 might be considered as precedents for the fate Camus endured at the hands of a generation radically estranged from his values.

He preached restraint in style and action. They were spoiling for heavy melodrama. He invoked filial piety as a reason for wanting some other solution to the Algerian war than one that would cast him adrift from his motherland. They were disposed to honor writers whose work legitimized their hatred of institutions that held them hostage to the past. Meursault’s passing remark in The Stranger, “We are always a bit at fault,” formed the basis of a creed that proved useless, worse than useless, to people who found the compromises of everyday life intolerable. Revolutionary action is Manichean, as Malraux put it during his communist days.

The Humpty Dumpties of French literary fashion stand a fair chance of getting pieced together in England or America, and Camus may yet become a case in point (much the same can be said of France’s historical ghosts, as we have seen recently with Vichy France and the Jews by Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton. Patrick McCarthy’s biographical study appears only two years after the publication of Herbert Lottman’s,1 which has since been made available to the French in translation.

The biographer who sets out in the hope of rescuing from limbo a misunderstood idol faces a challenge in Camus, for the distance he established with all those qualities that mark his style—its elegance, irony, and aphoristic sheen—contained a fear of being known, or penetrated. “The innocent is he who doesn’t explain himself,” he noted. As strong as his need to assert a public presence was his conviction that self-exposure invited self-destruction (Camus called biographers “biophages”). Like an actor who cannot forgo either audiences or masks, he hid among innumerable personae. There was the Don Juan and the would-be monk, the tough and the aristocrat, the purist and the singer of bawdy songs, the urbane monologuist of The Fall and the reticent killer of The Stranger. He had the capacity for many such contradictions, but the one that may come nearest to encompassing every other touches upon his vocation as an author. “Writing,” he once declared, “is an act of violence against myself.”

This internal civil war, which furnished the material for his first major novel, The Stranger, began very early, with the denial he practiced upon himself as a boy wanting out of the family into which he had been born. He never knew his father, a French-Algerian laborer who died at the battle of the Marne, and left him to be raised by his mother and his mother’s mother in Belcourt, a working-class district of Algiers. His childhood revolved around the enigmatic presence of his mother, with whom he lived in lonesome, mute symbiosis, or in what he himself called a solitude à deux that bound him even more powerfully than possessive love. Catherine Camus was a half-deaf charwoman who couldn’t read or write, almost never spoke, and heard little of what went on around her. “He pities his mother, is that to love her?” wrote Camus in an early story. “She had never caressed him because she would not know how. So he stares at her for long minutes. Feeling a stranger, he becomes conscious of her unhappiness.” Whereas Jean-Paul Sartre, another fatherless boy, organized a memoir about his early youth under the title Words, the central event of Camus’s young life would appear to have been this silence, which evoked for him some “other” world beyond his ken and his petitions.

Had he followed the normal course, Camus would have entered a trade after elementary school or sought employment on the Algiers waterfront. As it happened, the intellectual gifts fortune had dealt him were recognized by a teacher who prevailed upon his reluctant family to let him continue his education at the Algiers lycée. Camus thus made a leap that caused him to spend the rest of his life catching up with himself. From the primitive society of Belcourt, where no one spoke much except his waspish grandmother, who used a bullwhip to enforce discipline, he crossed into European Algiers. Before long he made good on the scholarship he had been given by taking highest honors in language and literature. Such recognition as he couldn’t command at home (and never would according to McCarthy, even after he got the Nobel prize) came to him at school for his facility with words. That facility was hard-won and, in his own mind, provisional. The famous Camus, who often felt at a disadvantage among Parisian intellectuals, might claim for himself the aristocratic virtue of sprezzatura, or natural grace; at other times he would invoke his proletarian childhood and adolescence, his years of swotting beneath an oil lamp in the family kitchen.

To all appearances Camus commuted between his incongruous worlds with impunity. McCarthy tells us that he had about him a certain aloofness that dissuaded schoolmates from giving him a nickname, as they did one another, and none ever received an invitation to visit him at home. But his passion for sport brought him together with them on the soccer field, where there emerged a more approachable boy than the one who was known to prepare class recitations at the seashore, against the roar of the Mediterranean, and who read poetry outside school. Playing goalie suited him very well. It let him participate, yet stand apart. It fulfilled a longing to engage in aggressive action even as it put him in the position of having to repel it. And finally, it did not tax beyond endurance his somewhat frail constitution.

Appearances crumbled, however, when Camus was found at seventeen to be suffering from tuberculosis and sentenced to a year of convalescence. This break with ordinary life proved decisive for his career as a writer in rather the same way that Proust’s internment at Dr. Sollier’s psychiatric clinic set him up for the elaboration of Remembrance of Things Past. To be sure, Proust made asthma a protectress and jailer while Camus felt virile in scoffing at his disease. But the personality that reassembled around this mortal enemy could no longer engage in life except as a condamné à mort. Camus found himself drawn to the cemetery overlooking Algiers, where, as one friend reports it, the sight of ants swarming out of graves provided an occasion for black humor. His favorite café had a guillotine in one corner of it and in another a skeleton equipped with a phallus that stood erect when jerked by a string.

The nineteen-year-old feeding his mind on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Shestov, Malraux, and Gide discovered that some vital part of himself felt safe nowhere but outside the city, in barren, timeless landscapes. Camus was “locked up, he had shut himself away in some dungeon,” observed Jean Grenier, his philosophy teacher, through whose mediation he began a correspondence with Max Jacob. The interest Camus took in Jacob was not so much in the poet who had lived through Montmartre’s heroic age as it was in the Catholic convert who led a life of pious reclusion at St.-Benoît-sur-Loire. Inside his head there ran a line that made it hard for him to avoid equating monkhood and selfhood.

Just how the fear of death or of loss and the argument with sexuality came together is a matter for conjecture. (The only story he knew about his father was that he had once gone to witness the public guillotining of a murderer, had come home, thrown himself on the bed, and vomited.) His notebooks suggest, however, that each reinforced the other in compelling him to assume a guise of indifference toward others and to baffle his own natural affections (“amputate” was his word for it). What Pirandello has his hero say in Henry IV, “Woe to him who doesn’t know how to wear his mask, be he king or Pope,” might have been said by the young Camus, who believed that evil would befall him unless he presented himself before the world as a man devoid of birthmarks. From this will to innocence, which Caligula in his play and Meursault in The Stranger exemplify so chillingly, he created a personal myth that centered on Catherine Camus, of whom he wrote: “A God is present in her.”

Beginning with his first published stories, L’Envers et l’endroit, the illiterate household in Belcourt to which shame had prevented him from introducing friends became the temple of an illegible divinity, and he, Albert Camus, the son nurtured in that divinity’s image. Bound by their common remoteness, they had no ear for the language of emotions, which reached them only as an unintelligible din. The silence his real mother observed had made him miserable. Now he held it to be virtue itself and thus, through identification with an inhuman surrogate, he appeased, all together, his desire to kill, his fantasies of suicide, and his yearning for union.

It is hardly surprising, then, that this man whose self-inventions served to lighten the weight of reality should have become enamored of theater and theater women. To direct his own company was an ambition that tugged at Camus from the time he left home until his death, and for many years the woman whose company he seems to have enjoyed the most was the Spanish-born French actress Maria Caserès. In the late 1930s, when the Algerian Communist Party sought a foothold among intellectuals, Camus, who briefly joined the Party, organized the Théâtre du Travail. This soon lost its political sponsor for staging plays that had no immediate application to the class struggle (notably Ben Jonson’s The Silent Woman), and under a different name went forward with performances of The Brothers Karamazov in Jacques Copeau’s adaptation and The Playboy of the Western World. It disbanded after 1938, but the pleasure it had given Camus, who acted several roles including Ivan karamazov, proved to be far keener than any he later found in literary circles. “[Ivan] was a part that Camus would remember with joy,” writes McCarthy. “In the late ‘50s he would play it in restaurants or during meetings at Gallimard and he would watch his friends to make sure they were watching him. It seemed to him the epitome of the theatre because it stressed both the part and the act of acting.” When Malraux became minister of culture, Camus saw in his appointment an opportunity to start a new repertory theater with government backing.

  1. 1

    Albert Camus (Doubleday, 1980).

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