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 was 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, which has since been made available to the French in translation.
The biographer who sets out in the hope …