The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 10, 2003

Signs and signatures
Camusí posthumous testament of passage from childhood to manhood
Darshan Singh Maini

ALBERT CAMUS, the great French existentialist novelist and thinker who died in a car crash in 1960, has received huge critical acclaim the world over, and the corpus of his novels and philosophical essays stands apart, a sui generis phenomenon in world literature. The Nobel Prize for Literature (1957) had, finally, come to be seen as a testimony to his genius which had, in fact, been duly acknowledged when his first novel, The Stranger (1946) made an astonishing debut, and in one leap, so to speak, put him amongst the greatest names in the French novel. An obscure, young Frenchman brought up in the troubled colony of Algeria, Franceís "albatross" that suggested an unenviable doom, he came to occupy, ultimately, a kind of "middle space" in the French letters, his deep ambivalence abiding in book after book. Now over 40 years after his tragic death, his work has received a new insightful commentary, particularly after the publication of his last unfinished big novel, Le Premier Homme or The First Man (1995), a work of fiction so vastly outside of his oeuvre as to cause many a critical dislocation. An autobiography story, chiefly of his troubled and tormented childhood in Algiers in a family that lived in genteel poverty, and in the midst of a hostile, rebellious Arab population, it has in the words of Florene Neiville (Le Monde), "an overwhelming feeling of purity, almost grace...". It constitutes his final, absolute statement on his passage as an artist, a novel that is at once a testament and a song of nostalgia beyond compare. However, before I take up this great work of fiction for some detailed comments, a rapid overviews of his earlier productions becomes imperative.


His existential predicament brought his distracted and restive muses to a point where he had to close with the ghosts that beckoned him, like Hamlet, to those ramparts of thought where the mystery of evil, chaos and absurdity becomes a cry of his drawn spirit. Camus, a product of colonial Algeria, in strange sympathy with his countryís foes, found himself bound like Sysyphus, seeking to consummate "the buffoonery of his emotions" in existentialist metaphysic of the absurd. Thus, all his earlier novels and essays become a vast allegory of the human situation. He, in a way, could not but dramatise his fevers in frame after frame.

The earlier novels, The Stranger, The Plague (1948) and The Fall (1957) remained his encounters with the philosophical questions of evil, alienation, human justice etc., and he chose for the first book the form so dear to the French novelists, the form of paronovella, a slim, slender volume that underscored the madness which possessed the Algerian Arabs and the French rulers equally. Symbolic tales, they remained his signatures of authenticity in a world gone berserk in his eyes. In his comment on Lionel Trillingís Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1969-70, and published under the title "Sincerity and Authenticity", a leading American critic, Irving Howe, said: "It takes two to be sincere, one to be authentic". Camus, then, vindicated his self in this fashion. The Plague, however, is a much bigger book, a vast metaphor for the plague spots within us, and within our bodypolitic. Here is a narrative struggling to carry the weight of an unspent Mediterranean vision. A certain nervousness adds to the tension of his prose. No wonder, the style and the technique assume a peculiar muscular tautness and austerity of expression. The style is well honed, as in Hemingway, and becomes a raiment of thought. A stone-washed, neat, clinical idiom, Camusís "white prose" in the words of Susan Santog, thus, served a pondered epistomological purpose.

In all these earlier books, Camus shows a perennial, primordial legacy, and the only way open to an honest person was to preserve his dignity, and suffer alienation, rebellion or exile. There always remained a huge metaphysical leak in godís scheme of things, pushing one into absurdity and challenge. Man couldnít "connect" with his human condition, and remained something of "a dangling man". Cyril Connelly once described him as "a classical Mediterranean" whose solar pessimism suggested deep, dark spot in Camusís humanism which, otherwise, is deeply imbued with compassion for the afflicted and the fallen, for the dispossessed and the deracinated. His angst and anxiety resulted in his concept of "philosophical suicide".

All this brings me back to Camusís last novel, The First Man (whose manuscript was retrieved from the smashed car), which, as Iíve indicated in the title, amounted to his final posthumous testament that could not be published till 1995 for certain political and sentimental reasons. Translated into English by David Hapgood, it is, in a broad way, an ode to his own childhood and home life. The hero, Jacques Connory, an autobiographical figure, becomes a philosophical picaro, gathering the airs and essences of life in a rich, luxuriant manner. Basically, it remains a Bildungsroman or a novel of passage from childhood to manhood, a story of initiation into the challenges of life.

Three major concerns or motifs are (a) search for the father, (b) the poetry of childhood and school days, (c) the utter mysteriousness of life. Like the great French novelist, Proustís Remembrance of Things Past, this book moves up and down, far and wide, gathering memories of the dead father and of his dear poor "Maman" who had managed to keep a struggling family in bread and raiment. The Homeric motif of the lost father resonates powerfully throughout the novel.

As for the richness and fecundity of this last book, it has a Dickensian flavour. The Algerian countryside and town bazars with their maddening summer sun, Arab sweets and bonbons and buzzing flies, all come alive triumphantly. There is a Proustian play of the imagination on things, persons and places. The style, reminiscent of the latter Henry James, quite unlike his own earlier Spartan prose, becomes, towards the end, a long rolling poem in prose, with periods within periods, winding, unwinding, giving off an aroma of French champagne.

And yet within these sheltered memories, Camus manages to give us enough glimpses of the colonial French Algeria, of the Arab insurgency, and of his own moral unease in the interstices of the story. The curves and convolutions of his divided thought reveal the presence of a highly sensitive poetic and moral imagination. And even in the midst of such churning and strivings of the soul, his evocation of childhood brings him close enough to the Wordsworthian salute to that period when "heavens lay at our feet". Camus remained a nominal Catholic with no real belief in religion, and no overt thoughts of God. However, this long Ďode to childhoodí does reveal the spiritual side of his nature. He confesses, he has "a ravenous appetite for life, an untamed and hungry intellect". The wheel comes half circle when the hero discovers, like so many sensitive French settlers, that in Algeria, "each man is first man" where he has to bring himself up without a father. Each man is therefore, also a "Sysyphus" who has to affront his own destiny.

It seems appropriate, then, to conclude this critique on a sentimental note. Thereís a page before the start of the book which carries the following inscription:

Intercessor: Widow Camus ó

"To you who will never be able to read this book."

I trust, this constitutes his wifeís own little salutation to a man with whom she shared some of the best as also some of the most agonising days of their life. Itís also a requiem of a kind.