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What’s so special about Albert Camus?

On the 58th anniversary of Albert Camus’ death author and journalist Montague Kobé remembers one of the greatest novelists and essayists of the 20th century.

Guided by a major concern for the meaning of life, Albert Camus examined with the curiosity (or maybe it was anxiety) that characterises those who are too clever for their own good every literary form available, from philosophical essays to critical ones, from full-length fiction to short stories to original scripts, modern adaptations and translations of contemporary works. But – let’s be candid – what’s so special about Camus in the first place?

There are two different answers to that question. There is Camus-the-person, the young intellectual fighting for the good guys in the most polarising war in living memory (World War Two) the well-intentioned philosopher looking for analytic justifications to a seemingly absurd situation, the handsome brains to a resistance movement in France that, though popular, was desperately ineffective, the Algerian Pied-Noir stuck in the horrors of his country’s struggle.

Born and raised to a nearly destitute family of French and Spanish descent, Camus enrolled at university, played football for his local club, had his ambition of becoming a professional athlete curtailed by a bout of tuberculosis, completed a degree in philosophy, married for the first time, and had his work published in a number of magazines and newspapers, all in Algiers. In other words, Camus was made in and by Algeria.

But he was also a Pied-Noir – a French citizen, quite distinct from the Arab population. When the fighting between the two sides (and the boundaries defining those sides were by no means clear cut) started, he was caught in the middle of a rift that would prove unbridgeable: a lifelong advocate of Algerian identity and a believer in autonomy, he fell short of backing self-determination and above all abhorred the thought of a conflict that, no matter how you tried to mask it, was ultimately nothing other than a civil war. Fifty-eight years after his death Camus is still idolised, largely thanks to a reputation that has been cemented by winning the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 44, one of only a handful to have won it before turning 50.

So much for Camus-the-person, but what about Camus-the-writer? Does his work live up to its reputation? The cornerstone that holds together much of Camus’ literary production is his personal take on existentialism, which he dubs absurdism, and which he sets out in more or less lucid terms in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Like most philosophical treatises, The Myth is dense, difficult and evidently academic. Unlike most philosophical treatises, though, some moments are pure gold. Camus doesn’t wait long to deliver the first of these, right on the opening page, when he claims, rather nonchalantly: ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.’

Over the course of the next 100 or so pages, Camus offers an analysis of whether or not life is worth living – with the caveat that what Camus considers life to be differs quite drastically from what others might think of their own daily routine. For Camus there is a major discrepancy between an individual’s expectations and the reality of any given situation, and in this gap lies the tragic fate of mankind, destined to face constant disillusion or else to realise that there is no hope.

If The Myth of Sisyphus provides the theoretical clues to Camus’ thought, The Stranger (1942) can almost be considered a case study of the absurd man and his place in society. Contrary to expectations (surprise, surprise), the protagonist of The Stranger, Mersault, the man who best exemplifies absurdist values in Camus’ universe, is anything but appealing. Socially awkward, emotionally insensitive, sentimentally detached, Mersault lives an egotistic life, but does it not in isolation but rather in the midst of a world regulated by standard social conventions. Consequently, Mersault is judged and cast aside long before he commits the crime that lands him on death row.

In order to truly become acquainted with Camus’ worldview you must delve into the complex universe of his novels, such as The Plague. It has been argued that the plague in the novel acts as a metaphor for Nazism, invasion and the ailments of the second world war. While the analogy between war and plague is repeatedly pursued in the book, I would suggest Camus’ intention is actually to alter a regular instance of everyday life with the irruption of a truly exceptional occurrence (such as, but not exclusively limited to, Nazism, invasion, war, or, even, the breakout of a pandemic everyone thought extinct).

It is in these extraordinary circumstances when living, breathing, sentient humans – regular humans like any other – are driven to the realisation that we live in an absurd world and are forced to commit what Camus deems ‘philosophical suicide’, abandoning reason and staying suspended perennially in the moment immediately prior to jumping off the cliff.

The Plague is particular for a number of reasons, not least the eminently philosophical foundations that guide its course – hardly an unusual occurrence in French or German literature but certainly a less common one in the English language. Inevitably, then, the novel is situational and character-driven.

As the novel moves through the effects of the pandemic on the population – from denial to defiance, exile and isolation, panic and despair, from abstraction, to conceptualisation and even indifference – Camus explores the inner landscape of his characters with almost obsessive detail. This, added to the recurrent interventions of a narrator whose style has grown – perhaps inevitably – outdated and distancing, at times turns The Plague into a tough read. But whatever stumbling blocks are thrown on the way by the philosophical inclinations of the work, Camus’ stylish, effortless, beautiful writing style invigorates the reading experience far more often than not.

Right at the heart of The Plague lies the core of Camus’ absurdism: faced with a breakout that is well beyond anyone’s means to control, the population of Oran has to make an impossible choice: either they accept there’s nothing to do and do nothing at all, or they keep putting up a futile resistance. The reasonable thing to do, according to Camus, is to accept the situation and roll with it. But the people of Oran rally behind their lost cause, not inspired by any sense of heroism or hope, but simply by their ‘certitude that a fight must be put up’. In a world devoid of future, joy or illusions – indeed, in a world even devoid of love – people act because they must.

And yet we keep reading The Plague and The Stranger, not because we must but because of Camus’ beautiful descriptions of the town of Oran, because of his insightful exploration of human nature, because of his ability to put together accurate, poignant and breathtaking sentences. The world in the 21st century might not be what it was in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, but moral inquiries and philosophical postulates to one side, it certainly is all the better for Camus’ literary exploits.

Montague Kobé’s debut novel, The Night of the Rambler, deals with revolution and human dignity, and it earned a mention in the 2014 Premio Casa de las Américas for best English or Creole-language Caribbean book. His second novel, On the Way Back is set in the Caribbean island of Anguilla, and tackles issues of racial and social prejudice with a dose of humour. He is also the author of the bilingual collection of flash fiction Tales of Bed Sheets and Departure Lounges. A longer version of this article featured in Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper, and can be accessed on Montague’s blog, Memo from La-La Land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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