Wednesday, November 7, 2012

RIP: Albert Camus - Nov 7 1913 - January 4, 1960

Albert Camus
If anyone asks who my favorite writer is I almost always say it is Marcel Proust, but, in fact, there is no book I have re-read more often, and, aside from re-readings, dipped into casually more often, than Albert Camus' Lyrical and Critical Essays. In my twenties I rarely bought a brand new hardback ... I necessarily, on my barely-get-by Western Union paychecks, forestalled such extravagances ...  but I did lay out $6.95 for this book. The essays -- most of them written when he was a young man -- are thought-provoking, inspirational, rich in wisdom, and beautifully composed in crystal-clear prose. That almost seven bucks was well-spent.

Tattered but treasured ....
Camus is most famous for his novel The Stranger. It starts off: "Mother died today." That opening sentence, repeated here as it is generally (if controversially) translated into English, is one of the most famous first-sentences in English literature.

Camus was born and grew up in Algeria. His French father was killed in World War I's Battle of the Marne; his mother, of Spanish extraction, was nearly deaf and illiterate. I don't know how long she lived but I hope long enough to see the youngest of her two sons win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

The Nobel selecting committee cited Camus' "important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."

Camus was the first African to win the Nobel for Literature, though this distinction is rather akin to John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, born in Mozambique, and white as white can be, and one of the richest women in the world, referring to herself as an African-American -- I mean no disparagement here -- not towards Heinz Kerry nor towards Camus; they had nothing to do with the geography of their birth nor the color of their skin -- but I am aiming merely to point out that it would seem more fitting if the first literature Nobelist from the dark continent had been a writer with dark skin.

In his essay "The Wind at Djemila" Camus wrote:

          But men die in spite of themselves, in spite of their surroundings. They are told: "When you get well . . . ," and they die. I want none of that. For if there are days when nature lies, there are others when she tells the truth. Djemila is telling the truth tonight, and with what sad, insistent beauty! As for me here in the presence of the world, I have no wish to lie or to be lied to. I want to keep my lucidity to the last, and gaze upon my death with all the fullness of my jealousy and horror. It is to the extent I cut myself off from the world that I fear death most, to the degree I attach myself to the fate of living men instead of contemplating the unchanging sky. Creating conscious deaths is to diminish the distance that separates us from the world and to accept a consummation without joy, alert to rapturous images of a world forever lost. And the melancholy song of the Djemila hills plunges this bitter lesson deeper in my soul.

Camus was killed in an automobile accident. Surely, in that circumstance, there was not the wished-for moment for him to contemplate the great loss of nature's beauty.

Car in Villeblevin in which Camus died.
Albert Camus became, in 1960, the shortest-lived of any Nobel literature laureate. I remember, while stationed in Germany, sitting in the Mess Hall at breakfast on January 5, 1960, reading in a front-page article in The Stars and Stripes that Camus had been killed in an automobile accident the day before. He was just 46. He had planned to take a train from Provence to Paris, but at the last minute accepted an invitation from his publisher to return to Paris with him in his car. His unused train ticket was found in his pocket.

Camus is buried in the small Provencal town of Lourmarin. I was not aware of this when in 2010, in another small Provencal town called Faucon, I visited the grave of Violette Leduc (unconstant soul that I am, I sometimes, when asked, name her as my favorite writer), or I'd surely have inveigled my brother/traveling companion, with his first-class command of the French language, to arrange a train/bus/taxi bus outing to Lourmarin, just as I'd enticed him to arrange a train/bus/taxi trip to Faucon, where, in an article in that town's monthly newspaper which reported my Leduc pilgrimage, he was referred to not by name, nor as the pilgrim's brother, but merely as George Fitzgerald's traducteur.

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