Camus was the first serious writer I engaged with seriously. Political writing is frequently disastrous; but Camus was never disastrous. Quite the opposite. He was spare, calm, controlled, lucid, stylish. He was, and so was his writing. Camus was also deeply principled; he was consistent in his principles. Like Sartre, he was, for a time, a committed Socialist; but unlike Sartre he sloughed off Socialism — and any ideological fealty to the U.S.S.R. — when he saw that it contradicted higher principles. Political expediency was not in his blood. He saw through the lie. He knew that a human being is a human being is a human being; and that human beings are more important than ideas.
When I was twelve my mother gave me a copy of The Stranger as a birthday gift; I quickly read it twice. Since then, I have read it many times in English and at least once in French, and, when I was a high school teacher, I taught it to my students. The Stranger was an initiation: I fell for Camus. From the library I took out a volume of essays and read, with heavy admiration, "Reflections on the Guillotine." Seeing my adoration of this writer, and knowing that I wanted to be, like Camus, a writer, my mother gave me a paperback edition of his Youthful Writings. Camus helped to shape my young mind.
Elizabeth Hawes had a head start on me by some three decades. Her engrossing new book — part monograph, part biography, part memoir — has returned me, almost in an instant, to the fervor of admiration and awe I felt for Camus and his books. His presence rushes forth from the pages of Camus, A Romance. Hawes catalogs his appealing fillips of insight: "What I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport"; "In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer." She identifies the essence — aside from the writing itself — of his appeal: "[O]ne of the qualities that made Camus Camus was his deep-seated pudeur, a protective reserve and modesty." He was moody and sexy; he wore trench coats and smoked cigarettes. And Hawes knows what makes Camus a more enduringly compelling figure than Sartre, for all the chic and élan of the latter: it was his "insistent morality," as opposed to Sartre's mere "existentialism." Camus lived in the world: he insisted upon the world. Even as a young man he had a clear vision; there is a reason he was, as Hawes notes admiringly, the second-youngest recipient in the history of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
For proof of Camus's importance, one may look to The Stranger and The Plague and The Rebel; but in addition to those, I find myself almost equally impressed by the urgency of his writings for the Résistance newspaper, Combat. His editorial writings for the paper are collected in Camus at "Combat" and they make apparent that he not only perceived the truth of what was happening during and immediately after World War II, but that he could see the lines along which postwar history would travel. He was more than perceptive: he was prescient.
I suspect that my early attraction to Camus's writing began not only with the moody allure of The Stranger but with an intuition about his strength of character. Few writers have shaped their bodies of work around such a controlled, refined essence of self; and in those who have, such as V. S. Naipaul, the acuity of vision is often paired with a long bleak character flaw. (In Naipaul's case it is his frequently unsparing treatment of others as well as his troubling behavior toward women; as much is detailed in the remarkable new biography by Patrick French, The World Is What It Is.)
Only two other writers have shaped my view of the world as deeply as Camus has: James Baldwin and William S. Burroughs. I began reading Burroughs around the same time I began reading Camus, and in him as well I recognized an effort to peel away artifice and to expose hypocrisy. (Talk about a flawed man. Burroughs was a heroin addict until the day he died, and he killed his wife in an utterly preventable accidental shooting.) Baldwin is the intellectual hero of mine who comes closest to Camus in moral standing; he lived raggedly, but honestly, and he, like Camus, recognized that the basic unit of moral currency is the human being, and that to spend them cavalierly in the service of creeds, nations, or ideologies is an unforgivably profligate way to do business.
For obvious reasons, it is humbling and gratifying that more than one person has described the influence of The Stranger in my own novel, City of Strangers. But it is also a surprise. The echo in the title of my book may seem like a tip-off; but it was not the title I intended to use while I was writing. Camus did not enter my mind except at the very beginning, when, for a time, I planned to use an extract from one of his columns for Combat as the epigraph. In a different sense, though, Camus has always been there in my writing; he was the writer who meant the most to me when I first tried myself to write. It is good to know that, even as other influences have informed my writing, his presence remains when I knock together a sentence: an ancestral element in the prose.
Today is le quatorze juillet: Bastille Day. Like the Fourth of July, it marks the date of a revolution now centuries past. Camus would probably smirk. More so than anyone, he would have recognized that it is both ironic and absurd to celebrate the two hundred twentieth anniversary of a revolution.
÷ ÷ ÷
Books mentioned in this post
Ian MacKenzie is the author of City of Strangers