WHILE THE MAGIC KINGDOM does not boast an Existential Land — at least not the sort that would be recognized as such by Albert Camus — the author of The Stranger did, rather absurdly, join forces with Walt Disney in 1954. Shortly after the successful release of The Living Desert, Disney published a book version of his documentary film. Along with photos from the film, there were essays from celebrated writers on both sides of the Atlantic, ranging from Julian Huxley and Louis Bromfield to François Mauriac and André Maurois. Yet it was Camus who set the tone:
Where no man can live, some perhaps can learn about life…Who could tolerate discrimination and hatred, let alone survive in the desert that is in us all, without the impervious obstinacy that refuses to give in and treats death itself as a triumph?
Forget Mickey: Even Pinocchio is a stranger to this realm.
This text, along with many other unexpected treasures, surfaces in the pages of Solitude and Solidarity — a commemoration of the same “impervious obstinacy” that drove Albert Camus the length of his short life. First published in France in 2009 as Solitude et solidarité, the English translation of Catherine Camus’s selection of photographs and texts, prefaced by her short and graceful introduction, appears in advance of the centenary next year of Camus’s birth. (The English text’s one notable difference from the French edition is a blurb from Günther Grass — an odd editorial decision given the German Nobel Prize winner’s long unacknowledged wartime service in the Waffen SS.) This lapse aside, the book is a remarkable effort at recapturing — or, for many readers, simply capturing for the first time — a man whose life and work matter as greatly today as they did in his own era.
In an early essay, “Between Yes and No,” written when he was still a twenty-something pied-noir (or French Algerian), with a university diploma in hand and no job in sight, Camus observed: “When we are stripped down to a certain point, nothing leads anywhere any more, hope and despair are equally groundless, and the whole of life can be summed up in an image.” Or more than one image. He continued, “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
For Camus, much of life could be, if not summed up, at least suggested with the image of the desert. The semi-arid plateaus of the Atlas Mountains and Sahara frame most of the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom. This sun-blasted sea of sand and rocks refuses to surrender an answer to characters and readers in search of meaning. And yet, as is the case with Daru, the hero of Camus’s most haunting story, “The Guest,” Camus was chez soi in these vast expanses of silence. As he watches the sky gradually close over, Daru reflects that though the “solitude and silence had been hard for him in these merciless lands inhabited only by stones,” Daru had grown accustomed to them. This world, he reflects, was “a cruel place to live, even without the men. […] And yet outside this desert […] Daru knew, could [he] have truly lived.”...read more