Albert Camus, Patron Saint of the Sticks
By Aaron PeckSeptember 10, 2020
The Nobel Prize–winning author had been working on a novel entitled The First Man when he died, a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood in Algeria. Its 144 pages were found in a briefcase in the Facel Vega sportscar after it had crashed into a tree on January 4, 1960, near Villeblevin, in north-central France, killing him and, eventually, Gallimard. The novel, finally published in 1994, is the transcription of that draft. It’s full of annotations and crossed-out words and descriptions of a punishing sun.
We will never know if it would have become the masterpiece the author envisioned. Camus’s work in the 1950s had not received the same praise as his earlier novels, The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947). Among French critics, as Tony Judt has noted, his Nobel Prize in 1957 was met with scorn: “a finished oeuvre,” “a premature sclerosis” were among the phrases applied to his later writings after the announcement of the award. Begun in 1952, The First Man was Camus’s attempt to prove wrong the critics who had claimed that his career was in decline. In its unfinished state, it remains a minor work, but one that struck me deeply as a teen.
When a teenage version of me found David Hapgood’s English-language translation of The First Man, it was as a remaindered first edition in the discount section of a chain bookstore in Kelowna, British Columbia, where I worked in the late 1990s. I was immediately struck by the book’s endpapers: reproductions of Camus’s handwriting from the manuscript, printed in purple. Whole lines were scratched out, and paragraphs worth of illegible text were crammed into the margins. I puzzled at their indecipherability. Camus’s handwriting was as captivatingly inscrutable as the handsome glance he threw at the camera in that photograph. Both were, to me, evidence of a way out.
I devoured the novel in Hapgood’s translation (over 20 years later, I would finally learn French and read it in the original). The way Camus described physical sensations, even those as simple as eating watermelon, not only quickened my appreciation for everyday life but also seemed to offer literature as a bridge from my world to a larger one. His prose had a way of making things around me come alive:
The sky, emptied of the sweltering heat of the afternoon, became more and more pure, and then deepened. The light diminished and, from the other side of the gulf, the outline of the houses and the city, until then shrouded in a sort of mist, became more distinct. It was still daylight, but the lamps were already lit in preparation for the brief African twilight. (translation mine)
I could look out at dusk toward my own parched summertime sky, imagining what it must be like along the southern edges of the Mediterranean Sea.
Early in the book, Camus describes his protagonist’s birth in a village in the Algerian countryside. At one point, he uses the word bled, which in French generally means remote or small village, and that’s the sense Camus intends. In this case, I might translate it as “the sticks.” The word originally came into French by way of Arabic-speaking Maghrebis. In contemporary French, though, it has had an interesting reversal: among French citizens of North African origin, le bled is now an affectionate term, meaning something akin to “homeland.” To my knowledge, Camus never used the word in this sense, even though he was a pied-noir — that is, an ethnically French Algerian.
I, too, was born in the sticks, grew up in the sticks, albeit in a very different country. That punishing sun that he described felt familiar, because I was raised in the only part of Canada with hot, desert-like summers. For that reason, I appreciated Camus more than many other modern writers.
The Okanagan is known for its picturesque landscape, an arid valley of sage mesas and pine forests, along which winds an 80-mile-long serpentine lake, famed for housing a Loch Ness–like monster called the Ogopogo. Three main towns punctuate the region’s northern, central, and southern zones: Vernon, Kelowna, and Penticton. A mixture of orchards, wineries, lumber mills, and (since the 1990s) strip malls, the local culture then felt dominated by Alberta oil money, evangelical megachurches, and organized crime. In his 2003 essay collection Local Matters, Canadian cultural critic Brian Fawcett says that the “10 kilometre stretch of highway north of Kelowna, B.C. is the most spectacularly depressing one I can think of.”
Lacking the necessary vocabulary at the time, my identification with Camus’s descriptions of North Africa was image-based: his words pictured the Algerian landscape and somehow reminded me of my own Okanagan Valley, my own bled.
Images often give us false impressions. We project onto them what we are already seeking. In truth, the world in which I was raised shared very little with that of Camus’s childhood. I wonder if, were Camus alive today, he would still call Algeria le bled, in an act of linguistic solidarity with other Maghrebis. Camus was forced to leave Algeria for Paris in 1940 because of his anti-colonial writings published in the Alger Républicain and Le Soir Republicain newspapers; 15 years later, he opposed the Algerian independence movement.
Other French intellectuals reviled Camus for not denouncing the French offensives in the Algerian war. While he supported the Algerian struggle in theory and condemned the oppression of colonialism in practice, he also protested against the extremism of the Arab nationalists, especially their massacres of French Algerians, which would eventually lead to the expulsion of the pieds-noirs two years after his death.
In his 1958 book Algerian Chronicles, Camus attempts to occupy a political position between the extremes. He opposed the colonial racism of the many pieds-noirs as much as he opposed the terrorism of the Arab nationalists. Instead, he imagined an ethnically and linguistically mixed state. Replying to an Algerian Arab nationalist named Aziz Kessous, Camus says: “You have already said it well, better than I could have: we are condemned to live together.” To those who demanded that he choose a side, he responds, “Ah! I have chosen it. I have chosen my country, I have chosen a just Algeria, where French and Arabs associate together freely!” And yet, two years after Camus’s death, Algeria, having won the war for independence, expelled most of the pieds-noirs.
There are reasons why many critics have found his treatment of the Arab world disquieting. “Camus’s plain style and unadorned reporting of social situations conceal rivetingly complex contradictions,” Edward Said writes, “contradictions unresolvable by rendering, as critics have done, his feelings of loyalty to French Algeria as a parable of the human condition.” Few Arab characters figure into The First Man. The experience of North Africa that he translates into literature concerns mostly only French Algerians. In his 2013 novel The Meursault Investigation, Algerian writer Kamel Daoud imagines another of Camus’s novels, The Stranger, from the perspective of the brother of its famously unnamed murdered Arab, highlighting how little thought is given to the Arab characters throughout the novel. A similar but less dramatic rewriting could be imagined for The First Man. For Camus, North Africa was le bled only in the original sense, as the sticks, a remote place from which he had fled. “Camus’s novels and stories thus very precisely distill,” according to Said, “the traditions, idioms, and discursive strategies of France’s appropriation of Algeria.”
And yet Camus attempted to straddle far more complex contradictions than some of his ideologically driven peers. He did so because, for him, Algeria was not just an idea, it was a world, his world, or at least a memory. Yet his vision of it was disappearing.
By the time of his death, Camus had lived in France for 20 years, rarely traveling internationally after the late 1940s. He occupied the world of cloistered Parisian intellectuals, even if he retained a residence in the South of France. The social world of the western half of Central Paris, in which he circulated, was as far from his working-class North African childhood as one could imagine. This contradiction in his character and thought remained essential but misunderstood. “It was not that he felt out of place in the role of the intellectual,” says Tony Judt, “rather that there were two conflicting personalities in play, only one of which was understood and appreciated by his colleagues.”
It was from the temporal and geographic distance of midcentury Paris that Camus began writing The First Man, looking back on his upbringing in Algeria while the country was convulsed in war. It was like that “each time he left Paris for Africa,” Camus writes,
a deaf happiness, the heart widening, the satisfaction that comes after making a successful escape and laughing at the thought of the guards. In the same way, each time that he came back by road or train, his heart narrowed at the sight of the first houses on the outskirts, with no borders of water or tree, such ugliness and misery, like a terrible cancer, spreading from the lymph nodes, little by little, overrunning the foreign body, leading him to the heart of the city, where the lovely setting sometimes made him forget the forest of cement and iron that used to imprison him day and night in his troubled sleep. (translation mine)
As the passage continues, the narrator goes on to describe, in poetic detail, the sensual aspects of the Algerian landscape, which provide a spiritual respite.
Those desert fatigues Camus wears in that photograph are, no doubt, less an act of solidarity than a response to the brutal summer. Summers in the Okanagan could also be brutally hot; the scent of pine resin suffused the air. The early ’80s Buick I drove along its central highway had no air conditioning. I remember once watching two drivers, in a traffic jam, having an argument: one approached the other’s car, forced open the door, dragged the driver to the pavement, and proceeded to kick him viciously. No one intervened.
As I got older, I realized that my identification with Camus was a projection. We were both from le bled, to be sure, but very different ones, with very different experiences. Yet, even if our political and economic realities were quite disparate, he nonetheless became a kind of idol for me, in both childhood and adulthood. I had, as we say, a picture of him.
Even the way Camus died gave his life an aura, almost of sacredness. Where I grew up, everything was driving distance, including the mailbox. I could imagine no more tragic yet prosaic way for life to end than behind the wheel of a car. He died by means of the primary source of freedom and of violence in small-town North America. As a result, Camus became for me a patron saint of the sticks, a beacon for those of us striving to get out.
Road rage, drunk driving, high-speed accidents were things I witnessed regularly while I was growing up. These experiences made the image of Michel Gallimard’s wrecked Facel Vega even more moving and relatable. Camus’s death made sense to me; it resonated with my experience. But the fact that the wrecked car also held an unfinished masterpiece — “sometimes without periods or commas,” in the words of Catherine Camus, “a rapidly written script, difficult to decipher, never reworked” — made the photograph even more romantic.
When we look at pictures of others, we may sense things in them that aren’t visibly present, such as the person’s mood or the encompassing cultural scene. That photograph of Michel Gallimard’s sports car smashed into a tree, seemingly split in two, feels like an archetypal image of the car crash itself, the extravagant violence of the wreckage emblematic of the spectacular death of a literary playboy.
In a passage near the end of The First Man, Camus describes the way that he, as a boy, could distinguish “with his eyes closed” the scent of books released by different publishers: “Each book […] had a specific smell, according to the paper on which it was printed, so singular, and secret.” My edition of The First Man conjures up no smell to my memory, but thinking back on that old copy, still tucked away in my library back home, I do recall a fanciful, impossible, daydream image: pages of the manuscript, those photographic reproductions on the endpapers, splattered with blood.
Aaron Peck is a contributing editor at frieze magazine. His work has recently appeared in The Walrus, The New York Review of Books Daily, and The White Review. A Canadian by birth, he currently lives in Paris, France.
Featured image: "Albert Camus2" by Robert Edwards is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Color has been slightly altered.
Banner image: "20041113-002 Lourmarin Tombstone Albert Camus" is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Image has been cropped and darkened.
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