LARB’s history editor, Robert Zaretsky, has published a new book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, published by Harvard University Press in honor of the centenary of Camus’s birth, today. Zaretsky also penned the following in honor of the French novelist, essayist, and philosopher.
IN THE BEGINNING, there was silence. After an overnight train trip in a third class train carriage, the husband and his pregnant wife riding in a carriage to their home in a rural Algeria. The jarring trip on the potted and rain-soaked roads hastened the pregnancy; when the travelers reached their farm, the woman was weeping silently from pain. The local doctor arrived, a makeshift bed was placed in front of the fireplace, and a boy was born. As the rain tailed off, the infant and his parents fall asleep in the silence of their new home.
That boy, the French Algerian writer and moralist Albert Camus, was born 100 years ago today. In his last and unfinished novel, The First Man, Camus recreates not just this scene, but one where he visits the grave of the father he never knew, killed in the Battle of the Marne when Camus was an infant. As Camus’s fictional alter ego, Jacques Cormery, stares at the tombstone, all around him, “in the vast field of the dead, silence reigned.” Only when Cormery hears a noise made by another visitor does he see, as if for the first time, the dates under his father’s name: “1885–1914.” His silence deepens with the realization that the “man buried under that slab, who had been his father, was younger than he.”
To gaze at Camus’ own modest gravestone in the southern French village of Lourmarin, the inscription “1913–1960” delivers a similar shock. When he left us, Camus was younger than many of us are now; what his father left his son, his son has left us: a profound silence that surges through his remarkable writings and life.
This silence is neither poetic nor mere rhetoric: it was a brute fact of Camus’s life. Not just the absent father, but also the present, yet mute mother. An illiterate cleaning woman, Catherine Camus spoke with difficulty — a handicap perhaps due to the shock of her husband’s death. The young Camus would sometimes find his mother “huddled in a chair, gazing in front of her” in the small apartment they shared with his illiterate grandmother and partly mute uncle in a working class neighborhood of Algiers. Her muteness, he recalled, seemed “irredeemably desolate.”
The silent mother haunts Camus’s writings: it is the dark matter toward which everything else is pulled. In The Stranger, it is the death of Meursault’s mother that begins the unmaking of his life; it is the mostly wordless presence of Dr. Rieux’s mother in The Plague that prevents the unmaking of a world swept by disease. Shortly before his death, Camus described his literary goal: to write a book about “the admirable silence of a mother and one man’s effort to rediscover a justice or a love to match this silence.”
What did Camus mean? That the depths of maternal silence can never be fully plumbed by a son? Camus always struggled with the fact that his life’s work was for a woman who could neither read nor talk. What he wanted most in the world was for his mother “to read everything that was his life and his being, that was impossible. His love […] would forever be speechless.”
This was no less the case with his other love, Algeria. By the late 1950s, the blood-dimmed tide of revolution and repression had spread across Camus’s native country. Ever since the 1930s, when as a young journalist he wrote fiery articles denouncing France’s treatment of the Arab population, Camus had always fought for a French Algeria where the ideals of 1789 would be applied to everyone, Arab and French alike. The two peoples, he insisted, were condemned to live together.
Yet it soon became clear that two peoples were instead condemned to kill one another. As acts of terrorism and counter-terrorism ravaged his country, Camus flew to Algiers to call for a civilian truce. As he spoke inside a large hall, a vast crowd of fellow French Algerians surged towards the building, shouting for his death. Camus insisted on finishing the speech, but then had to be rushed out of the building by friends serving as bodyguards.
When he returned to France, he decided he would no longer speak or write about the conflict. To what end? Given the tragic character of the conflict, silence was all he had left. He did act privately, though, intervening dozens of times with the French authorities, pleading that they commute death sentences dealt to Arab prisoners. His appeals were mostly ignored, but the integrity of his efforts will never fade.
During his visit to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony, however, circumstances did force him to speak. At a public forum, an Arab student began to assail him for his silence. Increasingly distraught and angry, Camus finally managed to stop the tirade, declaring: “I have always condemned terror. But I must also condemn terrorism that strikes blindly in the streets of Algiers, and which might strike my mother and family. People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”
The press mangled the last line — “I believe in justice, but I’ll defend my mother before justice,” Le Monde misreported — but both versions underscored Camus’s dilemma. Words had proved at best useless, at worst complicit in the widening gyre of violence. As with his mother, who made him silently feel an “immense pity spread out around him,” so too did Camus feel for the Algerian student. “I feel closer to him,” he confessed, “than to many French people who speak about Algeria without knowing it. He knew what he was talking about, and his face reflected not hatred but despair and unhappiness. I share that unhappiness.”
In his Nobel speech, Camus had said that silence, at certain moments, “takes on a terrifying sense.” Algeria was, for Camus, one of those moments. Words were worse than useless: incapable of stemming the catastrophe, they instead obscured its dimensions and meaning. Silence followed from his recognition that the humiliated were on both sides in this conflict: the great majority of French Algerians — the working poor like his own family — as well as Arabs. The truths at play in Algeria were, for Camus, incompatible.
On the centenary of Camus’s birth, we are left with this truth, left with this silence, left to us by an artist who died too soon.