Book of the Times Anatole Broyard - Camus

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September 1, 1982
Books of The Times
hough Patrick McCarthy's “Camus” may well be
the definitive biography of him, Camus appears in
it to be anything but a definite character. He was not,
according to Mr. McCarthy, “the universal philosopherBy Patrick McCarthy.
moralist he tried to be.” Most of his plays are “suicidal
cries of defiance where the characters are wooden and
death itself is monotonous.” His newspaper editorials
are “insufferably self-righteous” and filled with “sonorous antitheses,”
“rhetorical excesses” and “abuse of superlatives.” The crucial scene in
“L'Etranger,” the murder of the Arab, is unconvincing and “not a good piece of
fiction.” His early books are sentimental and bombastic.
Though he seemed to have been a charismatic figure, Camus was neither a man
of action nor a hero of the Resistance, which he joined only six months before
the liberation of Paris. Jean-Paul Sartre admired Camus only “because he was
good-looking, because he could dance and because he could seduce.” Indeed, on
the evidence of Mr. McCarthy's “Camus,” seducing was what he did best. While
his wife and children waited for him at home, Camus carried on casual
seductions, as well as maintaining an official affair with his mistress Maria
Casarès. He also boasted of his seductions and kept an “explicit” diary in which
he described and analyzed them.
Camus didn't find himself as a writer until “L'Etranger,” yet the first half of Mr.
McCarthy's book is largely taken up with tortuous and not very interesting
paraphrases and analyses of the early books. Perhaps this is the sort of thankless
job that the biographer cannot avoid.
About the only unequivocally favorable thing we learn about Camus was that he
was deeply attached to his mother, who is described as silent, illiterate and partly
deaf. Some of Mr. McCarthy's comments on Camus's books are, at best,
puzzling: “When life is revealed in all its transparency, nothing is important any
longer. Transparency means the way in which the concrete world dissolves into
“Lucidity,” Mr. McCarthy tells us, “becomes a destructive force which
undermines the artist's imaginative conquest.” Whatever this sentence may mean,
it does seem to have been taken seriously by many French writers.
Of the pivotal scene in “L'Etranger,” Mr. McCarthy has this to say: “Meursault's
death is a sacrament where he is to be sacrificed to the sun. If he is to reach the
coolness and avoid dying, then he has to dispatch the Arab,” who is seen as
defending “the refuge of the river.”
When one reads that “Sartre rejected the validity of inner life and was convinced
that consciousness was empty,” it is hard to know what to do with such a
statement. The same is true of the biographer's observation that Camus's
technical achievement was helping to teach other novelists that “characters
should not be rounded, that language is only occasionally accurate and that the
work of art should contain its own explicit negation.”
Perhaps Sartre summed up best the peculiar nature of Camus's deification when
he asked, “Tell me, Camus, what is the mystery that prevents people from
discussing your books without robbing mankind of its reasons to live? According
to Simone de Beauvoir, who was admittedly biased, there were two persons
named Camus: One who was cynical, funny, coarse and good company, and
another who was an irresolute and simplistic moralist.
The great question about Camus, which remains unanswered here, is how, with
all these flaws, did he capture the imagination of his time to a degree that few
other writers have? The fact that his work was appreciated mostly by the general
public and not much by Sartre, Malraux, Gide and quite a few other French
writers who knew him, may give us part of the answer.
Though he is not a graceful writer, Mr. McCarthy wrestles manfully with French
politics and literary fashions, with the Algerian question, and with the dubious
figure of Camus. If this is damning him with faint praise, it is no more than he
does to his subject.
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