10 Apr 2012

Admirable Albert Camus

I have long been a considerable admirer of the French journalist, writer and philosopher Albert Camus (Nobel Prize for litterature in 1957), although I am ashamed to say it has been a long time since I read or re-read any of his work. It started for me at school in the early 1960's when I read, as part of the imposed syllabus for French A-levels, his short masterpiece of a novel, L'Etranger.

This book literally took my breath away (I admit to having been an impressionable adolescent when I read it), not only by its very direct, almost brutally abrupt and limpid style, but also by the implacable tragedy of its story and the ambiguity that this revealed, as a sort of cameo portrait of some of the attitudes that comprised French colonial presence in Algeria, where Camus was born and lived until the Second World War. Camus also manages, rather like Don Delillo in contemporary American litterature, to create, alongside stark reality, a dream-like atmosphere in this book. 

Albert Camus was, in some ways, a larger-than-life character. In any case someone who clearly lived life to the full, although his attitudes, especially in politics, were always realistic, down-to-earth, unpretentious and yet without in any sense betraying a true, inner ethic. He was in a way an antithesis to cynics like Sartre who sacrificed ethics on the alter of dogmatism, supporting the Stalinist régime despite all the evidence to show that it was a totalitarian abomination. And of course the two fell out over this, and Sartre and the rest of the communist-inspired intellectuals that seemingly ruled quite a bit of media and publishing in France at that time never ceased to pile abuse on Camus afterwards. 

Camus premature death in 1960 was in a car like the one above, a Facel Vega. But he was not at the wheel and the car belonged to his publisher, Gallimard. A recent theory has upheld that the car was sabotaged by the KGB, in retaliation for Camus' firm denounciation of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and ensuing exactions perpetrated by the Russians. Whilst there is no secret about Camus' steadfast opposition to all forms of tyranny, this seems a little far-fetched. The road was icy and probably not in great condition, and the accident happened at night. Added to which, the Facel Vega, which was the French motor industry's only effort at a sports car, was big and heavy, rear-wheel driven and powered by an American V8. The car went of the road at some speed and wrapped itself around a tree (see below). Camus died instantly and Gallimard shortly after.

I suppose this form of untimely death has added to the man's "romantic" legend. I don't personally buy into this sort of thing as I don't find road accidents particularly romantic. Anyway, the whole point of this article is not about this aspect of things, but about the thoughts, attitudes  and writing of Camus.

Very recently, a French journalist working for Le Monde newspaper discovered, in archives stored in Aix-en-Provence, an article written by Albert Camus in 1939 and due to be published, on November 25th of that year, in a two page broadsheet that he edited at the time in Algiers, called "Le Soir Républicain". In fact the article was censored and so never appeared. One should perhaps remember the context. France and England had declared war on Nazi Germany after Hitler's invasion of Poland. France was thus at war, but the German invasion of Belgium and France had not yet taken place (this would be in April 1940). Yet this article was censored!

Here are a few extracts from Camus' article whose applications, obviously, are almost (and sadly) universal and timeless.

"It is hard to evoke freedon of the press these days without being treated as excessive, alikened to Mata-Hari or said to be Stalin's nephew. Yet this form of liberty is just one of the many faces of liberty itself. Our obstination in defending it is therefore fully comprehensible if one is capable of understanding that this is the only way to win this war.
Naturally, all forms of liberty have their limits. But they should be freely accepted and recognised. As to the obstacles that currently stand in the way of freedom of thought, we have already said all that we have to say. But we will keep on saying it as long as we are able to...."

"One of the good precepts of any worthwhile philosophy is never to indulge in useless regrets about an inevitable situation. The question in today's France is no longer to figure out how one can preserve freedom of the press. It is rather to find a way for a journalist, confronted with the evident loss of this freedom, to retain his liberty of thought. The problem is no longer collective but individual."

Camus goes on to explore the means that can and should be used by a journalist in a situation where he is restricted and under surveillance, as during wartime. He names four: lucidity, refusal, irony and obstination.   

He concludes his article with his own ironical touch; "Truth and freedom are all the more demanding mistresses as they have few lovers".

I think I will be reading some more of this man's writings soon. Read on...