01.02.10 6:12 PM ET
Still Cool Camus
On the 50th anniversary of his death, Camus is the most widely read of all the postwar French writers and hip enough to inspire a comic-book series. Allen Barra on the writer’s surprising afterlife.
“Literature,” wrote Ezra Pound, “is news that stays news.” If so, then Albert Camus’ literature has remained news in the 50 years since his death and so has he.
It is somehow fitting that the 50th anniversary of Camus’s death on January 4, 1960, comes in the wake of a controversy as to whether his ashes should be moved. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants them relocated from their current resting place in the Luberon region in southern France to the Pantheon in Paris, alongside the remains of such luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Zola. As the New Year begins, there’s no telling if Sarkozy will be successful. Camus’ daughter Catherine is undecided. Her twin bother Jean has accused Sarkozy of trying to “requisition” his father’s legacy, and Camus’ best biographer, Oliver Todd, has slammed the government for trying to “hijack [Camus’] intellectual milieu.” More than likely, Camus will remain in death what he was life, the consummate outsider of French literature.
“No modern writer I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love.”
In fact, the fight over Camus’ legacy has been going on for decades, and not just in France. Today he is claimed like no other 20th-century writer—Orwell not excepted—by both sides of the political spectrum. In his 2004 book, Camus and Sartre, Ronald Aronson positions Camus as neocon avatar, and in The Guardian in 2005 Marian Warner flagged Camus’ novel The Plague, a tale of a North African city attacked by a deadly pestilence, as a beacon for liberals in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. (“A study in terrorism,” Warner called the novel, “and a fable of redemption.”) In the summer of 2006, the press snickered when George W. Bush told reporters he was reading The Stranger on his summer vacation; perhaps he was taking his lead from Bobby Kennedy, who papered his office wall with quotes from Camus.
It was dying like James Dean—not just in a car crash but in a Facel Vega no less—that gave Camus a niche in popular culture. No other public intellectual could have inspired a single like The Cure’s “Killing an Arab” (1979—based on the incident around which The Stranger turns), a cameo appearance on the children’s show Madeline (in which a cartoon version of The Stranger’s protagonist, Meursault, is shown from his prison cell asking “Who am I? What am I? Why am I here?”), or Sacha Baron Cohen’s race-car driver in Talladega Nights, who whizzes around the track with L’Etranger propped open on his steering wheel.
No doubt Camus would have derived at least a moderate pleasure from his celebrity status. In his favorite photograph of himself, taken by Cartier Bresson, he’s wearing a trench coat (supposedly a gift from Arthur Koestler’s wife) and smoking a cigarette, and he loved it when his friends told him that he looked like Bogart in the picture. One wonders if French critics’ love affair avec Bogie didn’t begin with that photo. After all, as Susan Sontag wrote in her famous 1963 essay, “No modern writer I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love.”
But, as Sontag asked rhetorically, “Was Camus a thinker of importance?” Her answer was an emphatic no: “Sartre, however distasteful certain of his political sympathies are to his English-speaking audience, brings a powerful and original mind to philosophical, psychological, and literary analysis. Camus, however attractive his political sympathies, does not.” In his 2007 book, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James, in effect, replied to Sontag: “the widespread notion that Camus’ mind was not really very complex is the penalty he paid for being blessed with good looks, a Nobel Prize, too many women, and too much fame.”
As Sontag herself was to understand, the attractiveness of political sympathies changes, and with them a writer’s reputation. Less than two decades after her essay on Camus, it was Sontag who was saying things like “communism is fascism, with a human face”—essentially what Camus had been saying since his break with the French Left after the publication of L’Homme revolte ( The Rebel) in 1951. In the words of Olivier Todd, “Camus was correct too early.”
Some old veterans of those postwar Parisian sidewalk-cafe debates still argue over which writer was on the right side of history. It is Camus, though, not Sartre, who continues to be read by a large audience and who remains an influence on modern philosophical and political thought. He has even survived French New Wave lit; to many new readers The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel seem fresh and relevant while the oeuvres of Barthes and Foucault have faded into the realm of the oft-referred to but largely unread.
The downside of a writer “arousing love” is literary groupies. In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins (1954), Camus is caricatured with a nastiness that writers generally reserve for jealous lovers. In 1965, the late poet Hayden Carruth published After the Stranger, a series of dialogues in which he imagines what Camus would have said to him had they ever met. Elizabeth Hawes’ Camus: A Romance, published this past summer, adds a new dimension to homage de Camus: the biographer as literary stalker. Hawes, a former staff member of The New Yorker, attempts to create a portrait of Camus from her personal reactions to his letters and notebooks as well as interviews with his friends and relatives. The actual biographical material is skimpy, almost nothing that wasn’t in Todd’s book or in Herbert Lottman’s massive Albert Camus, A Biography. Hawes’ only real contribution to Camus studies is herself. Writing with the clarity of a fanatic, she feels “both grounded and empowered by the simple fact that I understood exactly what he meant…” And, “To my way of thinking, Camus would not have existed without me or I without him.” (One of her editors should have corrected her on this point.)
When she writes, “I began to feel that I knew him” and “This feeling was the beginning of understanding a new kind of love,” I didn’t know which way to look. “It strikes me often,” she concludes, “how bizarre it is to spend so much time thinking about someone you can never know.” I know exactly how she feels.
Sillier books have been written about Camus, but they should not be allowed to overshadow some very good ones that have received little attention. David Carroll’s Albert Camus The Algerian (2007) is the best study to date of Camus’ refusal to take sides in the Algerian revolt and how that conflict presages terrorism in our own time, while John Foley’s Albert Camus: From the Absurd to Revolt (published in 2008) is the best step-by-step analysis of how Camus moved from nihilism to commitment.
Perhaps the best testament to the élan of Camus’s work is that it accommodates parody without losing vitality. One can easily imagine the author of The Stranger guffawing, for instance, at R. Sikoryak’s just-published Masterpiece Comics in which Camus’ books are melded to Superman Action comics from the 1950s. My favorite of four “Action Camus” covers recalls his most famous opening line: “In this issue The Stranger discovered ‘Mother Died Today,’” to which the caped crusader, staring at her headstone with cigarette in hand, asks rhetorically “Or was it yesterday?” Now that’s absurd. One can’t help but believe that Camus would have laughed out loud at both Sarkozy and Sikoryak.
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.