CAMUS, A ROMANCE
Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 304 pp. $25
July 26, 2009
Chapter OneYOUNG IN ALGERIA
The book that catapulted me into Camus's early years was an autobiographical work undertaken at the very end of his life, which makes its eloquence doubly affecting. In intense and streaming prose, The First Man begins the story of a child born in poverty, who caught the attention of a primary school teacher who introduced him to books, proposed a scholarship to the local lycée, and watched him flourish. The setting is the working-class neighborhood of Belcourt in Algiers, where Camus lived with his older brother Lucien and a bachelor uncle Etienne in a household dominated by women, a tyrannical grandmother who ruled the roost, a submissive and sweet-natured mother who was illiterate, partially deaf and nearly mute. His father, a caviste, who managed the wine harvest for several local domaines, had served in the local Zouave regiment fighting for France in World War I, and died in the Battle of the Marne when Camus was an infant. Mainly conscripts from the French settlers of Algeria, the Zouaves, dressed in colorful red-and-blue Arab garb like virtual battleflags, were the shock troops and died in great numbers. The shell fragment from his father's head sent home by the French government was kept in an old biscuit tin in the kitchen, his Croix de Guerre in a gilt frame in the dining room of the three-room apartment. Albert and Lucien shared a bed in a room with their mother. There was no bathroom or electricity or running water. The toilet was in the hall. The kitchen had no oven, so every few days Albert or his brother delivered a platter to a nearby butcher to be cooked. These are details recounted in The First Man without any particular drama or intimation of deprivation, for in Belcourt, there was nothing unusual about these conditions. From the house, a small balcony opened on the larger world of the busy Rue de Lyon below, with its shops, cafés and crowded markets. The street filled with the sounds of many languages -French, Arabic, Italian, Spanish - of tambourines and castenets, braying donkeys, the clacking of the tramway. It smelled of saffron, garlic, anise, fish and overripe fruit, honeysuckle and jasmine. The sun was hot. The sea was at the edge of the neighborhood.
Under the wing of Louis Germain, his elementary school teacher and first surrogate father, Camus was a model student, serious, reserved, but responsive - "d'une sagesse exemplaire, Germain would say. He liked schoolwork and school life and rose quickly to the top of the class, which helped Germain to convince his mother that he should move on to the lycée rather than go to work for the local tonnelier, or cooper, where his uncle made barrels. Outside the schoolyard, Camus led a life like that of any other young boy in the quartier, except for the way it registered on him, how he internalized its every detail. He loved sports as well as books. With a gang of friends, he played games in the street with apricot pits or stones or a club of wood; climbed trees in the park; shared minted caramels, the dried lupine seeds called "tramousses" and an occasional cornet of fried potatoes; swam (and bathed) in the harbor, shouting, diving, reigning over life and the sea "like nobles certain that their riches were limitless." Even boredom was "a game, a delight, a kind of excitement," he writes in The First Man. Camus recalled the most humdrum facts of his early existence with equanimity and a warm heart: the single pair of pants pressed nightly, the nails fixed on his shoes to prevent him from playing soccer and preserve the soles, the obligatory siestas with his grandmother, her odor of elderly flesh. (As an adult, he admitted that he hated those naps, and that thereafter he could never bring himself to sleep in the afternoon until he was gravely ill.) He was sustained by these memories in later years, when he was disenchanted with Paris and felt like an alien in a forest of concrete and steel. His nostalgia was expressed in his most lyric prose. Each time he returned to Algeria, Camus says, he felt blessed relief and release. "He could breathe, on the giant back of the sea he was breathing in waves, rocked by the great sun, at last he could sleep and he could come back to the childhood from which he never recovered, to the secret of the light, of the warm poverty which enabled him to survive and overcome everything."
It was at the lycée, which was located in bustling, cosmopolitan central Algiers, and drew a more diverse body of students from more affluent sections of the city, that Camus first became self-conscious about his background, felt "singular" rather than unconsciously universal. Before that, he thought that all the world was like him, he said. At the lycée, he learned to make comparisons. He was a scholarship student known as "a pupil of the nation," a category open not only to the sons of deceased soldiers, but also to those of military and civil functionaries and officials of the French colony, who had better clothes and bigger houses up in the hills. On his lycée application, Camus had to describe his mother as a "domestique" or cleaning woman, which suddenly filled him with shame, and then "the shame of feeling shame." The challenges to his mother's stature, like his grandmother's overriding authority or his own growing awareness of her helpless ignorance, only provoked in him a greater respect for her gentle endurance and an ever fiercer compensatory love. He would remember with anger and sadness her one brief attempt at a romance, which had given her a new gaiety and glamour, but was rudely quashed by her mother and her brother Étienne. All his life, he would be consumed with protecting and honoring the silent figure whose illiteracy and deafness isolated her from the world outside, who couldn't read newspapers or hear the radio, had no idea what history and geography might be, no expectations or discernable desires, "did not dare to desire."
Camus's own life could be understood as a response to his mother's, his ambitions, a reaction to her docility, his tireless activism engendered by her passivity, for it was in almost every way its antithesis. Camus knew this. He dedicated The First Man, the first of the books he intended to write about love, to the Widow Camus, "to you who will never be able to read this book." In a note to himself about this work, he wrote, "I want to write the story of a pair joined by the same blood and every kind of difference. She similar to the best this world has, and he quietly abominable. He thrown into all the follies of our time; she passing through the same history as if it were that of any time. She silent most of the time, with only a few words at her disposal to express herself; he constantly talking and unable to find in thousands of words what she could say with a single one of her silences. Mother and son."
The stories of Camus's first decade of life are very moving, because they are suffused with a sense of innocence and primary love. Few writers have written about Third World poverty with the clarity and eloquence and total recall that he brought to the subject, and although he describes this world as bleak, "naked as death," "closed in on itself like an island in society," "a fortress without drawbridges," in his recall it is also oddly rich and alluring. Indeed so caught up was I in the minutiae of these early days - the kerosene lamp and the dark stairs, the drama of a lost sou, the occasional pleasure of a hunting trip to the mountains with his uncle or an American Western at the dusty movie house down the street (Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks), that I was reluctant to have Camus grow up, and I dreaded the moment when I would lose the direct sound of his voice, when somewhere during the lycée years The First Man would abruptly end.
Camus, however, "his youthful blood boiling," was impatient to grow, to inhabit all the places he had read about in school. School was his joy, the drawbridge out of the fortress, an escape from family life to somewhere else. His memory of filling inkwells, the delicious taste of the strap of his bookbag, the smell of a varnished ruler, its sting as a tool of discipline, was as acute as that of the flotsam of urine and orange blossoms in the town fountain. He read the stories in the textbooks sent from France about children in wooden shoes and snowfalls as myths about a Garden of Eden. He relived Mr. Germain's first-hand accounts of World War I with occasional outbursts of emotion. It was all part of the powerful poetry of school. Mr. Germain shared his own life with his students, talked about his favorite books and his philosophy, and set an example that influenced Camus's later desire to teach. In Germain's class, students felt for the first time that they existed and were the objects of the highest regard, he remembered; they were judged worthy to discover the world.
When the personal testimony of The First Man ends, Camus is 14 or 15 years old, in the cinquième class, which is roughly the equivalent of the eighth grade, and adolescent. A photograph from this time shows him in short pants, posing with his soccer team and grinning to reveal two mischievous dimples. He has a newboy's cap on his head and a scarf draped around his neck, and although he looks very young and quite small - he was late to grow and called "moustique" or "mosquito" by his teammates - he already has a seductive and glowing presence. The child has died, he notes, recalling that he had summarily refused his grandmother's whipping (generally a punishment for tardiness or ruining his shoes), and caught an inadvertent glimpse up a woman's skirt. He had also earned money at a summer job, kissed a girl and made first-string goalie on the lycée team.
Soccer was a passion as consuming as books, and on the playing field he made himself respected and liked by the tough guys in school. The lessons were enduring - "What I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport," he wrote later in his journal - and the camaraderie was an antidote to his growing awareness of the cultural differences that set him apart from his classmates, whose parents could pass on traditions, a system of values, a clear sense of right and wrong - a heritage, as he elaborated. In The First Man, Camus describes suffering from a sense of otherness, his "ecstasy of joy punctuated by the sudden counterpunches inflicted by a world unknown to him," but he also reports that he was quick to recover, avidly trying to understand and assimilate a world he did not know. Certain of a future, toughened by his childhood, he was ready to find his place almost anywhere. If he felt separate, he never felt inferior. He was learning to fashion something that resembled a style of behavior and to create a heritage on his own, he said. He was "from somewhere else, that was all."
As a reader with a mission, I read The First Man with joy at its truthfulness and its explicit information. Even if his book wasn't meant to be confessional, Camus was explaining himself, revealing in his recollections of childhood the important underpinnings of his character - independence, passion, courage, and just as important to me, a deep sense of vulnerability. A sort of underdog quality, when paired with strength of character, can be crucial in a hero. Even while knowing humiliation, Camus did not have the slightest desire to have a different family or station in life. "How can it be made clear that a poor child can sometimes be ashamed without ever being envious?" he writes. The fact that in order to survive he would hide his vulnerability under a camouflage of irony, charm and a sometime arrogance made him all the more sympathetic, because I identified with his behavior. At the same time, I was glad that Camus dropped a few hints about a dark and rebellious side, because that, too, seemed normal. Without much explanation, he mentions his "violent temper", the "hard and nasty arrogance" that enabled him to cope with guilt, a dread of death, darkness and the unknown (particularly intense in the evening as he made his way home from school). About school life, he says, in direct contrast to Germain's earlier report on his calm and good manners, that he was too rambunctious, and liked to show off. Jean Grenier, his professor and mentor in his last year of lycée, and later at the University of Algiers, noticed the naturally undisciplined air about his pupil and placed him in the front row to keep him in eyesight.
The most significant event in Camus's lycée years was the onset of pulmonary tuberculosis, which came when he was 17, midway through his final year of première supérieure, which he had to resume the following fall. The incidence of TB and of death from the illness - in 18 to 24 months if untreated - was disproportionately high in the underprivileged and undernourished classes. So dramatic were the first signs of the disease as well as its statistics - fainting spells, exhaustion, handkerchiefs drenched in blood -, that Camus assumed he would die. He became a regular patient at the predominately Muslim Mustapha Hospital in Algiers - the standard procedure was periodic artificial pneumothorax, in which injections of air collapsed his affected lung in order to allow it to heal - and until he had gained enough strength to resume his studies, he moved into the more comfortable household of his Uncle Gustave Acault, who was a prospering butcher and could fill the standard prescription for complete rest and large quantities of red meat. The company of his colorful and cultured uncle, who was a popular fixture in Algiers cafe life, well known for his love of politics, books and fine clothes, took the edge off the new kind of isolation and deprivation Camus felt watching his old friends carry on with their lives. Acault had great expectations for his nephew (he thought he might become a butcher, which would allow him plentiful time to write), and he treated him as the son he never had, engaging him in long discussions about literature and current affairs (Acault believed firmly in the equality of "les indigènes"), offering him a generous allowance and weekend motor excursions to the country. In the enforced rest of these long months, Camus found compensatory pleasures in Acault's extensive library, where he chose books at random, discovered authors like Paul Valéry and André Gide and began "to really read." If many things were beginning to pull him away from the child he had been, as he notes in The First Man, his illness and his awareness of the inevitability of a foreshortened life pushed him dramatically into adult sensibilities and manhood.
Camus never published any direct recollections of the impact of what in later years he would often refer to as "the flu", although he intended to write about it in The First Man - "school to the illness," he outlines in his notes. But in essays written two years after the first appearance of tuberculosis, originally intended for inclusion in his first book, The Wrong Side and the Right Side, but later withheld, he described the hospital scene at Mustapha - the hollow laughter, incessant coughing, bones without flesh, the brittle aura of resignation - "le mal vient vite, mais pour repartir il lui faut du temps," "the illness comes on quickly, but for it to go away again it takes time," he notes - and also his mother's quiet response to his crisis. At the time of the first symptoms and the abundant spitting of blood, she had been no more worried than a person of normal sensitivity might be about a headache of a member of the family, he remembers. But if he was initially disconcerted by his mother's "surprising indifference" to the gravity of his condition, he also knew that in his seventeen years he, too, had learned indifference, which was both a cover-up for suffering and a commitment to getting on with life. To a latter-day eye, the very titles of the essays in The Wrong Side and the Right Side reveal the state of mind into which Camus was plunged by his illness and his growing, even enforced, intellectuality: "Irony," "Death in the Soul," "Love of Life," "Between Yes and No," "The Wrong Side and the Right Side."
Excerpted from CAMUS, A ROMANCE by Elizabeth Hawes Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Hawes. Excerpted by permission.
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