Albert Camus: his childhood, poverty, and “the solar side of his work”

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A morality made from very concrete things.

I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

The Nobel author was much on our mind last year – when Another Look featured Camus’s masterpiece, L’EtrangerIn my reading for that project, I managed to miss his daughter Catherine Camus’s 1997 interview, when she and her partner Robert Gallimard were interviewed in London by Spike Magazine‘s Russell Wilkinson. Much of the of the conversation was about the author’s last unfinished work, First Man, which had been published in English in 1995.

Much of it reminds me of these words from his Nobel banquet speech: “Art … obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.”

A few excerpts:

R: Will we get a clearer notion of his ideas through The First Man?

…I think he wanted to write something to explain who he was, and how he was different from the age that had been conferred upon him. He was viewed by many as an austere moralist, but it was on the football pitch and in the theatre that he learnt his ‘morality’. It’s something sensed, it won’t pass uniquely through thought. It couldn’t possibly. He started thinking through sensation. He could never think with artifacts or with cultural models because there were none. So it’s true to say that his morality was extremely ‘lived’, made from very concrete things. It never passed by means of abstractions. It’s his own experience, his way of thinking. There are those who will find his notions about absurdity appealing, and others who will be drawn by the solar side of his work, about Algeria, the heat and so on.

R: Since The First Man deals with Camus’ birth and childhood in Algeria, it seems strange that Camus’ deep personal involvement with the Algerian nationalist crisis tends to get overlooked in the traditional portrayal of him as a French writer. Do you think The First Man will re-emphasise the importance of Algeria in our consideration of Camus?

CC: I hope so. Camus’ was born in Algeria of French nationality, and was assimilated into the French colony, although the French colonists rejected him absolutely because of his poverty. Politically, he was in favour of a federation, and effectively he considered that like South Africa today (or as they are trying to do), there should be a mixed population with equal rights, the same rights for the Arab and the French populations, as well as all the other races living there.

***

stranger

Lots of the solar side here.

R: So Camus tried to live the paradox of being both “solitaire et solidaire”?

CC: I think Camus felt very solitary. You can see it in all his books. The Outsider isn’t Camus, but in The Outsider there are parts of Camus. There’s this impression of exile. But where he is in exile isn’t especially in Paris or elsewhere, but from the intellectual world, because of his origins. And that’s a complete exile. Just because of his way of sensing before thinking. He’s in a field that he often feels like escaping from. In any case, you have to learn what blood is. It all has to be rationalised. In that he feels exiled, solitary…

***

And love is very important in The First Man, in that Camus loves these things he never chose, he loves his childhood experience in a very real way. Their poverty meant that there was nothing else they could think about but what they would eat, how they would clothe themselves. There’s just no room for other things in his family. It’s difficult for others to imagine the position in which he found himself. There is no imaginary existence in their lives.

French intellectuals are mostly petit bourgeois, and it’s hard to say whether that makes Camus’ work more valuable. I’d rather say that it’s different. Necessarily. His positions are sensed. So, naturally, those intellectuals who don’t have that experience have difficulty in comprehending it. But I think it made Camus more tolerant because he had already seen both sides of things when the others had only ever seen one. They imagine poverty, but they don’t know what it is. In fact they’ve got a sort of bad conscience about the working classes. It’s the perspective they could never adopt, not in the way Sartre wants to, because they weren’t familiar with them. They could never address themselves to the working classes. They don’t know what it means, and that gives them a bad conscience about it. Camus has a greater proximity to those in poverty.

R: And does this proximity result from his humility, which can been seen in the letters at the end of The First Man to Monsieur Germain, his old schoolteacher?

CC: It’s because his teacher in The First Man has a primary place. Camus shows us this teacher exactly how he was. The First Man is completely autobiographical. The mother he describes is the woman I knew, and she was exactly as he describes her. And this teacher really existed. But it’s also to show that people attach so much importance to celebrity, and Camus writes his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in thanks to his teacher. … It’s to show that this is what has come from what his teacher did for him. And also throughout the world there are Monsieur Germains everywhere. That’s why I published the letters, so that he could have a place in the work. But I couldn’t ever act or think on behalf of what my father would have said or done. He’s an artist, he considers himself an artist, and so he takes on the responsibility of speaking for those who are not given the means or the opportunity.

Read the whole thing here


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