Literary Insights from Albert Camus

I am reading selections from Lyrical and Critical Essays, a work long in print and well worth perusal. Perhaps my favorite passage is one where Camus recounts his youthful discovery of literature

I began to read properly. A fortunate illness had taken me away from my beaches and my pleasures. My readings were still disorderly, but there was a new appetite in them. I was looking for something, I wanted to rediscover the world I had glimpsed that seemed to me to be my own. From books to daydreams, alone or because of friend, little by little I was discovering new dimensions in life (“Encounters with André  Gide”).

Although I do not share Camus’ interest in Gide, I can share his enthusiasm for reading and the feeling that at some point in life “books dispensed things other than forgetfulness and entertainment.”

In another study (“Intelligence and the Scaffold”) Camus discusses the writer’s art. He focuses on La Princesse de Clèves, the work of a seventeenth century author, Madame de La Fayette, which is considered one of the first modern psychological novels dealing with realistic characters and situations rather than romantic fantasy. Camus’ essential classicism is apparent.

There is no great art, he says, “where there is nothing to overcome.” Further, a certain amount of formality represents a “ceremonious harmony” and necessary discipline. For all of Camus’ iconoclasm (mild by today’s standards) he is wary of self-indulgence. For this reason he faults Gide for displaying that “prejudice of our day, which insists that we parade our despair to be counted as intelligent.” The best fiction is inspired by intelligence that does not allow itself to be “carried away by its own reactions.” Great art “is born of an infinite possibility of suffering, and a firm decision to master suffering by means of language.”

The protagonist of Madame de La Fayette’s novel is a woman disappointed in the “madness and confusion” of passion. Camus sides with her seeming betrayal of “authenticity” in favor of a life of conformity. It is her antidote to the greater evil of despair: “far from wishing to make passions of the heart the slave of social prejudices, she uses these prejudices as a remedy for the disorderly impulses that terrify her….”

It is a fact that many honest rebels (like Kierkegaard or Orwell) end up finding new justifications for old institutions, which they perhaps once rejected and later came to value through hard experience. No doubt this same aesthetic led Camus to criticize Sartre’s “gratuitous” sexual description (“On Sartre’s Le Mur and Other Stories“). And in his review of Jules Roy he bemoans the contemporary lack of restraint and “loss of propriety.” The French writer concludes that

None of our great novelists has turned his back on human suffering, but we can also say that none has surrendered to it and that they have all mastered it with an inspiring patience, through the discipline of art.

Related commentary: The Existentialists, Camus’ Strange Fiction, and Camus on Death and Politics

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