Breaking Down Camus


Albert Camus, Nobel prize winner, half-length ...

Albert Camus. (Photo credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection)

Today is (or was, depending on where you live) the birthday of a personal favorite of mine, both in the literary and philosophic sphere. A hundred years ago, on November 7, 1913, French writer-philosopher Albert Camus was born to a poor family in what was then French Algeria.

Best known for his novels — The Stranger, which depicts a senseless murder on the Mediterranean and The Plague, with its haunted scenes of a quarantined city — Camus was a controversial, but also incredibly inspirational figure. When I say breaking down I mean demystifying and cataloguing a bit of the man: to take some of the eyebrow quirking out of many people’s interactions with him.

You see, there are essentially two Camus figures we tend to look at. The first is the intellectual—an existentialist and an absurdist, as well as a Nobel Prize winner that had that rare gift for being not only to engage the great thoughts with logic and with poise, but to translate those thoughts into a language and vision wherein we could not only see them displayed, but be enthralled by how they did so. Then there is the other figure, the controversial figure, who sees little play or knowledge outside of France and his native land—a figure viewed as at once rebellious, conforming, or downright traitorous depending on the viewer.

You see, though Camus was born in Algeria, he is not particularly loved there; yet he is a darling of France. This is because, at a time when Algeria was warring for its independence from a colonial overlord, this great mind made a conscious decision to take what he no doubt saw as a sort of middle ground—he supported real political rights for the oppressed Arabs of the region, and yet took a step back when it came to nationality. While he was pro-political rights, he was against an independent Algeria.

For my fellow Americans, allow me to provide this summary: It would be like one of our own great writers, in the time of the American Revolution, stepping up and saying, “Well I believe in more rights for the non-British afoot here…but start out on our own? Are you batty?”

That said, in true form, he was horrified by the violence that arose—in particular, from the French forces who, as the war dragged on, resorted to horrific and barbaric acts of torture. He spat at the French for doing “more harm than a hundred enemy guerrillas” with their tactics, while denouncing the National Liberation Front of Algeria for their own use of violence. Bringing blood onto one’s hands was never right, he saw, no matter the cause. It was a “casuistry of blood” which he could not bear—not even for the sake of his homeland’s independence. Some have named him coward for it. Or traitor.

Like I said: controversial.

Which seems odd, when one considers Camus. He did, after all, love his homeland. Both of his most famous works are set there. He was, is, and ever shall be one of the foremost voices against violence and extremism, while fighting for the individual’s freedom. But the key lies in his birth. You see, Camus was a French citizen born abroad, a part of a culture then known as the pieds-noirs, or black feet—the name given to Europeans living in that slice of North Africa.

If you need another reference, think of the more recent South African apartheid. Two worlds, one roof. The ruling European colonials and the native Arab majority.

His experience was not the same. He came into the world groomed along a different line. Is that an excuse? No. It’s simply a fact. His failure to support full independence seems off the mark today, but in the context of time, space, and the ever powerful nurture?

Well, for all the nature of his birth, he was not a wealthy man. His father died a year after his birth and his deaf mother raised him through work as a cleaning lady. He is an inspiration in other regards precisely because of his brilliance and his pen—these are what inevitably delivered him from poverty, and raised him up, thus making his opinions so potent, and mattering so dearly to both sides of the earlier equation. He could, perhaps—yes, indeed should have been—more connected to the Arab world around him there, but the simple fact is he was removed from it. He saw a side of Algeria that was a uniquely different experience from those fighting for its independence.

Yet even as I say this: he did believe in fights for independence, obviously, in different ways. After all, he fought for the French Resistance in WWII, publishing an underground newspaper for them that could have seen him butchered by the occupying Nazis.

He believed in the collective humanity of man, of rights for all; but he denounced communism at a time when many of his fellows on the left were embracing its call.

Camus himself died in a car accident at the age of 46, in 1960, leaving us with his legacy, an unfinished manuscript and notes, and a great deal more on which to think.

So, when you have it laid out before you, what do you think?

A little less angelic kite, a little more moderation, good sir.

Was he simply practicing Benjamin Franklin’s old adage? “Moderation in all things, even moderation.” Was he a man that simply lacked courage of conviction? Or was it something else? In truth, it’s something only the individual can answer for oneself: either way, Camus was unapologetic in his views. Yet I caution a remembrance: it is eternally difficult, when such things are mixed up in issues that can never be without emotion.

Death will out. Death will always out.

Review: The Wolf’s Sun

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: there are too few quality historical fiction narratives yet lodged among the hall of trophies on the indie side of literary manor. Karen Charbonneau`s marvelous delivery is surely among them.

But first, a summary, in the book’s own words:

In this sweeping historical novel of 17th century France, the wrath and power of Louis XIV are felt all the way to Keltic Brittany near the Bay of the Dead.

Born into the peasant culture, a mixture of ancient pagan beliefs mixed with Catholicism, is the girl Anna, a bastard looking like no one in her parish – her mother would not tell who her father was. Taught the use of herbs by the women of her family, she also has the gift of healing – a power also attributed to French and English kings who were said to heal scrofula with their touch. This ability will cause one man, a physician, to attempt to use her for his own glorification, and another, a Jesuit, to work to send her to a fiery death.

The Wolf’s Sun is a beautifully crafted, richly detailed rendering of 17th century France, peppered with a cast of colorful characters and historical tidbits that leave us with a book I can describe only as “sweeping” in scope. And it is at that. This is a long read, but well worth it. Not only does one become engrossed in the mechanisms and doings of the characters, when you emerge again from the captivating narrative, you find yourself pondering how much you have actually learned, actually pulled still fresh and gleaming from the fertile wealth of that rich French soil.

To say it plainly: this book is well-researched, and planted easily among the boundaries of its period of history. It also helps that it is well edited, and professionally delivered–I doubt you shall ever feel stricken by any sense of “amateur hour” while in the midst of this book.

But I caution thus: it is slow to get going. You will likely ponder, in the first 10% of the book or so, just what the point is, and where it is going. Because this is not just a story, it is the telling of a life, and the lives around it, and for that, that central crux takes some getting to. While in later chapters the multiple viewpoints structure gives us a great deal of insight into the characters, and to the events surrounding, in the beginning it has something of a muddled effect, pulling us this way and that without seeing the why, or even, who shall be our inevitable fixing point. When this shifts, however, you will know it, and Wolf’s Sun truly hits smooth sailing from then on.

Through Charbonneau’s writing we see a vibrant world, carefully honed and crafted, with figures and scenes that are strikingly realistic…and captivating for it. It puts us, as well, in a unique scandal–the Affair with Poisons–and delivers it to us in a way that, in spite of its breadth, never feels bogged down by its details, but rather, enhances its portrait. This is not a quick read by any means. But for the patient, and the great fan of history, it is well worth the investment of time.

I definitely recommend it.

Poetic Spotlight: The Cobbler

Jean de La Fontaine

Some men are ground so readily in our own world they cannot hope to look beyond; some seem to scrape the boundaries of the imagination for all its worth. Jean de la Fontaine was one of the latter men, a poet of the 17th century and one of France’s most famed “fabulists.” A fabulist, by the by, is simply a writer of fables–one of those strange yet talented sorts capable of mixing the mythical, the animal, and morals into a succinct and often cautionary tale. It is, in many cases, folk literature at its finest.

While it is the Fables or the Contes–the former, more internationally; the latter, more nationally–that are oft-remembered today when Fontaine is summoned forth from the shelves, it hardly does the man justice to constrict his literary capabilities to these works. Many of the man’s poems, once widely read, have fallen by the wayside today, scarcely to be mentioned.

So this week, let’s say I’m working to bring you not only a poetic treat, but to restore a piece of history to its place. Hopefully it was a quality translation (not done by me, of course–French remains quite elusive to me).

The Cobbler

We’re told that once a cobbler, BLASE by name;
A wife had got, whose charms so high in fame;
But as it happened, that their cash was spent,
The honest couple to a neighbour went,
A corn-factor by trade, not overwise
To whom they stated facts without disguise;
And begged, with falt’ring voice denoting care,
That he, of wheat, would half a measure spare,
Upon their note, which readily he gave,
And all advantages desired to wave.
The time for payment came; the money used;
The cash our factor would not be refused;
Of writs he talked, attorneys, and distress;
The reason:–heav’n can tell, and you may guess;
In short, ’twas clear our gay gallant desired,
To cheer the wife, whose beauty all admired.
Said he, what anxiously I wish to get,
You’ve plenty stored, and never wanted yet;
You surely know my meaning?–Yes, she cried;
I’ll turn it in my mind, and we’ll decide
How best to act. Away she quickly flew,
And Blase informed, what Ninny had in view.
Zounds! said the cobbler, we must see, my dear,
To hook this little sum:–the way is clear;
No risk I’m confident; for prithee run
And tell him I’ve a journey just begun;
That he may hither come and have his will;
But ‘ere he touch thy lips, demand the bill;
He’ll not refuse the boon I’m very sure;
Meantime, myself I’ll hide and all secure.
The note obtained, cough loudly, strong, and clear;
Twice let it be, that I may plainly hear;
Then forth I’ll sally from my lurking place,
And, spite of folly’s frowns, prevent disgrace.
The, plot succeeded as the pair desired;
The cobbler laughed, and ALL his scheme admired:
A purse-proud cit thereon observed and swore;
‘Twere better to have coughed when all was o’er;
Then you, all three, would have enjoyed your wish,
And been in future all as mute as fish.
OH! sir, replied the cobbler’s wife at ease,
Do you suppose that use can hope to please,
And like your ladies full of sense appear?
(For two were seated with his wedded dear)
Perhaps my lady ‘d act as you describe,
But ev’ry one such prudence don’t imbibe…

~Jean de la Fontaine

Masterpieces Stolen from Museum of Modern Art

Pastoral painted by Henri Matisse in 1906

I was nearly sick to read it yesterday. I don’t know how many of you have heard. France is reeling today, but not merely France. The World at large. The world of Art and Beauty and Creativity all have suffered a blow, because some sick men wanted to make themselves some extra bits of paper.

The Museum of Modern Art in Paris was robbed. Thieves broke in under cover of night and stole five paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Leger, and Modigliani. It is certainly not the first theft of art in history—a devastating occurrence already felt in the loss of Rembrandts and Van Goghs, among others. Nor will it be the last, I am certain, but that does not make it easier to swallow. This is a terrible act that does not merely steal from a building or a man, but from civilization itself.

I believe Christophe Girard, deputy culture secretary at the Paris Town Hall, said it best when he told reporters: “This is a serious crime to the heritage of humanity.”

Dove with Green Peas painted by Pablo Picasso in 1911.

Some might argue that in the digital world, where all these images can simply be put online, the loss of a few dusty old portraits is hardly a thing to worry about. That is a terrible thing to think, I believe. Whatever you may put online, it is but a copy. The work, the real work—that image that men spent hours, days, even months of work to craft—is gone. The original, the true creation of their hand, is gone. Such a copy is but a hollow substitute. It is not the same.

The terrible thing about this is the realization that these works may never be seen again. In the coming days, police will undoubtedly be scouring Paris for any trace of the works, but if one took such care to break inside, one does not often stumble in their path of flight.

In 1990, works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet were also stolen. Taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, they still have not been found. Try as we might to find them, they are gone.

Worse, even if we find them, who’s to say what shape they will be in? Not all criminals take such care of their stolen prize. One can hope that if they intend to sell them, great care will be taken, but one can never know. The more days pass, however, the less chance we have of knowing—and the greater the likelihood we may never see these masterpieces again.

The things people do for money…it’s enough to make a person sick.

A list of other Memorable Art Heists

  • 2008: Four paintings by Cezanne, Degas, Van Gogh and Monet were stolen from a private museum in Zurich. Both the Van Gogh and Monet paintings were recovered, but the others remain lost.
  • 2004: Two paintings by Edvard Munch, The Scream and Madonna, were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. They were recovered two years later.
  • 1991: Twenty paintings were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. They were found nearby in an abandoned car.
  • 1990: Thirteen works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Manet were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. They have never been recovered.