The African Camus
By Tim Allen
Albert Camus, celebrated author of those high school World Literature course staples The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, would have been 100 years old today. While Camus is normally classified among the giants of 20th-century continental literature, I would argue that he could equally legitimately be considered a Francophone African writer. He was, after all, born in Algeria, and lived there until he was nearly 27 years old. Camus’s first collections of essays were initially published in Algeria, and most of his late novels were set in North Africa.
Camus didn’t hesitate to affirm the influence of his African years on his life’s work. Writing in 1958 in the preface to a new edition of his first collection of Algeria-centric essays, L’envers et l’endroit (sometimes translated as The Wrong Side and the Right Side), Camus states, “I know that my inspiration is in The Wrong Side and the Right Side, in this world of poverty and light where I lived for so long and whose memory still keeps me away from the two opposing dangers that menace every artist: resentment and satisfaction. […] I was placed halfway between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all is well in this world and with history; the sun taught me that history isn’t everything.” (L’envers et l’endroit, 1958, pp. 13-14. Translation mine.)
Perhaps befitting his intercultural status as a pied-noir (that is, a person of European descent living in French North Africa), Camus wholeheartedly embraced this notion of the halfway. His decision, however, often meant that he had to blaze his own trail, and consequently expose himself to strident criticism. During the Algerian War, for instance, Camus famously refused to support the cause of Algerian independence and did not condemn outright the atrocities committed by French soldiers. Though Camus vocally opposed the violence of war in all of its forms, and wrote frequently about the suffering of native-born Algerians under French colonial rule, he could not bring himself to reject the pied-noir community that had raised him. Algerian resentment over the perceived offense lingers to this day.
Camus’s decision to withdraw from the debate surrounding Algerian independence was surely a blow to revolutionaries seeking a prominent, well-regarded champion, but I have to think that the resultant Algerian rejection of Camus must have stung the writer just as sharply. His soul was Algerian, and I’ve found some of his most lyrical, emotional writing in his early nonfiction essays on life in North Africa. I’ll close this brief post with my favorite passage from his essay “Summer in Algiers,” published as a part of Noces (Nuptials) in 1938. While it may be unabashedly (and uncharacteristically) sentimental, the text also has a certain mournful quality that I find to be perfectly evocative of the complex relationship Camus had with the land of his youth:
But more than anything else, there is the silence of summer evenings.
Does the Algiers in me need any special signs or sounds to embrace these short instants where the day tips into night? When I’ve been away from this land for a while, I imagine its twilight as a promise of happiness. On the little hills that dominate the city, roads wind through the mastics and the olive trees, and it’s to them that my heart returns. I see gatherings of black birds rise above the green horizon. In the sky, suddenly emptied of its sun, something unwinds: masses of red clouds spread out until they are reabsorbed into the air. Just a moment later, you see the first star begin to form and harden in the thickness of the sky. And then, all of a sudden, the night, all-consuming.
These fleeting evenings in Algiers, what unique power do they have to unravel so much within me? This sweetness that the evenings leave on my lips, I don’t have time to tire of it before it has already disappeared into the nighttime. Is this the secret of its persistence? The tenderness of this country is devastating and stealthy, but in the instant that you find it, your heart, at least, is entirely devoted.
(Noces, 1959, pp. 39-40. Translation mine.)
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Image credit: Albert Camus in 1957 by Robert Edwards. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.