As a major influence on the 20th century French literary scene, it’s sometimes forgotten that Albert Camus was a Pied-Noir – a French Algerian whose formative years were spent surrounded not by the cold beauties of Paris but the sensorial world of Algiers, where Camus studied philosophy and played sport until a tubercular condition eventually sent him for the first time to Europe for treatment – the French Alps more specifically – in 1936.
Camus’ first unpublished novel, A Happy Death – written between 1936 and 1938 – besides being semi-autobiographical is a sort of paean to his upbringing in Algiers and is, above all else, an exemplar of extraordinary writing. From the first chapter Camus introduces an earthy philosophical tone enmeshed with a lithe physicality that is rare to achieve and a joy to read.
The story opens with Patrice Mersault (a character whose broad outline is resurrected in Camus’ later work The Stranger) shooting a cripple named Roland Zagreus who has decided to bequeath Mersault a small fortune for doing so, because he feels Mersault might be able to fulfil in life that which is no longer a possibility for Zagreus. The shooting, therefore, is not a crime of passion. Nevertheless Mersault is thoroughly saturated by his passions; seizing them, extending them or silently smothering the flame of life that burns inside him in some kind of act of self-mastery.
Zagreus (in Greek mythology a divine god who was to succeed Zeus but ended up being torn apart by Titans) and Mersault, as we discover in chapter 4, had discussed Zagreus’ death but also Mersault’s plight as a man suspended in time, meaninglessness. Camus, educated in philosophy at the University of Algiers, was an existentialist and so Mersault becomes a paragon of existential searching. One of the cardinal sins of existentialism is inauthenticity, letting things continue on without any agency; a refusal to grasp and construct the meaning of your own life, an embodied life. And this essentially is the crux of the story, can Mersault fashion a meaning out of his world.
Mersault reveals to Zagreus his existential anxieties “I feel like getting married, or committing suicide, or else subscribing to L’Illustration. Something desperate, you know.” Zagreus tells Mersault that “with a body like yours, your one duty is to live and be happy.” Mersault suggests that would be nice but his life is already chalked out by a series of commitments, to which Zagreus replys “Happiness too, is a long patience. And in almost every case, we use up our lives making money, when we should be using money to gain time.”
We see the philosophical, existential preoccupations of Camus from the first, short chapter. But the questions raised don’t receive the recondite and cold-handling of a Sartre, they are thoroughly imbued and entangled with the sensual world of a most physical man inhabiting a physical world. The question confronting Mersault after shooting Zagreus is can he extract a happiness from the freedom this money now affords him. There is also a Nietzschean transcendence of Christian morality, a sense that man – as represented in the tragic figure of Zagreus and the latent figure of Mersault – is a self-constructing being who must risk failing and falling into ditches to pursue a world of Olympian cloudlessness. A world of repose is no place for a man such as Mersault, seemingly.
The phrasing and the setting up of the world is so accomplished you wonder why on earth he chose not to publish it. For example:
“Summer crammed the harbor with noise and sunlight. It was eleven-thirty. The day split open down the middle, crushing the docks under the burden of its heat. Moored at the sheds of Algiers Municipal Depot, black-hulled, red-funneled freighters were loading sacks of wheat. Their dusty fragrance mingled with the powerful smell of tar melting under a hot sun. Men were drinking at a little stall that reeked of creosote and anisette, while some Arab acrobats in red shirts somersaulted on the scorching flagstones in front of the sea in the leaping light. ”
The beautifully economic yet evocative writing extends beyond the physical to Mersault’s interior world. Mersault has a sexual relationship with Marthe whose “beauty she offered him day after day like some delicate intoxication” but, as in other sphere’s of his life, Mersault vacillates between fully engaging in the sensual world and trying not to be controlled by it. When a trip to the cinema reveals one of Marthe’s ex-lovers, Mersault’s mood, which had been exultant, turns to ash in his mouth and the moment makes him forget his dignity. He asks Marthe if the man they saw was once her lover.
“That was the day Mersult began to be attached to Marthe. He had met her several months before, and he had been astonished by her beauty, her elegance…But Marthe had appeared at a moment when Mersault was ridding himself of everything, of himself as well. A craving for freedom and independence is generated in a man still living on hope…The lips she offered him seemed a message from a world without passion and swollen with desire, where his heart would find satisfaction. And this seemed a miracle to him.”
The book is divided into two parts.
Part one of the book, which we’ve just been discussing, is entitled ‘A Natural Death’ and follows Mersault’s life in Algeria with Marthe, his work as a shipping clerk, his brief and surface interactions with friends and other nebulous characters, and the murder of Zagreus.
Part two of the book, ‘Conscious Death’, is where we run into trouble, but in my view not one of structure necessarily, nor of phrasing or philosophy, but of tone and event. Part one has set up Mersault’s unsatisfying life and his intention to take the cripple Zagreus’ money and pursue a happy life but part two isn’t equal to the set-up.
In part two we track Mersault to Prague after he has shot Zagreus, but not in any sort of panic because there is no investigation into the murder which is framed to appear as a suicide, which in effect it is. That’s fine because this is literary fiction and the inner journey is what concerns us. It is in Europe that Mersault suddenly becomes sick and feels alienated literally at the core of his being, and so returns to Algiers to live in a house with three young women he once studied with. The prevailing ethos of this house perched above the sea is to pursue happiness, but the realm of the house and the personalities within become cloying very quickly. It may have been a device used by Camus to make the reader sympathetic to a departure but it also manages to irritate and for perhaps too long. Another sin of existentialism is ticked off though, to not be a spectator in your own life but a participant, something Mersault finds hard to assert in this unbounded environment.
Mersault decides he needs solitude and leaves the house and soon enters a pragmatic marriage with a woman he does not love and moves into a house by the sea where he leads an ascetic life, even more so than the one he inhabited in the city. Inexplicably here is where Mersault finds peace – in a state of self-abnegation, alienation and a prone acceptance of the indifference of the universe. In this shrunk down environment, Mersault apparently dies a happy death.
A Happy Death was resurrected and published 10 years after Camus’ own death and the English translation by Richard Howard was published in 1972, 45 years ago. The book elicited some unsympathetic and admittedly funny reviews (of note Anatole Broyard who wrote about Mersault being ‘terrified by a vegetable’ in Prague, i.e. the odour of gherkins) but for aesthetes like myself, the book is worth reading just for the brilliant phrasing and the integration of ideas into a very embodied and vivid world. Ultimately it fizzles out into an unsatisfying conclusion – the subject matter itself, a blend of existential uncertainty and Dostoevskyian nihilism, possibly didn’t help – but if I could mark the book on its two halves I would score part 1 an 8.5/10 and the second half a 6.5/10.
Despite the tyranny of mathematics which would suggest this is a mediocre book, I strongly recommend giving it a read.
*Originally appeared in In Review