Albert Camus: A conscience with a style

Today is the anniversary of Camus's birth. In a piece from the archive, V S Pritchett reflects on his death.

On 7 November, 1913, Albert Camus was born in a small coastal town in the north-easternmost corner of Algeria. Forty-six years later, he died on a road near Villeblevin, 120km from Paris, returning from a holiday with his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard.

V S Pritchett, the New Statesman’s longest-serving literary editor (1926-65), wrote the following obituary, after hearing of the Nobel laureate's death.

A Conscience with a Style

The violent death of Albert Camus in a motor accident is a double shock. He was one of those writers one seems to know as a person. He was young – only 46 – and one expected much of his maturity. It was at this point, by a malicious irony, that the absurd and the meaningless struck at him. It is as if he had become l’Étranger. He was pre-eminently a European conscience; what is rarer – a conscience with a style. He was the best prose writer of his generation.

In France, where writers live in factions and are required to "pronounce", the reputation of Camus got into difficulties after his disengagement from politics. Like Orwell and Koestler, he washed his hands of Communism. He was reproached for silence about the Algerian atrocities, for example; but he had, in fact, drawn up his own liberal policy for Algeria some years ago. He had said what he wanted to say. He was accused of withdrawing from the siècle de la peur into a Utopia of "beautiful souls"; one heard of him being written off as a mere moralising and "consenting" man of letters. To the Anglo-Saxon reader all this talk was meaningless: we saw a brilliant, compassionate and independent man. If it is not absurd to say it of a Mediterranean, he had not only a touch of the sun, but a touch of the Protestant. His sane and unyielding sense of the unique value of the individual human being, stands out as the one lasting gain after the ideological battles of the Thirties and Forties in France.

Many critics have shown us that Camus was an unworldly politician. Having denounced totalitarianism, he came to believe in revolt for limited ends. (He was, for example, a passionate opponent of capital punishment.) He hated nihilism and its inevitable product: the man-god. The son of a very poor Algerian colonist, he said of himself that he had the feelings of the common people and the mind of an intellectual. It is true that La Peste was written with some literary sophistication, in the manner of Defoe; but few books in our time can have conveyed the sense of the whole, feeling life of all the ordinary people in a great city, living under stress. In the famous quarrel with Sartre, it is obvious that the philosopher and artist never made contact; one was talking about an abstraction called "the people", the other was talking about men and women, the victims of wars and programmes. Camus accepted that we must die; but all the moral force of civilisation rose in him to reject the idea that we should regard ourselves as expendable for the benefit of some theory of history.

Camus was (he said) a pessimist about human destiny, but an optimist in regard to man himself. Sisyphus would never succeed in rolling the boulder to the summit, but the continually renewed effort to do so was the secret of his nobility. At heart, Camus was a lonely man. He was a wonderer. He had a more powerful sense of place – Amsterdam in La Chute, Oran in La Peste, the beach in Algiers, the dusty villages of the Algerian steppe in his last volume of stories – than any French writer I have ever read. He appeared to have valued every grain of dust, ever change of sound, the very cooling or warming of the earth.

Camus in 1959. Picture: Getty Images.

Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900-1997) was a critic, short story writer and novelist. He was literary editor at the New Statesman from 1926 to 1965.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle