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.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage