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.

Picture: Stavros Damos
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Mark Strong Q&A: “I suspected playing a barrister was more fun than being one”

The actor talks David Bowie, studying law, and his favourite Simpsons episode.

What is your earliest memory?

Sitting in a pram in the sunshine in Myddelton Square, north London, waving at passers-by. My mum used to put me out in the street to keep me occupied, and she and various neighbours would lean on the windowsill and keep an eye on me.

Which politician, past or present, do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela stands head and shoulders above the crowd for his tolerance in the face of extreme suffering and his ability to unite a nation against all the odds.

Who was your childhood hero? And who is your adult hero?

David Bowie. His music and style were unique and he was the first to make me think about individuality and creativity. As an adult, Muhammad Ali, for the same reason – to thine own self be true.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

My theatre knowledge is pretty good, and I particularly love the plays of Arthur Miller – but I suspect it would probably be Arsenal Football Club.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

When Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson were writing and performing their plays and the “Vagabond Act” of 1572 viewed travelling Elizabethan actors as such a threat that regulations were imposed. Sounds like a fun time.

What TV show could you not live without?

The Simpsons. A favourite episode has Homer at the annual Springfield Chilli Cook-Off, where he eats super-spicy chilli made with a dangerous Guatemalan pepper grown by mental patients. The pepper has a powerful hallucinogenic effect and Homer wanders off into the strangest regions of his mind to find his soulmate, accompanied by a spirit guide voiced by Johnny Cash.

Who would paint your portrait?

Lucian Freud for the warts-and-all harsh reality, or Caravaggio for the dark beauty and intensity of his style.

What’s your theme tune?

For sheer drama and danger, Montagues and Capulets from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Put it on your headphones and walk down the street and you’ll see what I mean.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

A very special man named Sydney Stolerman once told me not to become an actor, as it was unlikely it would work out. He jokes to this day that it’s a good job I didn’t follow his advice.

What’s currently bugging you?

Injustice, greed, envy and intolerance. So-called leaders interested only in themselves. People unwilling to observe the social contract.

What single thing would make your life better?

Not being able to be contacted instantly anywhere in the world through modern technology.

When were you happiest?

I was pretty content at university. I had few responsibilities and was learning something I loved and partying with people I still love. But most of all at the birth of my children. An unbeatable feeling.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?

I studied law so perhaps I might have made it to the Bar, though I gave up that idea when I suspected playing a barrister was probably much more fun than being one.

Are we all doomed?

Unless everyone gets serious about climate change and we stop electing world leaders who behave like paranoid teenagers, then undoubtedly. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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