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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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