This book is a book of books and bits and pieces, so impossible really to review closely in one hit. So, I plan to review each independent part separately as I finish them and adjust the star counter as necessary.
The first Lyrical Essay ‘The Wrong Side and the Right Side’ (L’Envers et L’Endroit). FIVE STARS
If, in spite of so many efforts to create a language and bring myths to life, I never manage to rewrite The Wrong Side and the Right Side, I shall have achieved nothing.
First published in 1937 in a very limited print run, Camus’ first work is a Lyrical Essay in parts. The 1958 preface to its republication in his Nobel year is full of recognisable quotes, particularly on the art and craft of writing; a topic he takes up with some gusto, since he had been refusing to have this book republished due to his artistic ‘vanity’. Words he uses to describe his own writing include ‘awkward’, ‘pompous’ and ‘clumsy’. But, he also writes:
...there is more love in these awkward pages than all those that have followed.
The Essay is in five parts: Irony, Between Yes and No, Death in the Soul, Love of Life, and The Wrong Side and the Right Side. In a broad, Camusian thematic sense, looking back from the privileged knowledge of where his thought will go, we move from how meaning shifts; what life is considering this instability; Despair; Love; and, finally, what this means for being human in the sense of moral engagement. I am going to mostly focus on the development of Camus' ideas, but take the 'Lyrical' part of the idea of the 'Essay' for granted as absolutely and fundamentally successful, even in translation, obviously; such a powerful mode of writing for Camus, so energetic and languid at the same time in its astonishing beauty and knife-keen ability to cut open moments, places, people and ideas all at once.
‘Irony’ brings together three character studies, and none of them fit together.
A woman you leave behind to go to the movies, an old man to whom you stop listening, a death that redeems nothing, and then, on the other hand, the whole radiance of the world. Here are three destines, different and yet alike. Death for us all, but his own death to each.
And herein lies the irony that Camus explores through his lyrical mode—and the sentences, even when thick with despair, have the kind of drenching light-and-dark beauty of a Caravaggio squeezed into ink. It’s the additional meaning to all meaning, that there is both meaning in meaninglessness, and in reverse. This is the basis of existential estrangement. It is the birthplace of that thing he will one day call the Absurd.
The final of the three character sketches—the death that redeems nothing—is also heavily autobiographical in nature, based on his overbearing grandmother in Algiers, and how she ruled.
‘Between Yes and No’ could be read as a prequel to L’Etranger (The Stranger/The Outsider). Here is Meursault while his mother was alive, and his approach to life still being formulated in his mind.
...I recall not a moment of past happiness but a feeling of strangeness.
In the face of estrangement, pre-Meursault grapples with the idea of affirming the act of living or negating it. Negation is more attractive...
There is a dangerous virtue in the word simplicity. And tonight I can understand a man wanting to die because nothing matters anymore when one sees through life completely.
But affirmation becomes almost a demand of him through experience...
Since this hour is like a pause between yes and no, I leave hope or disgust with life for another time. Yes, only to capture the transparency and simplicity of paradises lost—in an image. ...the feeling that the whole absurd simplicity of the world has sought refuge here.
...and finishes with a position that appears to dovetail nicely with the Meursault as we know him from L’Etranger:
...what wells up in me is not the hope of better days but a serene and primitive indifference to everything and to myself.
‘Death in the Soul’ was based on Camus’ own trip to Prague, and is a precursor to ‘A Happy Death’—which in turn was a precursor to ‘L’Etranger’, so once again, there are shades of Meursault, though this unnamed protagonist is far more involved and introspective, and reminded me of Dostoevsky’s protagonist from ‘Notes from Underground’. Travel narrative is now used as a motif to investigate estrangement; our protagonist is struck by his inability to exist in Prague, where even the elements conspire against him.
I visited churches, palaces and museums, tried to soften my distress in every work of art. A classic dodge: I wanted my rebellion to melt into melancholy. But in vain. As soon as I came out, I was a stranger again.
So religion, politics and art only obfuscate and distract him momentarily. He can be reading the instructions on the shaving cream he has already been using for a month while someone is dead next door. But then a move from Prague to Vicenza in Italy seems to make all the difference. He is happy, but he cannot shake the sense of longing and loss: ‘...a mystery hangs in the sky from which beauty and indifference descend.’
It was and yet was not the anguish I had felt in Prague.
He recognises that nothing has essentially changed, just as with the churches, palaces and museums; here is another firmament: nature itself, he is still Undergound.
...the confrontation between my deep despair and the secret indifference of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
Camus has written ‘Love of Life’ before ‘The Death of the Soul’, but chose to place it after in the publication, maybe because it begins in a more sublime mode, albeit more in the milieu of humanity than nature. Now we’re in Palma, Spain; another travel narrative, the overt stranger in a strange land, but now a reveler, albeit a thoughtful one, of course... The protagonist moves from humanity out into nature, and there is further dramatization of the central project: ratifying an absurd brokenness between what is apparent and what simply is.
If the languages of these countries harmonized with what echoed deeply within me, it was not because it answered my questions but because it made them superfluous. ...this Nada whose birth is possible only at the sight of landscapes crushed by the sun. There is no love of life without despair of life.
We embrace loving as mode for living, something that is so abstract and ridiculously human, but then, we always end up thirsty, despite it. We are still bound by concrete.
Finally, a conclusive chapter of the same title as the book itself, and the shortest at only four pages long.
...why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity?
We fall down into truth, and awareness; to live between sides, to gaze just as squarely at the light as at its opposition, whether that is the dark or death. The tension exists, so, in the parlance of our times, Camus says: deal with it. You are wrong, and you are right.
One man contemplates and another digs his grave: how can we separate them? Men and their absurdity? But here is the smile of the heavens. The light swells and soon it will be summer. But here are the eyes and the voices of those I must love. I hold onto the world with every gesture, to men with all my gratitude and pity. I do not want to choose between the right and the wrong sides of the world, and I do not like a choice to be made.
After all, I am not sure that I am right.