I’ve never been a fan of Albert Camus; I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. I found Plague and Stranger interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. I am changing that impression for the record here. I just finished reading “The First Man”, a fictionalized auto-biography of sorts of Camus’ time growing up in French Algeria. It was found among his things after his death, and is published unpolished and occasionally missing pieces and words.
This novel is an extraordinary work of art, of fiction, of literature, and of life. It is imbued with a passion for life and nostalgia for a childhood of poverty and squalor which was nevertheless not dehumanizing – as poverty is for so many people – but instead somehow formative. We think a lot about money, to control it and thereby be controlled by it. Best I can tell Camus sought the opposite, to not think very much about it and thereby not be controlled by its presence (or lack). Granted, a tremendous feat if there is not enough food on the table or if the souls of your shoes are wearing thin. But to live a life more abundant, to seek out a more intense significance where we are placed by chance or providence – that is a trick, the trick perhaps in a world where we have all become jealous and mean, even the most prosperous of us.
But note to reader, meanness does not produce good literature, or good art. An overflowing heart (overflowing with gratitude mostly) is the fount of all blessings, including amazing novels like “The First Man”. The plot is simple, it is the search of a boy-become-man for the spirit of his father, who he never knew because the man died in the trenches of the first world war, in the place from whence he came – Algeria. French Algeria – rubbing up against Berbers and Arabs but not in that “colonial against oppressed” narrative of now but in the bitter poverty of the settler. A boy who was extraordinary, from a family that could not read or write. A mother’s love, a grandmother’s presence – a father’s absence. The simple joys of childhood made more heady through privation.
The lack of any bitterness – that is the amazing thing here. Our world has become jealous; maybe it has always been so but I am feeling it more acutely these days. Everything seems to be zero sum. I guess that is the way of the world; if you are not besting somebody, you are not making your mark. Even in my career, as I think back over the years in places not unlike Camus’ Algeria, every achievement I have had has been at the expense of others who saw my successes as their failure. Even when I assumed I was right, for who fights for what they thing is wrong – except the truly wicked – so too they… And who knows which side history will favor. I once beat Hugo Chavez in an election, a new constitution meant to pave the way for communism. His most bitter defeat and darkest night, until the cancer. I successfully laid the seeds of peace in Mali, finally arriving at a peace process – the Tuareg rebels’ lasting defeat of their so-desperately desired homeland. I held off ISIS in Nigeria, forcing the overthrow of their commander. Building a path to the rehabilitation of their soldiers; their caliphate again unfulfilled by the disturbances of the meddling west. And my defeats – Romney pumping his own gas the morning after a crushing defeat to the forces of incompetence and prejudice; that was a hard day. War returning to Armenia, befuddling the dreams and hopes of the reformers. But these are the grand games; there are also the private ones, a book unpublished (or worst published and unread). The hopes of a job that went to another, of an opportunity passed by for those I deem inferior. Powerlessness, and in that can come bitterness – which is why I read Camus.
Because this is all life, the jockeying and push-pull of significance. And that is the life for which Camus has such a great love; a love that comes seeping out of this his greatest novel (for which he received no praise, for he was dead) – but yet which he bequeathed to us to remind us that the joy is to be found in the journey, in the wonder and magic of an Arab night sky or a Caucasian mountain range at dawn. The crispness of a walk in the snow and the love of a beautiful woman. The pleasure of a good book that makes our heart stop for a moment, reminding us that we are alive now and that our best task would be to live our lives, the ones that we have – not hoping instead desperately to somehow live somebody else’s, through the shadow existence of envy.
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