Royal, Robert: Τhe other Camus
By 1940, when he gave up on job prospects in Algeria and took a job at Paris-Soir under Pascal Pia, his former editor at Alger Républicain, Camus was still unknown but had already accomplished some remarkable work. Despite the war, he continued writing, publishing both The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. The following year, he began writing for the Resistance paper Combat and eventually became its director.
Camus emerged from this period an almost legendary figure. In addition to his fame as a novelist, he had won recognition as perhaps the most distinguished moral voice in Europe. No one else wrote more movingly, for example, of the spiritual resistance to Nazism. His Letters to a German Friend, which came out in the months before the liberation of Paris, are still worth reading not only for the testimony they give to the human spirit but for their lyrical invocation, even in the flush of victory, of a humanity that refuses to sink to the enemy’s level: “It would not be enough for me to think that all the great shades of the West and that 30 nations were on our side; I could not do without the soil. And so I know that everything in Europe, both landscape and spirit, calmly negates you, without feeling any rash hatred, but with the calm strength of victory.”
Τo many readers, Camus was the romantic model of the 20th-century French intellectual. Attractive, modest, irresistible to women, a talented actor and director, a voice of the Resistance, he exerted a strange fascination over a whole generation. As one commentator put it, “He was like Bogart but more exuberant.” Susan Sontag says in her well-known but often misleading essay on Camus’s Notebooks, “Kafka arouses pity and affection on the part of his readers, Joyce admiration, Proust and Gide respect, but no modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love.”
This is even more curious because of a certain pudeur in everything Camus wrote, a reserve and a distance evident even in his notes to himself. The journal entries from the 1940s, for example, barely acknowledge the world war and nowhere mention how the publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus brought the talented but obscure French Algerian to the forefront of the Paris literary scene.
Camus is often called the French Orwell, a fair comparison if not pressed too far. Both men suffered from tuberculosis and derived wisdom from their proximity to death. Both championed the working class but were by nature incapable of the public exaggerations and mendacities required by partisan politics. Both recognized early on a truth to which George Orwell gave precise formulation: “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” Both writers demand description as decent human beings who tried to promote justice and a clear public language at a time when most intellectuals were ideologically corrupt or obscurantist.
Camus’s reputation continued to grow steadily in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He was a nonpartisan, humane voice during the Cold War and Algerian conflicts, and a reliable commentator on Communist injustices, the invasion of Hungary in 1956, and various other crises. Though a man of the Left, he clashed repeatedly with the Parisian literary leftists— at no time more pointedly than when his essay The Rebel appeared in 1951.
From the book’s opening sentence—”There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic”—to its lyrical conclusion about a measured brotherhood, The Rebel is a vibrant exposition of Camus’s belief both in the need for rebellion and in the equally strong need for limits to it. Camus indicts radical revolt not only among 20th-century Marxists and fascists but also its expressions in the French Terror, de Sade, Hegel, Marx, portions of Nietzsche, the Russian anarchists, the French surrealists, and others.