February 23, 2018

Albert Camus, The Outsider

    -- Rick, there are many exit visas sold in this cafe -- though we know that you've never sold one. That is the reason why we permit you to remain open.
    -- I thought it was because I let you win at roulette?
    -- That is another reason.... There is a man arrived in Casablanca on his way to America. He will offer a fortune to anyone who will furnish him with an exit visa.
    -- Yeah? What's his name?
    -- Victor Lazlo.
    -- Victor Lazlo?
    -- Rick, that is the first time I have ever seen you so impressed.
    -- He's succeeded in impressing half the world.
    -- Rick, Lazlo must never reach America. He stays in Casablanca....
People like Victor Laslo, the Resistance leader that escaped Casablanca taking Rick's one and only with him, did so with the help of people like Albert Camus. Camus was Algerian-French, and too tubercular to join the army; instead he helped the underground railway that shipped Jews and political refugees from southern France to Oran, then west across Morocco to Casablanca, then Lisbon and out.

Camus' first and most famous novel L'Etranger, translated as The Stranger, or The Outsider, was published on May 19th, 1942, the same year as Casablanca was released. Like the movie, the book was popular from the start, though it was not until the 60s and 70s that both began to reach legendary status. The most reproduced photographs of Albert Camus even show him looking like Humphrey Bogart: overcoated, cigaretted, and attractively worn-out.

The more remarkable parallel is that the novel too managed to slip by the Nazis. With the paper shortage, getting a book published in France during WWII was difficult enough; getting clearance from the Propaganda Ministry was an even larger obstacle. The Nazis of 1942 were not the avid burners of a decade earlier, but the prohibitions were systematic and effective: nothing against Hitler and Homeland, nothing for Jews, nothing subversive or -- in Nazi Newspeak -- "inflammatory." That the watchdogs of totalitarianism should judge The Outsider to be apolitical and harmless may be one of the larger ironies in the history of publishing and censorship. The novel has become one of the 20th century's most famous arguments, if not anthems, against the compulsions of state and society.

Camus felt that his novel was misinterpreted by not just the Reich but the first reviewers. Despite understanding and endorsement by the Paris intellectuals, the popular view was that, from its very first paragraph, The Outsider was a cold and gloomy existentialist tract:
    Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.
In his notebooks, Camus raged at the "puny morality" and "shopkeeper's philosophy" of those critics who regarded him as detached and despairing. In public, he pointed to his essays on "absurd creation" -- essays which contain lines such as, "The individual can do nothing and yet he can do everything.... I am on the side of struggle." He might also have pointed to other essays, written at the same time he was writing The Outsider, on the need for a 40-hour work week, or on his love of nature. He might have pointed out that he edited a newspaper entitled, Combat, whose motto was, "In war as in peace, the last word is said by those who never surrender."

By the fifties, these messages had gotten through, and the novel, as well as Camus himself, began their rise to almost cult status. The philosophical debate in post-war Europe about absurdity and existentialism had something to do with this, but so did the Bogart good looks. Having once been accused of passive despair, Camus now found himself besieged by the lobbies of social causes and political prisoners and attractive women. The record shows that he responded enthusiastically to many petitions.

By 1959, Camus had wearied of the political attention, especially the increasingly bitter attacks by the radical Left upon what they viewed as his sell-out to moderation. With the money from his 1957 Nobel Prize, he bought a country retreat, and began work on the novel he hoped would be his masterpiece, and redeem the political years that, he now felt, had somehow been not only a loss but a facade:
    I forced myself to live like everyone else and to resemble everyone else. I said what was needed to unite people, even when I myself felt a stranger, and in the end, the catastrophe came. Now I wander amid the debris, as an outlaw, drawn and quartered, alone and accepting to be so, resigned to my singularities and weaknesses. And I must reconstruct a truth after having lived a sort of lie all my life.
When Camus was killed in a car crash in 1960, the incomplete manuscript for his last novel, eventually published by his daughter in 1995, was retrieved from the mud. It is his first novel, The Outsider, which became the best-selling French novel of the 20th century.

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