Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

In 1942 Albert Camus published his famous long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he addressed the issue of Suicide i.e. Is the world so empty, pointless and absurd that we might as well cash in our chips?

He takes a hundred pages or so to answer No, the basis of his argument being that at the core of every man is a Revolt Against His Fate.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Rather oddly, Camus added on to his passionate essay a 14-page appendix about the work of Franz Kafka, to be precise:

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.

This is comparable in its bluntness to Walter Benjamin’s thought that the most important thing about Kafka was his failure. But then critics are much given to saying the most important thing about x is y — it is a structural limitation of the genre (and, maybe, of how we think about aesthetics).

Anyway, Camus is approaching Auden’s view that Kafka was the master of the parable which everyone interprets in their own way, from a different angle, from the insight that you get to the end of a Kafka story and are left wondering what it meant. Hence you are forced to reread it.

Camus speaks of Kafka’s symbols as overflowing with meaning, as refusing to deliver a pat meaning.

His summary of the plot of The Trial makes it sound quite a lot like his own novel The Outsider in that he focuses on the last act where Joseph K is brutally murdered and more or less skips the weird atmosphere, the strange encounters, the agonisingly long dialogues and the eerie details (all those attic rooms) which characterise the previous 250 pages.

He is on to something when he talks about the ‘naturalness’ with which Kafka’s characters accept their inexplicable predicaments.

The more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it. It seems that this naturalness is Kafka’s.

Other critics have brought out the way that Kafka’s language is calm and sensible, and lacks almost all metaphor and simile: is flat and factual and precise. Early on Camus begins to impose onto Kafka his own conception of ‘the Absurd’.

He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognized.

I’m afraid I recoiled at much of the pretentious rhetoric Camus employs in this essay. In my review of Camus’s other essays in The Myth of Sisyphus collection, I highlight the contrast between the pre-war essays full of lush verbiage and inflated rhetoric and the post-war essays which are immensely more chastened, more overt and accessible. This one definitely belongs to the pre-war, hothouse period.

The Castle is perhaps a theology in action, but it is first of all the individual adventure of a soul in quest of its grace, of a man who asks of this world’s objects their royal secret and of women the signs of the god that sleeps in them. Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly.

But Gregor Samsa feels no amazement, none at all, at changing into a giant insect, in fact neither do his family. He never does and his family, after their initial shock, settle down to accepting it s part of everyday life. That’s the whole point.

Camus wants to impose on Kafka a simple set of binary oppositions of which one is his pet notion of The Absurd.

These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.

Though he is correct to point out the reconciliation in Kafka’s stories of the mundane practical prose of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, an almost supernatural anxiety.

There is in the human condition (and this is a commonplace of all literatures) a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility. The two coincide, as is natural. Both of them are represented, let me repeat, in the ridiculous divorce separating our spiritual excesses and the ephemeral joys of the body… Thus it is that Kafka expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical.

Or – the horrific, the terrifying is all the more effective if it is understated. As with all his early essays Camus veers in and out of making sense.

The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.

Contrary to what he said a moment ago about the ‘incalculable amazement’ Gregor feels at turning into an insect, he is closer to the mark when he points out the combination of the extreme and the everyday. Thus this man to whom befalls the most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, is a boring travelling salesman whose first thought is concern about what his boss will say when he’s late for work (Gregor having, in a very characteristic Kafka way, not yet acknowledged that he is never going back to work).

Camus tries to persuade us that The Castle complements The Trial in ‘a barely perceptible progression’ which represents ‘a tremendous conquest in the realm of evasion.’

The Trial propounds a problem which The Castle, to a certain degree, solves. The first describes according to a quasi scientific method and without concluding. The second, to a certain degree, explains. The Trial diagnoses, and The Castle imagines a treatment. But the remedy proposed here does not cure. It merely brings the malady back into normal life.

Like a lot of Camus this sounds good but melts in your hands. If it is an interesting idea it deserves to be expanded and explained at greater length. He is right to point out how K. is the more buoyant of the two protagonists, never gives up hope, remains optimistic even though he quite obviously will never make it into The Castle, never realises or accepts that each new chapter ‘is a new frustration’. Camus notes how K. strives endlessly to try and become normal, to become one of the villagers, like everyone else – to be accepted.

Camus refers o God a lot in his discussion of The Castle and talks about Kierkegaard’s notorious leap of faith (Kierkegaard thought man can never know whether or not there is a God; he has to take a leap). He refers to Nietzsche and uses words like ‘existentialism’, but without persuading the reader that he really understands what he’s talking about. As with his other early essays we see the triumph of rhetoric over meaning.

That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace.

He tries to appropriate Kafka for his own concerns, and in particular the special use of the word ‘hope’ which he had developed in The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essays ‘hope’ is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world.

The word ‘hope’ used here is not ridiculous. On the contrary, the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes. The more truly absurd The Trial is, the more moving and illegitimate the impassioned ‘leap’ of The Castle seems. But we find here again in a pure state the paradox of existential thought as it is expressed, for instance, by Kierkegaard: ‘Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope,’ which can be translated: “One has to have written The Trial to undertake The Castle.’

Clever sounding, but what does it mean? In the essay’s final page he tries to do the same thing as in Sisyphus, which is bring a discussion which began with despair and the Absurd round to a positive conclusion, something along the lines of: Embrace the Absurdity, relish the challenge of the universe’s meaninglessness. Feel the fear, and do it anyway 🙂

It is strange in any case that works of related inspiration like those of Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Chestov -those, in short, of existential novelists and philosophers completely oriented toward the Absurd and its consequences – should in the long run lead to that tremendous cry of hope. They embrace the God that consumes them. It is through humility that hope enters in.

If you say so. But I think Camus is hopelessly [sic] distorting Kafka. There is no hope in Kafka. There is no uplift or rejoicing. By this stage I’ve realised that Camus is imposing his own dynamic onto Kafka (as, according to Auden, everyone does). I realise that he is imposing his own newly minted concept – The Absurd – on Kafka in order to make Kafka perform the same movement from despair to hope, or Revolt and lucid hope, which he has enacted in Sisyphus.

The absurd is recognized, accepted, and man is resigned to it, but from then on we know that it has ceased to be the absurd. Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition? As I see once more, existential thought in this regard (and contrary to current opinion) is steeped in a vast hope.

1. I don’t think this is a very accurate or useful summary of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or the earlier existentialist philosophers. 2. There is no hope in Kafka, in fact the essay on Kafka by György Lukács which I’ve just read references a characteristically bleak and wry quote from Kafka on precisely this subject:

In conversation with Max Brod, after Brod had asked whether there is ‘hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know’, Kafka is said to have replied: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’

Now that is the true Kafka note, the bleak humour but also the teasing quality, the feeling that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, he is privy to some kind of doctrine or knowledge that none of the rest of us understand: that his works are all fragments pointing towards some amazing new doctrine which, however, was never completed and never could be completed.

Comparing Camus’s superficial references to Kierkegaard and ‘the existentialists’ against this quote from Kafka, or against the force of Benjamin’s tremendously powerful essay, makes me realise that Camus is out of his depth.

He simply isn’t mature enough, clever enough or deep enough to grasp the unfathomable abyss which Kafka is plumbing. Thinking he can go from a set of superficial remarks about Kafka’s symbols and the elementary observation that The Castle complements The Trial before hurrying on to declare that, in the end, embracing the Absurd is paradoxically hopeful and uplifting — Camus comes over as an excitable teenager. His concluding remarks are painfully trite.

His work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to the extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his contradictions reasons for believing, reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death. It is universal because its inspiration is religious. As in all religions, man is freed of the weight of his own life.

But Kafka emphatically was not freed of the weight of his own life. Camus is thinking about the emotional journey which he himself has just been through in The Myth of Sisyphus and not at all of the actual writer Franz Kafka who was more oppressed from start to finish of his career by the unbearable weight of his own life than any other writer in history. Who couldn’t escape himself or the delusion of trying to escape himself, no matter where he turned, who saw error building upon error and doors closing at the end of every corridor.

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. (Kafka, Letters)

Camus’s distance from Kafka’s books is symbolised by the mistake he makes about the end of The Trial where he has the two men who arrest Joseph K. ‘slit his throat’, whereas, in fact, ‘the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.’ Camus has maybe misremembered this because it is, at some level, a little more capable of redemption that what Kafka actually wrote, which seems to me to be absolutely pitiless. Into the heart goes the metal knife. And then they twist it. There is no hope or rejoicing and no clever paradox about it. Camus’s final remarks are incoherent and, I think, profoundly irrelevant.

For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to
these phantoms of regret.

‘Phantoms of regret’ is a wholly inadequate phrase to convey anything to do with Kafka’s work. Camus’ prose is overblown, romantic, melodramatic and immature whereas Kafka’s was precise, understated, and unsparing.

The translation

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka was translated by Justin O’Brien. Is it O’Brien’s fault or Camus’s that the text is often badly phrased and poorly structured, sometimes becoming incomprehensible?

A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.

There are works in which the event seems natural to the reader. But there are others (rarer, to be sure) in which the character considers natural what happens to him.

In the fullest sense of the word, it can be said that everything in that work is essential. In any case, it propounds the absurd problem altogether.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

‘It gives me the feeling of something very learned, forgive me if what I say is stupid, it gives me the feeling of something abstract which I don’t understand, but which I don’t need to understand either.’
(Frau Grubach, The Trial page 27)

About Kafka

The Trial was left unfinished at Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924. In one of the most notorious incidents in literary history, Kafka asked his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all his stories, novels, notes and drafts after his death, but Brod ignored this request, carefully edited the surviving texts, and arranged for their publication and promotion throughout the 1920s.

Thus The Trial was published in 1925, The Castle in 1926, America in 1927, and a collection of short stories in 1931. It was Brod’s decision not to burn, and then his dedication to editing and publishing the works, which made Kafka, already known in German literary circles, world famous.

The Trial – style

Not experimental in form As great works of literature go, The Trial is straightforward enough to read. There is no formal experimentalism, no cutting between points of view or stream of consciousness or insertions of bits of diary or newspaper, or any of the other tricks the Modernists used.

Blocks of prose The most notable feature is that, contrary to modern practice, the paragraphs are very long – pages and pages long. And the dialogue is embedded in them. Extended exchanges between two or three characters go on in one long, monolithic block of prose – utterly contrary to the modern practice of starting a new paragraph for each speaker, and each new bit of dialogue, no matter how brief.

These great blocks of solid text make Kafka’s prose rather hard going. You can’t tell at a glance whether a page consists of description or dialogue, and there are hardly any ‘breaks’, places where you can enter the big, solid page of print. The text looks and feels like an imposing monolith of words. If your concentration lapses even for a few seconds, it’s difficult to track back to the last bit you were paying attention to. There are no visual cues, making it hard to find your place again when you pick the book up after a break.

This might sound trivial but, in my opinion, contributes to the sense of struggle, effort and oppressiveness which the book radiates.

German Although Kafka was born and lived most of his life in Prague, he wrote in German. He spent most of his working life in an office at the Workers Insurance Office in Prague, only right at the end of his life quitting this job to go and try and earn a living in Berlin by his writing.

The Trial – the setting

It’s Joseph K’s birthday. He’s 30 years-old. He works in a bank where he holds the ‘comparatively high post’ (p.10) of ‘Assessor’ (at one point he refers to himself as ‘the junior manager of a large Bank’, p.48), and is deferred to by lowly clerks. He has a big office with a waiting room attached, and ‘an enormous plate glass window through which he looks down on ‘the busy life of the city’ (p.70).

Joseph lives in a rented room in a boarding house, and his landlady is Frau Grubach. Other lodgers include Fräulein Bürstner, a typist (p.16) and Frau Grubach’s nephew, one Captain Lanz, ‘a tall men in the early forties, with a tanned, fleshy face’ (p.91).

The plot

The plot is in a sense simple, has the simplicity of a fable or dream fantasia.

On the morning of his 30th birthday, Joseph K’s breakfast isn’t brought in by the cook, Anna, as usually happens. Instead two men arrive and announce themselves to be officials who have placed him under arrest. Their names are Franz and Willem. While Franz explains the situation, Willem sits in the living room and calmly eats Joseph’s breakfast (p.11). Neither are wearing official or police uniforms, but are dressed casually. They aren’t violent or threatening, their tone is much more of hard-done-by and misunderstood lowly bureaucrats just doing their jobs. Through the window, an old couple in the apartment opposite watch the goings-on. And the warders seem to have brought three ‘assistants’ who are rummaging around in the apartment, as well, looking at family photos on the piano (p.16).

This opening sets the tone of mystery and uncertainty. In the very first sentence we learn Joseph has been placed ‘under arrest’, but it’s never really clear what this means. Even the officials carrying out the arrest aren’t really certain about it.

‘I can’t even confirm that you are charged with an offence, or rather I don’t know whether you are or not. You are under arrest, certainly, more than that I do not know.’ (The Inspector, page 18)

Indeed, the officials leave Joseph free to go about his life exactly as before. He goes to work, he meets friends and his fiancée after work, everything continues as normal except for his nagging worry about what  being ‘under arrest’ means.

The following Sunday he is invited to a so-called ‘interrogation’. But when he turns up at the appointed location at the appointed time, he finds it is more like a meeting in a crowded church hall. The officials seated up on the stage are trying to make themselves heard, before Joseph tries to make a speech, despite various distractions in the audience.

In the next chapter he goes to the office of ‘the Prosecutor’, which turns out to be a dingy room at the end of a grubby corridor littered with shabby appellants and clients, and this meeting, also, becomes hopelessly confused, as Joseph finds himself distracted by the pretty wife of one of the officials.

In other words, The Trial is emphatically not a case of Joseph being arrested, carted off to prison and subject to harsh interrogations, the kind of thing which became routine in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and all the other totalitarian states which copied them during the 1930s and 40s.

Far from it. There is no police station or cell, no actual interrogation, nothing that well-defined and recognisable. Instead, there follows a series of dreamlike, very long-winded, and claustrophobically frustrating scenes.

Episodic

This air of continual uncertainty about what is going on, and what Joseph should do about it, and where and when and why he should be attending hearings, or whether he should be preparing documents to present to this or that official – he doesn’t know and his adviser, his uncle, having claimed intimate knowledge of the Court only ends up confusing things – all these levels of uncertainty are reinforced by the episodic structure of the novel.

The chapters start with variations on the same phrase – ‘One afternoon’, ‘A few evenings later’, ‘In the next few days’, ‘During the next week’, making each episode only loosely connected to the previous one, if at all.

The reasons for all this are clarified in Max Brod’s afterword to the novel. Here Brod explains that Kafka a) never finished the novel b) left it as a collection of fragments, of finished and unfinished chapters, and other scraps. It was Brod who decided what to include and exclude. Put simply, he included all of what seemed to be the ‘finished’ chapters, and excluded the fragments which were self-evidently incomplete.

As to the ordering of the chapters, again Brod relied on the fact that he had listened to Kafka reading excerpts of the book out aloud to Brod and other friends, and discussing it with them. That gave him a good sense of how things were meant to follow each other. Still, the novel we read is not the author’s final, definitive version: it is the best guess of an assistant.

All this helps to explain the ‘episodic’ feel of the ‘book’, as if the consecutive chapters nearly but don’t quite link up.

But then, this fragmentary and provisional state is entirely in tune with the text itself, which is also structured according to a kind of dreamlike lack of logic or consequence. Everyone talks to Joseph about his arrest and trial but he is at no point detained anywhere, or prevented from doing anything, and there is no actual trial in the entire book.

Indeed, as the book progresses you being to realise that the so-called ‘trial’ simply amounts to Joseph’s knowledge that he has been charged. He doesn’t know what for, and nobody can tell him. The ‘trial’ really amounts to the pervasive sense of guilt and unease which his plight comes to bleed into every area of  his life and every waking thought.

It’s in this sense that the trial is more of an existential condition rather than a procedure or event. The chapters don’t really move on ‘events’ or any kind of narrative, so much as deepen the mystery and confusion surrounding Joseph’s situation.

You begin to realise that there really could, in theory, have been any number of chapters in the book, since there isn’t really a plot as such. As you read on, you can see how Kafka laboured hard over getting down his conception of a man lost and persecuted by a world he doesn’t understand… but also why the approach he’s taken almost militates against it ever really being finished… The encounters with court officials, and the bad advice from relatives, and the bizarre encounters with various female characters, could all be expanded indefinitely. As in a nightmare.

Crowded with characters

I read The Trial when I was at school and over the years had developed the common impression that Joseph K. is one man alone against a vast faceless monolithic bureaucracy. But that is a completely misleading memory. The book is actually crowded with people, and shows Joseph embedded in multiple webs of relationships – personal, social, sexual, familial and professional.

Home and family In his boarding house live Frau Grubach, Fräulein Bürstner, a typist (p.92) and Frau Grubach’s nephew, one Captain Linz. Fräulein Bürstner is soon joined by a lodger to share her room, the sickly pale Fräulein Montag. There’s also Anna the cook (who we never meet) and reference is made to the house-porter and his son.

In Chapter Six Joseph’s Uncle Albert K. turns up (his name is only given on page 111). Albert shows Joseph a letter Joseph’s niece, the 17-year-old Erna, has written the uncle, expressing her concern about Joseph, who has promised to go and visit her but never has. That’s why Albert’s come to see him. Uncle Albert takes his nephew off to see the Advocate Huld.

In other words, far from being one man against a faceless world, just considering Joseph’s home already furnishes us with quite an extensive cast. In other words, the novel is surprisingly busy and populated.

The neighbours Joseph’s arrest is watched through the window from the apartment across the way by ‘two old creatures’, and a tall young man with a reddish beard (p.17). ‘A fine crowd of spectators!’ cries Joseph. Who are they? We never find out, they are just silent watchers, adding to the sense of voyeurism and unease.

Work At work Joseph interacts with a number of junior clerks, the Manager of the Bank invites him for a drive or for dinner at his villa (p.24) and the Deputy Director invites him to a party on his yacht, and then crops up in most of the subsequent Bank scenes, poking and prying around in Joseph’s office. At other points Joseph is seen giving orders to any number of junior clerks and, in several scenes, we see him dealing with customers of the bank, including a manufacturer, and then a cohort of three business men.

So, once again, he isn’t a solo agent, but embedded in a network of professional relationships.

Crowd scenes

There are not only far more characters than you might have expected, but plenty of actual crowds.

In Chapter Three Joseph is told to attend an ‘interrogation’ at a set time and place the following Sunday. But first of all he has a hard time finding the building, as it is in a warren of slums, the kind of late-Victorian slum where everyone is out on the street yelling and fighting or selling stuff from cheap stalls, or cleaning doorsteps etc. (This page and a half describing Juliusstrasse, p.42, is an interesting piece of social history and reportage.)

And when he gets to the building itself, Joseph discovers it is a rabbit-warren of corridors and staircases. And when he finally arrives at the room where the so-called ‘interrogation’ is meant to take place, he discovers it is packed out with a crowd, like a meeting in a village hall –

K. felt as if her were entering a meeting-hall. (p.45)

– and that the official meant to be conducting the ‘interrogation’ is ‘a fat little wheezing man’ sitting up on the stage, by a table along with a number of other officials and assistants. In fact there is no procedure at all, there is no actual interrogation, just long dialogues where both sides try to figure out what is happening, all of which is interrupted by a student right at the back of the hall, wrestling a women to the ground in a clinch, it’s not clear whether they’re having sex or not but it’s certainly a love or sexual embrace, which utterly distracts the crowd from the proceedings up at the front.

This is the complete opposite of the icily terrifying interrogation scenes in books like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Darkness at Noon. The initial scenes in the slum street reminded me of Dickens, and then the scene amid the crowded meeting is like a very long-winded dream which is going nowhere but in which you feel you’re drowning or asphyxiating, mixed in with surreally jarring details.

The whole book is like that, a series of encounters with grand-sounding officials who turn out to be shabby little men tucked away in grubby attic rooms who, when pressed, know remarkably little about the procedures of the Court, have only heard about the higher officials, point out the many ways Joseph has blotted his copybook and upset the powers-that-be without even realising it, and give ominous but often contradictory advice which, far from helping Joseph, sinks him deeper and deeper into a sense that he’ll never understand what’s going on or be able to do anything about it.

Court officials

Joseph meets umpteen representatives of ‘the authority’ under which he seems to have been arrested, starting with the two warders who make ‘the arrest, Franz and Willem, followed by the Inspector who takes over Fräulein Bürstner’s room to turn it into a makeshift office, and proceeds to explain everything, but in an obscure and puzzling way.

It is also odd and confusing that the three ‘assistants’ who are fussing around in the background of Fräulein Bürstner’s room turn out, on closer inspection, to be three young clerks he knows from his bank – Rabensteiner, Kullich and Kaminer.

It’s also confusing that later, describing it all to Fräulein Bürstner and apologising for the way they moved furniture around in her bedroom, Joseph refers to them collectively as ‘the Interrogation Commission’ (p.33) a phrase none of them had used. In other words, Joseph himself collaborates in making what was in reality two shabby badly-paid warders and a lowly inspector, appear and sound like something much more grand and official.

When, in Chapter Two, Joseph goes to the building in Juliusstrasse as instructed over the phone, he meets the ‘Examining Magistrate’, presiding over an ‘Interrogation Chamber’. But in reality the magistrate is a comical fat little man and the Interrogation Chamber is like a packed village hall.

In fact all the way through, the so-called officials have grand-sounding titles which contrast mockingly with their shabby surroundings (‘the dimness, dust, and reek’, p.47), their cheap suits and lack of authority or knowledge.

When he looks down at the first row of men in the meeting hall which constitutes the Interrogation Room, Joseph expects to see a row of wise and seasoned lawyers, but instead sees a row of senile old men with long white beards. All his expectations are subverted. Everything is old, decayed, ineffectual. This continual subversion of expectations is a form of satire, a kind of dream satire.

He goes on to meet:

  • the Law Court Attendant
  • the grey-haired worn-out litigant
  • a warder smartly dressed in a smart grey waistcoat who represents the Inquiries Department
  • the Clerk of Enquiries
  • the Law Court Attendant
  • the Advocate Huld
  • the Chief Clerk of the Court
  • the businessman
  • the painter Titorelli
  • the chaplain

The higher authorities

The most obvious thing about the ‘authorities’ that everyone tells him about, is that even though Joseph himself believes it to be a grand and mighty organisation…

There can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today’s interrogation, there is a great organisation at work. (p.54)

… in reality, the only people he ever comes into contact with seem to be at the very bottom of the hierarchy, very junior officials who, once he gets to know them, stop being intimidating and, quite the opposite, come over as paltry and whinging, spending their time complaining that they don’t like their jobs, don’t know what this case is all about etc etc.

So if the low-downs are a shabby bunch, surely the higher-ups must be more impressive? But in conversation after conversation, not only with members of ‘the Court’ but with hangers-on and outsiders, like the Law Court Attendant’s wife, they all convey the same sense that the hierarchy of officials extends infinitely upwards, and can never be reached.

‘The higher officials keep themselves well hidden.’ (p.120)

‘For the Judges of the lowest grade, to whom my acquaintances belong, haven’t the power to grant a final acquittal, that power is reserved for the highest Court of all, which is quite inaccessible to you, to me, to everyone.’ (Advocate Huld p.175)

In the real world of 1910s Austro-Hungarian Prague, there was, of course, en entirely public hierarchy of law courts, from local to municipal up to a High Court and then to the Emperor, who could be appealed to by legal petition. Kafka knew all about it since he himself had studied law at university.

In parallel, in the Roman Catholic religion of Kafka’s Prague, there were numerous intermediaries – priests then bishops, archbishops, then saints, the Virgin Mary and then God himself who could be appealed to by prayer.

Both of these hierarchies have an end, a top, an ultimate authority.

But Kafka’s hierarchy has no top, no pinnacle. You can appeal upwards for the rest of your life, and never reach anyone who has the ultimate say. Because there is no ultimate say.

The ranks of officials in this judiciary system mounted endlessly, so that not even adepts could survey the hierarchy as a whole. (p.132)

Chapter Seven is the one which really brings this home, being the Advocate’s account of his situation, in which – typically – he laments the plight of advocates such as himself (i.e. one of being miserably ignored by ‘the higher authorities’), and the likely fate of any appeals Joseph might make (waste of time). If you don’t have time or patience to read the whole book, you could (arguably) read Chapter Seven to get a vivid understanding of what the ‘Kafkaesque’ really means.

Shabbiness

The novel is full of shabby, half-derelict buildings. All the locations of the great Authority which Joseph is trying to identify are rundown, dirty, and generally located up rickety staircases in the attic rooms of derelict buildings out in the suburbs.

The whole milieu, all the settings, are deliberately opposite to the Grand Palaces and Castles and Institutions of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy which Kafka began writing under. Google anything about modern-day Prague and you get images of brightly painted palaces and castles and Baroque churches and olde buildings.

Kafka’s Pargue couldn’t be more different, shabby and dirty and rickety and tumbledown. The ceiling of the court in Chapter Two is so low that people watching proceedings from the gallery are bent nearly in two, and use pillows to prevent their heads banging against the roof.

In Chapter Three Joseph can’t believe that such an important personage as the Examining Magistrate lives in a creaky garret at the top of some narrow stairs (p.69). When he goes up there to investigate, Joseph discovers a long narrow hallway, lined with benches on which sit the shabby, defeated clients of the Court (p.73).

When Joseph starts to feel faint because it’s so hot and stuffy, a young woman attendant (there always seems to be one of these at hand) opens a skylight, and so much soot immediately falls into the corridor that they have to close it and wipe Joseph down (p.78).

It is symptomatic that even the dining room in Frau Grubach’s house is inconveniently long and narrow, into which two cupboards are wedged at angles and the table so long it makes the window at the very end all but inaccessible (p.89). All the buildings and stairs and corridors and rooms are like this – difficult, and inconvenient.

Or that the bedroom of the Attorney Huld is so dark and dingy, illuminated only by one weak candle, that Albert and Joseph are half way through a long explanation of Joseph’s case to the bed-ridden Advocate, before either of them realise that there is another guest in the bedroom, completely hidden in the shadows, namely the Chief Clerk of the Court (p.116).

On a later visit the Advocate tells him the defence attorneys are in fact only barely tolerated by the court and that their room is small and cramped, right up in the attic, lit only by a skylight which is so high up the only way to see out of it is to get a colleague to hoist you up onto his back, and even then the smoke from the nearby chimney would choke you and blacken your face. Plus there’s a hole in the floor through which, if you’re not careful, you might stick your leg (p.129).

When in Chapter Seven Joseph catches a taxi to go and consult with the painter Titorelli, on the advice of ‘the manufacturer’ who he meets at work (at the Bank), Joseph is dismayed to find the painter’s studio in a slum neighbourhood, with a gaping hole in the doorway, some disgusting effluent oozing out of a pipe, inexplicably a baby lying in filth and crying, and the garret up disproportionately high, long, narrow stairs, and the artist’s studio ‘a wretched hole’ (p.160) made of bare wooden planks, in which you can hardly take two paces in any direction. Although there is a window set in the ceiling, as the atmosphere grows more and more stuffy, and Joseph breaks into a sweat, he’s told it can’t be opened, oh no.

There is no relief anywhere.

Sex…

Part of the dreamlike atmosphere is the way Joseph drifts easily from woman to woman: I mean that he has barely encountered a woman before they routinely start flirting with him, and sometimes have sex with him.

Given the generally Victorian tenor of the book, with its insistence on correct dressing and formal manners, it is incongruous how, every time he meets a new woman, Joseph immediately starts thinking about ‘having’ her – and how easy these women then are to be seduced, holding hands, then kissing and, in some instances, having sex.

Elsa Joseph tells us he has a girlfriend of sorts, Elsa, who dances at a cabaret, and receives guests during the day in bed (p.24). I couldn’t work out fro the text whether this just meant she had Bohemian manners, or was a prostitute. (I’ve subsequently read that yes, she is intended to be a prostitute.)

Fräulein Bürstner In the course of a long conversation with Fräulein Bürstner in which he apologises for the impertinence of the men who ‘arrested’ him and took over her room for the purpose, Joseph takes her hand, then kisses her fingers and they begin a flirtation.

The Law Court Attendant’s wife When he visits the ‘court’ where his first ‘interrogation’ takes place, proceedings, such as they are, are interrupted by the bright-eyed woman at the back falling to the ground in the grip of a young man.

When Joseph returns to the ‘court’ the following Sunday, he finds it empty except for the same young woman. She shows him the books lying on the Examining Magistrate’s table – which he imagines will be weighty books of law – but they are in fact cheap pornography (p.61).

The woman shows him round, explaining that she is married to an official of the court, the Law Court Attendant, then starts flirting with him, ‘offering’ herself to him.

She tells him how the Examining Magistrate works late into the night and one night, she discovered him at the end of the bed, holding a lamp, and remarking on how beautiful she looks. He sent her a pair of silk stockings as a wooing present. He, the magistrate, knows that she is married. She is telling him naughty or provocative stories in order to signal her sexual availability, which she then makes overt when she pulls up her skirt to admire her stockings. A page later she tells him:

‘I’ll go with you wherever you like, you can do with me what you please. I’ll be glad if I can only get out of here…’ (p.65)

But she and Joseph have barely got into their flirtation before another young man, Bertold, appears in the meeting room and takes the wife off to an alcove for an intense conversation, which – to Joseph’s astonishment – soon progresses to him kissing her on the neck. When Joseph steps forward to protest, the young man sweeps the woman up in one arm (a gesture which, by itself, is surreal enough) and carries her away upstairs for the ‘use’ of the Examining Magistrate.

if she’s the mistress of the Examining Magistrate why was she flirting so fiercely with Joseph? Why did she let the other man kiss her? What does any of this mean?

Leni Then, in Chapter Six, Joseph’s Uncle Albert arrives and takes him by taxi to the home of the Advocate Huld, another rundown house, mostly in darkness. They’re shown up the stairs to the official’s room by another dark-eyed beauty, who we learn is named Leni (p.113) and is the old man’s nurse (he’s had a heart attack and is bed-ridden).

Half way through the conversation with the official they all hear a plate smash somewhere in the house and Joseph volunteers to go investigate. Down in the darkened hallway, Leni takes his hand and leads him away from the others, sits on his lap, kisses him and then pulls him forward onto the floor on top of her. The text then cuts to him getting up and adjusting his clothing. Presumably they have, in this lacuna, had sex! (p.123).

This seems to be confirmed when, at the end of the chapter, a furious uncle Albert asks Joseph what the devil he thinks he’s playing at, not only walking out on a vital meeting which will decide his future, but then sleeping with the nurse who is, according to Uncle Albert, also the Advocate’s mistress.

Again, a woman who appears to be ‘giving herself’ to Joseph, turns out to ‘belong’ to another man – and a man higher up in the authorities and officials of the Court. Is that the point? That any woman he flirts with turns out to be already co-opted by the Court? That the Court owns not only him, but all his personal relationships?

The pubescent girls In Chapter Seven, when Joseph visits the painter Titorelli in his rickety slum, part of the slum vibe is the way a gaggle of pubescent street girls flock around the visitor, and tease and torment the painter, continually interrupting their conversation through the keyhole and poking object, paper and straw, up through the floorboards. An unnerving note being struck when the ringleader of the girls gives Joseph an unmistakably flirtatious and sexually knowing look, as she shows him up to the painter’s garret.

Even Joseph notices the ubiquity of woman in  his story.

‘I seem to recruit women helpers’, he thought almost in surprise: ‘first Fräulein Bürstner, then the wife of the Law Court Attendant, and now this cherishing little creature…’ (p.121)

(The ‘cherishing little creature’ being sexy Leni who is sitting on Joseph’s lap at that moment.)

So, taken together, you get the strong feeling that these aren’t real ‘women’, so much as counters or markers in the elaborate game which is being played out.

Because it’s not as simple as the male protagonist finding a steady stream of women throwing themselves at him. That would be level one male sexual fantasy. Instead, there’s this added level that all the women who do so are already sexually involved with at least one, sometimes two or more, other men.

The Law Court Attendant’s wife is also snogging Bertold and seems to be the Examining Magistrate’s mistress. Similarly, Leni has sex with Joseph but appears to be the Advocate’s mistress, and, when he visits in Chapter Seven, he finds another client of the Advocate’s, along with Leni, both half undressed.

Like everything else, these sexual partners are themselves ambiguous and unstable, not fixed points. They present another layer of human interactions which turn out to be unreliable and ambiguous, continually putting the meaning of what Joseph thinks he’s doing in doubt.

Just as all the Court officials he meets turn out to be low-ranking and as powerless and confused as him i.e. are not what they seem – so all the women appear to make what, in the ordinary world, would be pretty binding commitments to Joseph (holding hands, kissing, groping and having sex) and yet are continually revealed to belong to someone else, to not be in the kind of relationship with him with Joseph mistakenly imagined.

… and violence

On the whole the novel eschews violence. Almost all of it consists of long-winded dialogue between bemused and puzzled characters, often with a lot of late-Victorian politeness and courtesy.

Which makes the occurrence of the rare moments of actual violence all the more shocking. In Chapter Five, titled ‘The Whipper’, Joseph is at work in the bank, when he hears noises from one of the many storerooms. When he opens it he discovers to his horror the two ‘warders’ who came to ‘arrest’ him, Franz and Willem, stripped half naked while a big rough, sunburned man wearing a leather jerkin like a blacksmith, is whipping them with a hard rod while they scream in pain.

This is so brutal and so unexpected, so completely unlike the dreamlike wanderings round a busy city and peculiarly inconsequential encounters in shabby rooms at the end of long dirty corridors, that it is difficult to know how to react.

Joseph reacts by desperately offering the man money to let Franz and Willem go, but – and here’s a very characteristic Kafka touch – the whippees themselves refuse. They acknowledge their guilt. And what is their crime? Having been too fond and familiar with Joseph. He is partly to blame for their shocking punishment.

But hang on – why is all this taking place in a room in his bank? It is like a Terry Gilliam film, where someone opens a door in a boring bank and there are two half-naked men being whipped. When one of them lets out a particularly piercing scream, Joseph shoots back out of the room and slams the door shut. He notices a couple of the bank’s clerks walking towards him to investigate the scream and so, in a fluster, orders them to go about some other business.

What makes this scene even more bizarre, is that – having gone home and been troubled about what he saw all night – the next day at the Bank, Joseph tentatively goes along the corridor to the same room, opens the door and… discovers the three men in exactly the same postures, and picking up the conversation where it left off! That really is like something out of a film or, a nightmare.

And it is also symptomatic of the highly episodic nature of the book in the way it is a stand-alone episode, self-contained and leading, apparently, nowhere. Did Kafka intend other scenes of extreme violence, of which there is now no trace? Or was it consciously intended to stick out on account of its violence?

We can guess that this is one of the many editorial problems which the author faced, which led to him abandoning the book and then, a decade later, being so embarrassed by it that he asked Brod to burn it all.

The trial of being

Chapter Seven is the one which really brings into focus the way that the trial has nothing to do with anything Joseph K. has actually done: it is a trial of his very existence. It brings into doubt everything about him.

By the time we get to this chapter, the trial has come to obsessing Joseph K. and is forcing him to go back over every single action he’s ever taken, every thought and gesture, to try and discover what it was that he did wrong.

To meet an unknown accusation, not to mention other possible charges arising out of it, the whole of one’s life would have to be passed in review, down to the smallest actions and accidents, clearly formulated and  examined from every angle. (p.143)

I think this is the sense of Brod’s remarks about Kafka’s religious concerns. This hypersensitive paranoid self-consciousness reminds me of the 17th century Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans who kept minutely detailed diaries and journals dedicated for just one purpose: to monitor every act and thought which might indicate whether the author was among those pre-determined by Calvinist theology to hell and damnation.

The entire book describes Joseph K.’s efforts not so much to defend himself as to discover what it is he’s been charged with, and in fact he never finds out.

In fact the entire book is a masterpiece of (very verbose) obfuscation and delay.

In the stories which Kafka left us, narrative art regains the significance it had in the mouth of Scheherazade: to postpone the future. In The Trial postponement is the hope of the accused man only if the proceedings do not gradually turn into the judgment. (Walter Benjamin)

Pages and pages and pages are devoted to dialogue between Joseph and the Inspector or Examining Magistrate or the Law Court Attendant or the Advocate Huld or the Chief Clerk of the Court, and each, in turn, tut tuts over Joseph’s behavior and attitude and explains some of the processes, while continually emphasising that they don’t understand most of it, no, a man in his position barely understands the cases that pass through his hands, may spend weeks or months preparing papers which they send off to higher authorities but never see again, or are returned unread, or may have a damaging rather than a meliorating effect, you never can tell.. and so on and so on, endlessly.

The majority of the text is taken up by that testimonies of these ‘lower’ officials which rarely if ever describe any tangible process, but repeat in ever more tormenting detail what a lowly role they hold and how little they understand.

By half-way through the book you can see why Max Brod wrote that Kafka could have gone on adding an indefinite number of extra chapters, making up a never-ending sequence of interviews Joseph has with a never-ending series of minor officials, each with grand-sounding titles who, when he actually meets them, turn out to be ill or old or fat or grubby little men, shacked up in makeshift offices up in the attics of slum buildings in out-of-the-way parts of the city, who proceed to spend entire chapters telling him that his case is going badly, oh very badly, or that he’s missed some golden opportunities to improve his lot, but, ho hum, they must do what they can, although they don’t really have much power and most of their efforts come to nothing or might even be counter-productive, but he will certainly have to come back and talk to them at greater length. Again. Forever.

It is the repetition of this kind of scene which gives the book its dream-like feel and structure, the sense of fighting with a giant blancmange which can never be seized or grasped or properly pinned down or attacked, let alone defeated.

It gives you a really uncomfortable cumulative sense of smothering and asphyxiating in a series of long drawn-out very wordy encounters with petty officials which always leave you even more in the dark than when you started.

And always accompanied by the constant, hyper-anxious sense that, whatever you’re doing, it is wrong – you are offending and alienating people, the people you share a house with, your work colleagues who notice you increasingly neglecting your duties, every single figure of authority you come into contact with who looks at you, shakes their head and says ‘Tut tut, if only you’d come to me sooner’… and all the time, you don’t know what it is you’ve done wrong!

Credit

The Trial by Franz Kafka was published in German in 1925. The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir was first published in 1935 by Victor Gollancz, then by Penguin in 1953. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Related reviews

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus (1943)

I can’t bear to hear you talking like that, about crime and punishment… (p.105)
[Martha to her mother, Act 3, Le Malentendu]

Apparently, Camus heard the story this play is based on while on a holiday in Czechoslovakia in 1936:

When his father dies a young man, Jan,leaves home to seek his fortune. Years later he returns a rich man determined to surprise his old mother and grown-up sister, Martha, and asks to stay at their wayside inn without telling them who he is (he is so changed in appearance that they don’t recognise him). Little does he know that in the intervening years his mother (reluctantly) and sister (enthusiastically) have adopted the habit of murdering rich travellers who stay with them. Despite umpteen moments when he could have told them who he is, the son continues to conceal his identity and so the women murder him (giving him a sleeping draught in his evening tea, then dumping his comatose body in the river). The next morning, while going through his papers, they discover the truth – that he is their son/brother.

It has the feeling of a folk story, with the grim bitterness of folk wisdom. It certainly makes for a very taut if characteristically diagrammatic play.

In tune with the neo-classicising tendencies of between-the-war France (think the neoclassical works of Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso), Camus tries to give the language the clarity and depth of classical tragedy. The more abstract the action, the more allegorical the story becomes, capable of numerous interpretations. The most obvious interpretation is to see it as a demonstration of the ‘Absurdity’ of the world, and the preposterous vanity of human wishes.

Jan’s wife, Maria, has accompanied her husband on his pilgrimage back to his old home and begs him to reveal who he is, her feminine intuition (and the the genre of tragedy) giving her a premonition that something bad will come of keeping silent. But Jan refuses, he wants to get to know his mother and sister again as they naturally are, before revealing his identity, and – after some feverish dialogue – he sends Maria away before checking into the inn.

Above and beyond the schematic nature of the plot, Camus gives the play a kind of structural symmetry by having the daughter of the house, Martha, and the wife, Maria, mirror each other. Martha is motivated to murder rich men in order to fulfil her dream of being able to leave the rainy country behind and go and live in the hot south by the blue sea. Placed in the diagram opposite her is the young man’s wife, Maria. Martha, in her dialogue with Jan, paints rhapsodic pictures of the hot country by the blue sea where they live and which they have left behind on this fool’s errand – so that Jan can carry out what he thinks of as his duty, and share his money with his mother and sister.

One aspires to travel to – the other has come on pilgrimage from – the unnamed hot country.

Outcome

When Martha reads the passport which reveals that she has just murdered her brother, she doesn’t go wailing hysterical but stands numb. She hands it to her mother who breaks down and vows to kill herself. Martha doesn’t stop her mother as she exits the stage to go and throw herself in the self-same river where they disposed of her son’s body.

Then Maria enters asking where her husband is. There is absolutely no shred of psychology or any human touch in the way Camus has Martha tell Maria point blank: ‘He’s dead. We murdered him.’ She sounds like a robot, and the news gives rise to an entirely predictable outbreak of weeping and wailing on the part of Maria. But this doesn’t result in what you could call any believably human behaviour (like Maria attacking Martha, maybe, or smashing up a few things).

Instead, the pair remain more or less fixed in place and, through tears of anguish, discuss the philosophical issues this dreadful misunderstanding has raised. Well, shout about the philosophical issues.

Crime and punishment

Le Malentendu confirms the sense I’ve been developing that Camus’s over-riding concern is more about Justice, about the contrast between divine and human Justice, the (im)possibility of Justice in a godless universe – than about absurdist existentialism as such.

As in Caligula the terminology of crime and punishment dominate the characters’ dialogue – after all the entire play centres (as does his famous novel, The Outsider) on a murder. It is no accident that Dostoyevsky figures in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, nor that Camus’s last work was a labour of love converting Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils into an elaborate stage production. The more of Camus I read, the more I realise that crime and punishment seen in are his central concerns.

Religion

But they are crime and punishment seen, as in Dostoyevsky, from a religious point of view. Cross Purpose tends to confirm my sense for the centrality of Catholic religion in Camus. On the last page the two women, Martha and her opposite number Maria, reach a crescendo of hysteria, Martha (the murdering sister) yelling at Maria that love is futile and life is pointless, we all end up in the wet mud of the grave eaten by worms:

What do they serve, those blind impulses that surge up in us, the yearnings that rack our souls? Why cry out for the sea, or love? What futility! Your husband knows now what the answer is: that charnel house where in the end we shall lie huddled together, side by side. (p.114)

And she yells in contempt at Maria to pray to her useless God. But despite this atheist harangue, pray to God is just what Maria proceeds to do in the final gesture of the play:

Oh God, I cannot live in this desert! It is on you that I must call, and I shall find the words to say. [She sinks on her knees.] I place myself in your hands. Have pity, turn towards me. Hear me and raise me from the dust, oh Heavenly Father! Have pity on those who love each other and are parted. (p.115)

‘Ayez pitié de moi,’ is the cry at the end of Racine’s searing tragedy, Andromache, but Racine’s characters believed in God. Here the very idea of God, or calling on him, is heavily mocked because Maria’s agonised prayer is, apparently, answered by the old serving man. This figure has been absolutely mute throughout the play, shuffling here and there in silence to tidy up the dishes and so on. Now, as Maria, stricken, on her knees, begs for mercy, the door opens and the old man comes in and -for the first time – speaks:

THE OLD MANSERVANT [in a clear, firm tone]: What’s all this noise? Did you call me?
MARIA [gazing at him]: Oh!… I don’t know. But help me, help me, for I need help. Be kind and say that you will help me.
THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.

These are the last words in the play. I think it is intended to sear your soul with the futility and meaningless of life and to be a really bitter satire on the complete absence of God or divine love from the world – rather the opposite, the ironic presence of mocking humanity. But, as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, I think the modern reader would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing at its preposterously pompous self-importance.

The translation

The translation is, frankly, dire. I can’t imagine it being used on a modern stage; to be remotely usable it would have to be comprehensively rewritten.

Unhappily one needs a great deal of money to be able to live in freedom by the sea. (p.68)

Do please let us take the chance of someone’s coming and my telling who you are. (p.71)

On such occasions one says, ‘It’s I,’ and then it’s all plain sailing… There are situations in which the normal way of acting is obviously the best. If one wants to be recognised, one starts by telling one’s name; that’s common sense. Otherwise, by pretending to be what one is not, one simply muddles everything. (p.72)

I have not been given my rights and I am smarting at the injustice done to me… Let every door be shut against me; all I wish is to be left in peace with my anger, my very rightful anger. (p.108)

Algeria

It is of passing interest that the hot southern land which Martha longs for and which Jan and Maria come from is pretty obviously Algeria. Camus was effectively exiled in mainland France during the Second World War, when he wrote Le Malentendu, and he pined for his hot homeland and also for his wife, who had stayed there to pursue her career as a teacher.

Martha imagines her hot sun-bleached paradise, and Jan describes to her the sound of the waves and the colourful flowers of spring, and his wife Maria laments having to leave the blue skies of home – all of them quite obviously describing Camus’s Algeria,

that southern land, guarded by the sea, to which one can escape, where one can breathe freely, press one’s body to another body, rolling in the waves… (p.108)

But having processed this fact – Algeria = sunny paradise, Europe = rainy prison – it doesn’t really add much to your appreciation of the play except to make it seem even more schematic.

And having recently read Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Camus makes the informed reader notice that in all three characters’ fantasies of this hot country there are no people, certainly no dirty impoverished Arabs to clutter up the scenery. As in L’Etranger and La Peste Algeria is a depopulated allegory of a country rather than a historic place.


Credit

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus was written in 1943 in occupied France, and performed and published in liberated Paris in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Cross Purpose was brought together with CaligulaThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (p.63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence) which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims, and comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city. The plague just gets worse and worse with Rieux reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary ideas derived from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these come into contact with Dr Rieux, acquaintances who he treats or friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon, Jacques. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t let off till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, but Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this very believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself the Narrator, who explains how he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age, it is he who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s flail or scourge swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. He offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There follow inevitable are dialogues between Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in conversation with Rieux and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. it is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which the narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of tertiary characters like Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates through existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned harpy of Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the injustice of bourgeois society, which stood up for the workers and the humiliated everywhere. But he found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders claimed were necessary to overthrow the regime which carried out executions. Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying all chime perfectly. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois legal world of his father, he has equally walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register of this text – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. A saint without God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He is a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague strikes. When the city is closed he finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers. This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another and primed to be smuggled out of a gate by ‘friendly’ guards only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches. It is the presumably deliberate opposite of Hollywood exciting. Somewhere the narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion is contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-struck Oran, he’s realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the issues of Camus’s time, or of larger issues of justice and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic version of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, he uses his skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by the narrator as precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which the narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them when Grand calls Rieux to tell him he’s found Cottard just as he was hanging himself. They save and restore him. From that point on Cottard is shifty and evades police and the authorities since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in he becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises it is bubonic plague quicker than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally introduced, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague which ultimately declines because it has just worn itself out.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children round town. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a victim he is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising them like this makes it clearer than when actually reading it, how schematic the characters are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity. Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types.

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, is set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist.

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever, pain, the last-minute falling off of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto.

Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus is not a philosopher – although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to the same level as Sartre who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s tribe – and Camus himself is ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus is a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe. ‘Exile’ is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging. He uses the word ‘hope’ to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his other ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’. The medical aspect is medieval. We read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter at around 100 pages each. The Plague is the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The revelation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is arguably more important that the ideas around the Absurd
  3. The horrible long-winded style which makes stretches of it almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post).

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18 year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England where the Church of England is run by nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics. The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God. Politically, the Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free to make your own set of values and decisions derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

A lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something – and now it is lost. In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or exiled by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse. Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals without bursting into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of facts about the world we live, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

All this is prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly existential or atheist worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology. This plucky godlessness only really has meaning be reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. They can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of throats, some foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc — it’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before they can get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity or what have you.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace, before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus. The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his own life and actions – but where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text infested with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are some passages about the Absurd but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. Notions of the law are inextricable interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice. And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and now have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wondered why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and be a member of the Resistance. That would be of huge historic importance and also directly tie his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful. Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels mention the war, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all, with their predominating idea of the injustice of the world.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything, a transparent reference to The Trial.)

Statistical evidence

Because the entire translated text is available online, you can do a word search, with the following results which tend to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

So there is surprisingly little direct reference to the main concepts which made him famous. Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more expressed and discussed.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’. This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from belief systems which give our lives purpose. But it is typical of Camus that it isn’t a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Essays from The Myth of Sisyphus

The Penguin paperback edition of The Myth of Sisyphus is pads out the title essay with five essays which span Camus’s writing career. These are much shorter than Sisyphus and give free rein to Camus’s taste for sensual impressionism laced with philosophising.

1. Summer in Algiers (1936)

Born in 1913, Camus was 26 when this piece was published. At just 12 pages long it’s a brief, impressionistic depiction of his home town, which already displays key aspects of his style. These include:

Arresting phraseology which, upon reflection, is questionable if not meaningless. The opening sentence is:

The loves we share with a city are often secret loves.

Over the top imagery, hyperbole, a histrionic tone.

Old walled towns like Paris, Prague, and even Florence are closed in on themselves and hence limit the world that belongs to them. But Algiers (together with certain other privileged places such as cities on the sea) opens to the sky like a mouth or a wound.

Is Algiers a mouth? (No) Do mouths always open to the sky? (No). ‘Like a wound’? Is a city like a wound? In what possible way?

Ahistorical Mention of wounds immediately puts me in mind of the atrocities committed during the eight year Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), and then the appallingly violent civil war of the 1990s. Camus obviously didn’t know anything about these – but we do. It makes his casually extreme or violent references seem… irresponsible. When he writes that:

Everything here calls for solitude and the blood of young men

we know that his premonition of hyperbole or whatever it is, is going to be horribly fulfilled.

Meaningless I don’t understand critics who say Camus is lucid and clear. For me, much of what he wrote is impenetrable gibberish. The first sentence is clear enough – the next three seem to me not only meaningless but pointless. They are verbiage, discourse for its own sake.

In Algiers one loves the commonplaces: the sea at the end of every street, a certain volume of sunlight, the beauty of the race. And, as always, in that unashamed offering there is a secret fragrance. In Paris it is possible to be homesick for space and a beating of wings. Here at least man is gratified in every wish and, sure of his desires, can at last measure his possessions.

Pseudo-philosophy Camus studied philosophy at university but I am continually reminded of the superior and sometimes dismissive attitude taken towards him by Jean-Paul Sartre, a professional philosopher. In his works Camus invokes philosophical or pseud-philosophical concepts, but they are really words for feelings, mood, climates of thought, rather than for much rational argument. Of Algeria, he writes:

It is satisfied to give, but in abundance. It is completely accessible to the eyes, and you know it the moment you enjoy it. Its pleasures are without remedy and its joys without hope. Above all, it requires clairvoyant souls – that is, without solace. It insists upon one’s performing an act of lucidity as one performs an act of faith. Strange country that gives the man it nourishes both his splendor and his misery!

The first two sentences are intelligible. But what does ‘Its pleasures are without remedy and its joys without hope’ mean? ‘Its pleasures are without remedy’. Do pleasures need a remedy? Do your pleasures need a remedy? And do your joys normally require hope?

This isn’t at all philosophy, it is posturing, it is attitudinising, it is displaying a turn of mind, a cast of thought, and right from the get-go it is a stricken worldview, one which can’t, in fact, accept simply and gratefully the sensual pleasures of sunshine and swimming, but is addicted to portraying every single element of human experience as a plight, a sickness, a problem, which requires cure, remedy, hope.

It is not surprising that the sensual riches granted to a sensitive man of these regions should coincide with the most extreme destitution. No truth fails to carry with it its bitterness.

What is he on about? Why must sensual riches coincide with destitution? ‘No truth fails to carry with it its bitterness.’ This is rubbish. there are plenty of joyful truths. In hundreds, in thousands of sentences like this, Camus repeats his one idea that human existence has a surface of sensual pleasure beneath which lurks the existential anguish of the Absurd meaninglessness of life – without solace, without remedy, without hope, and so on and on.

Dubious translation Reading Camus I am continually aware that I must be missing something; he makes fine distinctions which don’t appear to carry over in to English.

In Algiers no one says “go for a swim,” but rather “indulge in a swim.” The implications are clear.

No they’re not, I really don’t see what the implications are. So often I am mystified and frustrated.

Straightforward lyricism Just when I’m about the fling the book in the corner there are passages of comprehensible description, which just about manage to keep me reading. Sometimes of great beauty.

Above all, there is the silence of summer evenings. Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summons for my Algiers to be so closely linked to them. When I spend some time far from that town, I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive trees. And toward them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes. A whole little nation of red clouds stretches out until it is absorbed in the air. Almost immediately afterward appears the first star that had been seen taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming, night. What exceptional quality do the fugitive Algerian evenings possess to be able to release so many things in me?

2. The Minotaur or the Stop in Oran (1939)

This essay deals with a certain temptation. It is essential to have known it. One can then act or not, but with full knowledge of the facts.

I have no idea what this means. The essay in fact gives impressions of Oran, Algeria’s second city. There is a section on the street fashion of the young (youths aged 16 to 20) which is for the boys to look like Clark Gable and the girls to try to look like Marlene Dietrich. There is a section on the popularity of shoeshine boys. He visits a boxing match full of over-excitable novices. He laughs at the ludicrous statues of two lions in front of the City Hall. But the image which keeps recurring is of the stoniness of Oran. It is seen as a kind of desert. Unlike European cities, clamorous with history, Oran’s youth and ugliness make it place where you can… where a man can… well, I didn’t quite understand what you can do there.

It is impossible to know what stone is without coming to Oran. In that dustiest of cities, the pebble is king. It is so much appreciated that shopkeepers exhibit it in their show windows to hold papers in place or even for mere display. Piles of them are set up along the streets, doubtless for the eyes’ delight, since a year later the pile is still there. Whatever elsewhere derives its poetry from the vegetable kingdom here takes on a stone face. The hundred or so trees that can be found in the business section have been carefully covered with dust. They are petrified plants whose branches give off an acrid, dusty smell. In Algiers the Arab cemeteries have a well-known mellowness. In Oran, above the Ras-el-Ain ravine, facing the sea this time, flat against the blue sky, are fields of chalky, friable pebbles in which the sun blinds with its fires. Amid these bare bones of the earth a purple geranium, from time to time, contributes its life and fresh blood to the landscape. The whole city has solidified in a stony matrix. Seen from Les Planteurs, the depth of the cliffs surrounding it is so great that the landscape becomes unreal, so mineral it is. Man is outlawed from it. So much heavy beauty seems to come from another world.

The word ‘solitude’ recurs throughout:

  • But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigor, the deep breath in which the mind collects itself and courage gauges its strength?
  • To be sure, it is just that solitude amid others that men come looking for in European cities.
  • Descartes, planning to meditate, chose his desert: the most mercantile city of his era. There he found his solitude and the occasion for perhaps the greatest of our virile poems.
  • Santa-Cruz cut out of the rock, the mountains, the flat sea, the violent wind and the sun, the great cranes of the harbor, the trains, the hangars, the quays, and the huge ramps climbing up the city’s rock, and in the city itself these diversions and this boredom, this hubbub and this solitude.
  • But can one be moved by a city where nothing attracts the mind, where the very ugliness is anonymous, where the past is reduced to nothing? Emptiness, boredom, an indifferent sky, what are the charms of such places? Doubtless solitude and, perhaps, the human creature.
  • At the very gates of Oran, nature raises its voice. In the direction of Canastel there are vast wastelands covered with fragrant brush. There sun and wind speak only of solitude.
  • But this cannot be shared. One has to have lived it. So much solitude and nobility give these places an unforgettable aspect.
  • A great deed, a great work, virile meditation used to call for the solitude of sands or of the convent. There were kept the spiritual vigils of arms. Where could they be better celebrated now than in the emptiness of a big city established for some time in unintellectual beauty?

What does it mean? Like all of Camus, it is difficult to make out. But throughout these essays seems to run a tension between the virile, shallow, unintellectual life of street toughs, young women heavy with make-up, of young dudes going to Hollywood movies and dance clubs, swimming in the sea, football and fighting, on the one hand – all aspects of youthful life which the 26-year-old Camus is very attracted towards – and the ‘solitude’ which seems to be required for creative thought and which he keeps bumping into in both Algiers and Oran. A rather minatory, worrying isolation which is both creative and alienated.

Maybe that is the significance of the regular repetition of the word ‘solitude’.

3. Helen’s Exile (1948)

The ancient Greeks believed in limits and moderation. Overstep them and the gods sent you mad. Now we have killed God and, living in a godless universe dominated only by history and power, have let reason run rampant. Reason, in numerous forms, rejecting any idea of restraint or limits, aspires to totality, and our time (the post-war period) was witnessing the mounting clash between totalising empires.

So I think this short essay is a way of describing the advent of the Cold War with its implacable totalising opponents – capitalist America and communist Russia – its ‘Messianisms’ – in ‘philosophical’ and literary terms of the Greek spirit – its moderation, its bravery, its facing up to human limitations – which we have abandoned.

The nine years since the first essays in the volume have seen a big change in Camus’s spirit. In the early essays he played with paradoxes and jauntily invoked a hedonistic nihilism. Now there is more than enough nihilism to go around in the big bad Cold War world, and so his approach has become noticeably clearer and noticeably more liberal and humanistic. Obvious, even:

The historical spirit and the artist both want to remake the world. But the artist, through an obligation of his nature, knows his limits, which the historical spirit fails to recognize. This is why the latter’s aim is tyranny whereas the former’s passion is freedom. All those who are struggling for freedom today are ultimately fighting for beauty.

Ringing phrases which he then goes on to qualify a little.

Of course, it is not a question of defending beauty for itself. Beauty cannot do without man, and we shall not give our era its nobility and serenity unless we follow it in its misfortune. Never again shall we be hermits. But it is no less true that man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard.

I think he is referring to the enmity of both sides – communist and capitalist – to artists’ free exercise of their calling.

Admission of ignorance, rejection of fanaticism, the limits of the world and of man, the beloved face, and finally beauty – this is where we shall be on the side of the Greeks. In a certain sense, the direction history will take is not the one we think. It lies in the struggle between creation and inquisition. Despite the price which artists will pay for their empty hands, we may hope for their victory

4. Return to Tipasa (1954)

The 40-year-old author speaks more candidly than ever before in his own voice, as he takes a trip back to this small Algerian town in the rainy depths of the Algerian winter in a downpour of rain. He manages to slip through the barbed wire fencing off the ancient ruins and sits communing with the place and its long history. He is calm. He finds within himself confidence that Europe can shake off the ruinous fanaticisms which have devastated it and still grip it.

These two post-war essays are completely different from the pre-war ones, tremendously chastened, less tricksy, and given to outspokenly clear invocations of liberal freedom and the value of art.

There is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us, today, are dying of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself; the long fight for justice exhausts the love that nevertheless gave birth to it.

In the clamor in which we live, love is impossible and justice does not suffice. This is why Europe hates daylight and is only able to set injustice up against injustice.

But in order to keep justice from shriveling up like a beautiful orange fruit containing nothing but a bitter, dry pulp, I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice, and return to combat having won that light.

Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky, and I measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing.

This is the late Camus who is remembered as not only an enlightened exponent of liberal humanism but as a passionate poet of the landscape of his boyhood and youth, who brings a unique ability to combine abstract ideas with sensual imagery.

5. The Artist and His Time

A short essay in the form of a question and answer session with an (imaginary?) interviewer who asks the author half a dozen questions about the artist in our time.

Well, says Albert, the artist must fight for justice, against terror and violence, must speak on behalf of the humiliated and downtrodden, the colonised and the workers, but retain his artistic vision. He is against Marxism as justifying appalling crimes now in the name of some nebulous never-arriving future. It is a new version of the old mystification of power.

One of the temptations of the artist is to believe himself solitary, and in truth he hears this shouted at him with a certain base delight. But this is not true. He stands in the midst of all, in the same rank, neither higher nor lower, with all those who are working and struggling. His very vocation, in the face of oppression, is to open the prisons and to give a voice to the sorrows and joys of all. This is where art, against its enemies, justifies itself by proving precisely that it is no one’s enemy. By itself art could probably not produce the renascence which implies justice and liberty. But without it, that renascence would be without forms and, consequently, would be nothing. Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.


A tale of two Camus

What these shorter essays dramatically show is the difference between pre-war Camus and post-war Camus.

Pre-war Camus’s prose style is addicted to unexpected twists, surprising adjectives, paradoxes and addicted to a rather melodramatic pose of absurdity and nihilism. His ‘argumentation’ proceeds by often impenetrably obscure leaps: phrases like ‘however’, ‘but of course’, ‘naturally’, ‘and then’, tend to introduce changes of direction which seem completely unrelated to what came before. The flow routinely seems wilful, more to do with a desire for paradox and surprise than any concern to mount a coherent argument.

That’s why you can get to the end of an early Camus essay and realise you have no idea what he was on about. What you do remember is the (fairly obvious) descriptions of the fierce climate, sun and sea of Algeria – and, dotted about the prose, will be oases of meaning which the reader clings to like a drowning man to a life raft.

All this contrasts with post-war Camus, who is chastened, mature and far more accessible. He has abandoned the shallow tricksiness of the earlier essays for a far more forthright articulation of a far more conventional liberalism. He is still French and so addicted to odd locutions and fancy, paradoxical insights. But much more than the early work, the essays from the 1950s are clearer, more declamatory and more pleading for the adoption of humane, liberal values in the face of bleak times.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien, which includes the five shorter essays, was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940, the year he wrote The Stop in Oran, and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide – about confronting suicide as the apparently ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes quite a long time to finally getting round to saying this. In reading Camus I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1945 interview where he pointed out that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) and, unlike the philosopher, the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument. He can be quite content with an entertaining flow of ideas.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big philosophical names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists yanking in flowery quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’.

Thus Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments, a point he makes repeatedly himself:

The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…

If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…

Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…

Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the sometimes obscure nature of the text. Camus has a reputation for being clear and lucid, but this book is often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy feels like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using (aptly for the man of Africa) the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place, you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and from this point I became alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was, after all, himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)

By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves.

This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive too often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual chiming of this word may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me. Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)

It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)

A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description of a traditional moralist, whose text is just the glue which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, these jewels being meant to be taken away and meditated on.

To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped to reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty-year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China. The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant, shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. In fact all of us know that absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish which Camus describes aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

My son suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the crushing humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people at the time followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide, wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation.

There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

The last few pages of the book describe the Greek myth of Sisyphus and the text gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing (p.62)

Part one

Mersault is a young French man, born and bred in Algeria, living and working in the capital Algiers. He is directionless, aimless, never really knows what to say to people, goes along with whatever people suggest. His mother’s been living in a home for over a year and the story opens as Mersault receives news of her death. He doesn’t know which day she actually died on, the telegram could have been delayed a day or two. Doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. He never used to visit her. It would have been too much bother.

Mersault catches a bus out to the village of Marengo and walks to the home to attend a night-long vigil and then the funeral, all of which he finds a chore. When they ask him if he wants a last look at his mother before they put the coffin lid on he says no. They look at him. He realises it was a mistake. The home and church officials talk to him but he hesitates, says whatever comes into his mind and generally makes a bad impression. When asked, he guiltily realises that he doesn’t know how old she was. He looks out the window and thinks what a nice walk he could have had, if only his mother hadn’t gone and died.

Back in Algeria his boss commiserates with him but Mersault, typically, doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Once or twice he lets slip his real feelings which is that he doesn’t feel anything but this goes down badly so he errs on the side of keeping his mouth shut. We meet his neighbours in his shabby tenement block (he can hear his neighbours through the walls), notably the old guy, Salamano, who walks his mangy mutt every day, and spends all his energy shouting and abusing it, until one day it runs off never to return.

Mersault observes the street life of his quarter of Algiers, the hot sun climbing the sky, the shop shutters opening, a bourgeois family going to church. Later, in the evenings, he observes the lads, the local ‘bloods’, coming back from the cinema, eyeing a gaggle of girls on the corner. All very laid back and evocative.

Mersault himself has picked up a girlfriend he meets casually at the beach, Marie Cardona who used to be a typist at his office. There are long sensual descriptions of swimming at the public pool or at a secluded bay. On the beach, in the cinema he touches her breast. They kiss. They go back to his flat and make love. Sunday follows Sunday in this lazy sensual way. When she asks him whether he loves her, he shrugs: probably not. She asks if he wants to get married. OK. Why not? He has no idea how much his indifference hurts her. Doesn’t care, either.

Also in his block is a loud young man, Raymond Sintès, who the neighbours often hear beating up his Arab girlfriend. Local rumour has it he’s a pimp, though he denies it. Mersault, drifting as usual, finds himself getting to know Raymond. He listens passively to Raymond’s harrowing description of how he routinely beats up his girl. In fact he’s recently been in a fight with the girl’s Arab brother. Mersault nods vague approval.

This is enough for rough Raymond to think Mersault is his friend and he asks Mersault to write a letter to the girlfriend, asking her to come to Raymond’s flat so they can make up. Them he explains, he’ll get her sexually aroused, begin to make love to her – and spit in her face.

Mersault can’t see any reason not to. A few days later, after the unfortunate girl does come back to Raymond’s flat, he beats her up, the cops are called, Mersault even allows himself to accompany Raymond to the police station to testify that it was the girlfriend’s fault, that Raymond caught her cheating on him. He doesn’t know whether this is true, it’s just Raymond asked him to help out and, you know, why not.

Thinking Mersault is now his pal, Raymond invites Mersault and Marie out to the house of a friend of his, Masson, on the coast. As they leave the apartment building to head for the bus station, Raymond points out a couple of Arabs watching from across the street: it’s the brother of the woman he beat up, and a mate.

Out at Masson’s place, they swim. They cook. They drink and chat. Raymond flirts with Marie who is uncomfortable but Mersault doesn’t really care. They have a massive lunch, fried fish then steak and chips with lots of wine, till they’re all pretty tipsy.

The menfolk decide to go for a stroll. They notice they’re being followed by the brother and his mate. Suddenly there’s a confrontation. Masson beats up the mate while Raymond takes on the brother. The latter pulls a knife and cuts Raymond badly on the arm and lip but the Europeans manage to fight them off. Masson and Mersault help Raymond back to the beach cottage and Masson recommends a doctor who always spends his Sundays out there, so he takes Raymond off to get patched up. A hour later he reappears, stitched up and in a bad mood. He insists he wants to go for another walk, the others discourage him, he gets cross and sets off with Mersault following.

Inevitably they come across the Arabs, again, tending their wounds by a stream across the beach. Raymond is now packing a gun, a revolver. He asks Mersault whether he should plug the Arabs and Mersault finds himself saying the first thing which comes into his head which is – Not unless they strike first. ‘Here, let me take the gun,’ Mersault says, and Raymond passes it over. All four actors stare at each other, turned to stone under the pitiless sun.

Then the Arabs have gone, ‘like lizards’ disappearing into the rocks. The spell is broken and Raymond and Mersault return to the cottage, Raymond swaggering and happy. As they climb the steps Mersault decides, on a whim to go back along the beach. The sun is pressing on his skull. He’s vaguely thinking of the shade under the rock and the tinkling stream. But the Arab is there, the brother, lounging by the little stream. They look at each other. Mersault walks closer. The Arab pulls a knife and there is a still moment while he holds it up, glinting in the fierce sunlight. Mersault fires the gun. Pauses. Then fires four more shots.

Part two

He’s in prison, charged with murder. Mersault is held on remand for an interminable 11 months during which he carries on feeling nothing whatsoever, either about his plight or his responsibility, while he is interrogated by the magistrate, discusses the case with his lawyer, goes to trial and slowly rumbles along the conveyor belt of the Law.

The magistrate reveals that he is a devout Catholic and claims that if only Mersault will acknowledge God and throw himself on the mercy of the Lord etc will he experience forgiveness and be relieved of his guilt. But Mersault feels no guilt. He doesn’t know what the magistrate’s on about. Instead of regret and guilt Mersault appals the magistrate by saying he feels, on reflection, ‘a kind of vexation’ (p.74). From then on the magistrate humorously refers to Mersault as ‘Mr Antichrist’.

Killing a man has made no difference at all to Mersault. Marie comes to visit him but he can’t get very worked up. She’s in floods of tears, and says they’ll fight for his freedom and when he gets out they’ll get married. Oh. Alright, he shrugs, in his usual listless way.

When the trial finally comes round Mersault discovers that everything he did and said in since his mother’s death (and which we saw being carefully annotated in part one of the book) has been collected up and is now being thrown in his face and used against him. His lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral is reported as ‘great callousness’ (p.68). His listless replies to the people at the Home or at the funeral or to his boss incriminate him. Marie is made to admit that they started their liaison the day after the funeral, swimming on the beach and going to a comic movie. In the hands of the prosecution all this goes to demonstrate that Mersault is:

an inhuman monster wholly without moral sense. (p.97)

His lack of concern for his girlfriend is brought up. Even the way he fired once and then paused before firing a further four times. We know this is all the result of Mersault’s profoundly hollow lack of emotion, of affect or personality – but to the prosecuting lawyer it can all be built up into the image of a cold calculating killer.

The text reports the apparatus of the court and the palaver with the barristers for the prosecution and defence but Mersault, typically, zones in and out of their arguments and the development of the trial.

Finally, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by a judge who finds him repellent, cold murderer.

In the last few pages there’s a set piece scene between Mersault and a priest who comes to try and persuade him to repent and have faith in God. This strikes me as unimaginative, a cliché of this kind of meaning-of-life novel stretching back to the vast arid wastes of Dostoyevsky’s obsession with religion. The priests’ persistence in trying to get Mersault repent finally drives him to his only display of emotion in the book, when he grabs the priest’s collar, shaking him, and shouting what right has he got to impose his lifeless creed on Mersault? Mersault’s destiny is what it is, when he’s dead that’ll be it, done, over.

Guards come and release the priest. Mersault collapses on  his bed exhausted and drifts into sleep. When he awakes it is the middle of the night and he can see the stars shining out of a pitch black sky. He knows in the morning he will die. But suddenly he feels cleansed and free.

For the first time, the first time, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. (p.120)

He realises that he is happy.


Commentary

Contemporary critics went mad for this book. It caught the mood of the times and made Camus a literary phenomenon.

  • It chimes with the tough guy films noirs coming out of America at the time (This Gun For Hire, Journey into Fear, The Glass Key), with their brutal but highly stylish violence. I visualised the scene where Marie visits Mersault in prison and has to struggle to make herself heard among the other prisoner-visitor conversations, in black and white, out of a James Cagney movie.
  • It chimes with something fatal about the Second World War, about the Nazi occupation of France and the undermining of French Enlightenment values, the end – possibly – of European civilisation.
  • It seems to say something about our post-Christian age and confirm Dostoyevsky’s worst fears – if there is no God, everything is permitted; Mersault kills with no guilt whatsoever.
  • For others Mersault is a symbol of the mindless superiority complex of European colonialism – a hollow shell himself, he doesn’t give a damn about the Arab woman getting beaten up or about murdering the Other, the Arab, the colonised. None of the Arabs are given names or even speak.
  • Or Mersault is a type of the rootless young European male, no values, no role models, living a casual empty life, a type of the tough or hoodlum threatening society, a precursor to the rebellious rockers of the 1950s.
  • To the Communists Mersault is the type of the rootless petit bourgeois, obsessed with his own petty affairs, whose life is meaningless and aimless – he needs to find solidarity with the working classes and join himself to the Forward March of History by joining the Communist Party.
  • To yet others, Mersault is like the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, an everyman figure who is caught up in a terrifying web of misunderstandings, whose life takes a turn for the worse through no fault of his own.
  • The long trial scene is enough to put anyone off getting involved in the Law, especially criminal law where barristers are paid to twist the truth out of all recognition in order to get a result
  • To the philosophically-minded, Mersault is an epitome of Camus’s own philosophy of ‘the Absurd’ as outlined in The Myth of Sisyphus: the lumbering mechanism of the rational, common sense Law can’t hope to capture the intensity, the weirdness, the irrationality of human nature.
  • To feminists The Outsider is a typical patriarchal story of men fighting over the body of a woman who isn’t even named – all three women in the story – his mother, Marie, the unnamed Arab woman – are victims of male indifference or violence.
  • To literary types Mersault’s central defining act is like the acte gratuit idea of André Gide – the notion that life is empty and meaningless and that we must rebel against its emptiness with one great decisive irrevocable act, which has no meaning in itself but represents our protest against meaningless existence.
  • To other commentators Mersault is a representative of ‘Mediterranean Man’, a kind of throwback to pagan times, untroubled by Christian conscience or guilt, he lives in a permanent present of the senses, a kind of post-Christian hero.
  • To yet others the protagonist of the story isn’t the man Mersault at all, it is the pitiless landscape of Algeria with its blistering heat and inhuman craggy landscape. Arguably, the ‘scorching hot’ sun is as much a character in the book as any human.

The light was almost vertical and the glare from the water seared one’s eyes. (0.58)

The sand was as hot as fire and i could have sworn it was glowing red. (p.59)

It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea. (p.60)

  • Rereading it carefully, it struck me that Mersault is an uneducated, working class man living in a pretty rough milieu. Surprisingly, he admits that he was once a student but, more true to form, says that when he was forced to give up his studies he realised ‘all that’ i.e. studying, was pretty futile anyway (p.48). He gets on just fine with the violent bullying abuser Raymond, Marie is a callow typist, his mate Emmanuel often doesn’t understand what’s going on at the cinema. Noscitur a socio. I think Mersault is rougher, chavvier, than is often realised. This is certainly the impression the prosecution lawyer seeks to give, that Mersault is part of a squalid low-life vendetta.
  • The final chapter, with its protagonist crying out against the ‘brutal certitude’ of his execution could easily be taken for a tract against the death penalty which was only abolished, in France, in 1981.
  • There’s even a theory that Mersault is on the autistic spectrum, possibly with Asperger’s Syndrome: incapable of making out other people, lacking the ability to know what is required in pretty much every social situation he finds himself in. Which also explains why he sees things in such uncomfortable detail – the blobby red ears of an old man, the sopping wet hand towel at work – while not having a clue what to say to people. An indication of this comes late on when we learn that he hasn’t looked once at Marie who has come day after day to support him through the trial. And when he does, for the once and only time, look at her and she smiles wanly and gives him a little wave – his face doesn’t flicker. He neither waves nor smiles back. Heart of stone.

I could go on.

What strikes me rereading The Outsider today is that the descriptions of lazy swimming in the sun are not quite as good as I remembered. I prefer Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of swimming off the Riviera in The Sun Also Rises. I liked the scene where he watches from his balcony a gang of young men sauntering along the boulevard, backchatting with young women – I feel I’ve seen that scene hundreds of times.

I’ve just read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. What bursts from Sartre’s texts is their enormous super-abundance of hyper-sensitive self-awareness, a prolific stream of profuse and varied perceptions, characters bursting with ideas about ‘existence’ and ‘freedom’, sensations turning into ideas, ideas turning into feelings, freedom and anguish mingled with night and the cold snow, a bombardment of ideas and concepts.

Camus’s novel, by contrast, feels empty. The hollow shell which is the central character goes about his life, barely involved in it, certainly not thinking anything, finding himself in situations with other people rather than creating them, and always taking the easy way, out, saying whatever first comes to mind. He is not even stupid, he’s just not there.

  • I just nodded to cut things short. I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
  • I had nothing to say and the silence lasted quite a while.
  • After that I don’t remember much. Somehow the night went by.
  • I nodded… I made no comment… I had no objection… I just listened without speaking… I didn’t say anything… I kept silence… I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I told him I hadn’t expected anything whatsoever… I told him I had no objection…
  • really I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I found him rather boring but I had nothing to do…
  • I said the first thing that came into my head…
  • I said the first thing that crossed my mind…
  • I found that my mind had gone blurred: everything was dissolving into a greyish, watery haze…
  • I had stopped thinking altogether…

As he says, with deliberate downbeat irony, ‘Imagination has never been one of my strong points’ (p.111).

It is a portrait of vacancy. And that’s why so many different critics and interest groups were able to fill the novel up with their own interpretations. It is an empty vessel, a mirror.

Algeria

The Algerian War of Independence broke out in 1954 but there had been violent incidents of rebellion and harsh repression immediately following the end of the Second World War. Knowledge of this later  history sheds a harsh historical light back on Camus’s novels set in Algeria. His people, the pieds noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, would eventually be forced to flee into exile back in France, all one million of them.

At the time of its publication the book was most widely read as an epitome of ‘existential man’, confronting the meaninglessness of existence on a rocky coastline stripped of all colour and help. Seventy years later it is hard not to read it, at least in part, as a record of the hollow, heedless, empty-headed arrogance of French colonial culture… whose days were numbered.


Credit

L’Étranger by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1946, and as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 60p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)

It is a poor story, isn’t it? There is no hero, no heroine; there are only knaves and fools.
Or do I mean only fools? (p.236)

Eric Ambler’s fifth spy thriller is told in the third person. The lead figure is Charles Latimer, a lecturer in political economy who takes to writing detective stories which are so successful that he is able to resign and go live in Athens as a professional writer. For the winter he moves on to Istanbul with letters of introduction which lead him to a high-class party where one of the most dashing guests is a Colonel Haki of the secret police who invites him to his office, ostensibly for an anodyne discussion about a roman policier which he, Haki, has been working on.

The conversation moves on to the difference between the neat crimes of fiction and the messy records of real crime and, in order to demonstrate the latter, Haki reads out the dossier of one Dimitrios Makropoulos, a notorious criminal whose stabbed body has just been fished out of the sea.

Bitten by curiosity, Latimer decides on a whim to see if he can fill in the gaps in the dossier, whether he can, in effect, research and write the adult biography of this international criminal. He copies down the details of Dimitrios’s career of crime and sets off to visit Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and Paris in pursuit of this will o’ the wisp.

It would be an experiment in detection… (1978 Hodder & Stoughton Large Print Edition, page 36)

The novel will turn out to be a series of interviews with people connected with Dimitrios’s criminal career, each of whom has memories which they retell in flashback.

According to his autobiography, The Mask of Dimitrios had the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France went to war with Germany, September 1939. (p) Throughout the writing Ambler’s working title was A Coffin For Dimitrios, but the publisher and then Hollywood studio preferred the word ‘mask’. (p.149)

Flight or pursuit

In two of Ambler’s previous novels, Uncommon Danger and Cause For Alarm, the protagonist is framed for a murder he didn’t commit and forced to go on the run, a price on his head as he scrambles across inhospitable terrain. They are examples of one of the basic thriller typologies, the flight of the wanted man, as exemplified by Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) or Buchan’s 39 Steps (1915) or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

Mask is the opposite: the pursuit of an elusive mystery figure, whose life and existence have to be pieced together via scattered evidence and testimony. The Third Man (1949) springs to mind and the protagonist of that movie and novella, too, is a writer in search of a missing person. The plot of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) revolves at great length around a missing person everyone is seeking.

Dark Europe

Ambler’s novels are distinctive for all being set abroad in the troubled Europe of the late 1930s, mostly the dark and turbulent east of Europe. The quest for Dimitrios takes us east to what is new territory for him – Istanbul, Athens, Sofia – but is also new in the way it incorporates real historical events into the story.

This character Dimitrios is involved in some of the nastiest episodes of post-Great War history: the Turkish army’s sacking of the city of Smyrna and the flight of over 800,000 Greek refugees across the sea to mainland Greece. Later Latimer discovers his connection with the assassination of the Romanian Prime Minister in 1923. Then, in Paris, Dimitrios’s involvement with the rise of the white slave trade and the explosion of illegal drug trafficking.

In fact, Dimitrios becomes a gauge for political turmoil and social chaos in the post-war period, allowing Ambler to show just how chaotic and bloodthirsty, how corrupt and vicious, 20th century European history has been.

But it was useless to try to explain [Dimetrios] in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. (p.337)

Characters

It is noticeable that Ambler’s way of describing a character has changed since his first novels: it is now much shorter, more focused, zeroing in on the salient or distinguishing features. It reminds me of the ability to focus on one or two tell-tale aspects of a character which Graham Greene had from the start.

The Greek was a dark, lean man of middle age with intelligent, rather bulbous eyes and a way of bringing his lips together at the end of a sentence as though amazed at his own lack of discretion. He greeted Latimer with the watchful courtesy of a negotiator in an armed truce. He spoke in French. (p.91)

Ambler’s style has become tauter and crisper in the course of writing these novels. Now it really is lean and to the point, clear like water, with almost no dated locutions or verbal oddities to remind you that it is 75 years old.

Strewn about the floor in utter confusion were the content of his suitcases. Draped carelessly over a chair were the bedclothes. On the mattress, stripped of their bindings, were the few English books he had brought with him from Athens. The room looked as if a cageful of chimpanzees had been turned loose in it. (p.150)

The Absurd

But if Ambler has one message it is that the world is always more complex than we think; or, we fool ourselves if we think we understand what is going on. The disjunction between our own (simple, optimistic) interpretation of the world around us, and the actual (random, often nasty ) reality of that world, produces Absurdity. Is the Absurd.

Ambler’s notion of the Absurd is not developed with anything like the thoroughness of the French writers who were thinking along the same lines, at exactly the same time (Camus: Betwixt and Between (1937), Nuptials (1938), The Stranger (1942); Sartre: Nausea (1938)). He is a novelist not a philosopher, and so the opening pages of the book which dwell a little on simple ideas about chance, coincidence and absurdity are merely a rhetorical prologue to the drama, a form of throat-clearing.

Still. The mood of his novels and their message that the political structures of the Western world between the wars have failed, that the system is collapsing, that humanity seems hell-bent on its own destruction, that nothing makes sense, these are part of the same Zeitgeist and have much in common with the continental writers.

I wanted to explain Dimitrios, to account for him, to understand his mind. Merely to label him with disapproval was not enough. I saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary but as a man, not as an isolate, a phenomenon, but as a unit in a disintegrating social system. (p.103)

The Absurd in practice

Like all Ambler’s other protagonists, Latimer soon realises that he is caught up in something much deeper than he originally thought, for in the lens of his investigations Dimitrios grows steadily into a kind of legendary figure of the underworld, involved in a cruel cross-section of post-War criminality.

Fine. But the book itself is not thrilling. The Dark Frontier, Uncommon Danger, Cause For Alarm, they all plunge the hero into serious peril and include chases, shoot-outs, kidnappings, imprisonments and daring escapes. Unlike them, Dimitrios is an essentially calm, civilised travelogue, as Latimer criss-crosses Europe meeting people who help fill in the details of Dimitrios’s career. Thus:

  • the Polish spy Grodek tells – at length – the story of the job he carried out to blackmail a petty official in the Italian Marine Ministry into handing over charts of the deployment of mines in the Adriatic, and Dimitrios’s key role – and betrayal of – the scam
  • the affable drug gangster Mr Peters (aka Pedersen) describes at length his career in Paris, firstly running a night club, then accepting white slave women from Dimitrios, then moving into wholesale drug trafficking – heroine and cocaine – for Dimitrios
  • in part two of his long account Peters goes into detail about how one member of the drugs gang Dimitrios betrayed – a violent man named Visser – emerges for prison determined to track Dimitrios down and take his revenge, a quest which brings us right up to the present moment!

It’s a collection of fairly interesting stories and full of social history interest – but thrilling, it ain’t! And it’s not a spy story. Some of the people Latimer meets have been spies, but it is essentially a piece of detective work about a criminal who happens to have done some occasional espionage work on the side.

The protagonist’s slow and methodical approach makes for a slow and steady read, right up to the last twenty or so pages when the book does – finally – arrive at a tense but rather predictable climax, a standoff between the bitterly vengeful Petersen and the sleekly terrifying man himself.

Two lives hung by the thin, steel threads of self-preservation and greed. (Penguin 2009 paperback edn, p.206)

Anti-capitalist

The book contains Ambler’s by-now-familiar rhodomontades against Big Business and the jackals it hires to do its dirty work (cf the mercenary Colonel Robinson in Uncommon Danger). In two of the other books these ‘analyses’ of the sins of Western society come from the mouth of Zaleshoff the KGB agent; here they’re expressed by the cynical Greek (presumably communist) journalist Marukakis. For him, the Big Business man keeps his hands clean; he believes in Law and Order; he is very respectable; he knows the best people and has a beautiful wife; he attends the opera and gives to charities; and when someone or some group are an inconvenience to his business, then word is passed from the Board Room down through layers of underlings until it reaches the criminal underworld, the social scum, ‘that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of an old society’. Men like Dimitrios.

He himself has no political convictions. For him there is no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest. He believes in the survival of the fittest and the gospel of tooth and claw because he makes money by seeing that the weak die before they can become strong and that the law of the jungle remains the governing force in the affairs of the world. And he is all about us. Every city in the world knows him. He exists because big business, his master, needs him. International big business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood!’ (p.118)

Finally, in a satirical stroke it turns out that Dimitrios had become so successful as a criminal that he had achieved the acme of respectability: he had got himself appointed to the Board of the Eurasian Credit Bank which the hero knows was earlier involved in commissioning the assassination of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. It is a Brechtian fable. The criminal so successful that he is allowed to join the ranks of the real criminals – the international bankers.

Conclusion

The Mask of Dimitrios fails to live up to its promise. Ambler tells us this man is a symptom of the times; the variety of his crimes, across so much of Europe, are presumably intended to make him appear a kind of Everycriminal figure; at some moments of the pursuit, when Latimer is talking to various interlocutors, this legendary almost-mythical figure acquires real imaginative power.

But the pace of the novel never really picks up and the climax of the book – a shootout in a squalid attic – is anti-climactic, an unimaginative conclusion to a spirited pursuit which really demanded something much bigger and more emblematic to match the scale of the story’s mythical ambition.

Related links

Movie

The novel was turned into a classic Hollywood noir movie in 1944, starring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, familiar from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s not a classic like them, but still well worth a watch.

Latimer is played by the diminutive Lorre and so is renamed Leyden and made Dutch to explain the foreign accent. Fat Sidney Greenstreet plays Peters, the avenging member of Dimitrios’s gang in Paris. Dimitrios is played by the gorgeous, moustachioed Zachary Scott.

The noir style of director Jean Negulesco is all shadows and menacing foreign actors. The movie is very faithful to the book, which means it is relatively static, a series of half a dozen sets in which Leyden interviews people and they tell him their relationship to the Master Criminal. It has that odd noir thing where half the time characters are pointing guns at each other and half the time wisecracking friends. It’s impossible to watch Greenstreet and Lorre without warm memories of their performances in their two more famous films.

There are two significant changes: the book has a long chapter about the activities of the Paris gang Dimitrios leads, namely their forays into trafficking women for prostitution and their drug smuggling. This is cut. And at the end of the book Peters and Dimitrios both die in the shootout. In the movie Peters (Greenstreet) survives and, as he is hussled off by the police, remains remarkably cheery, giving the movie an ironically uplifting moral when he says, ‘You see, there’s not enough kindness in the world.’

Ambler tended not to like the movie adaptations of his novels. In his autobiography he says watching this movie gave him severe stomach cramps (Here Lies, p.225).

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
%d bloggers like this: