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Albert Camus — A Happy Death

“When I look at my life and its secret colors, I feel like bursting into tears. Like that sky. It’s rain and sun both, noon and midnight. You know, Zagreus, I think of the lips I’ve kissed, and of the wretched child I was, and of the madness of life and the ambition that sometimes carries me away. I’m all those things at once. I’m sure there are times when you wouldn’t even recognize me. Extreme in misery, excessive in happiness—I can’t say it.” 

The first time that I ever read that paragraph I was in college, probably around 19 or 20 years old, probably feeling incredibly angsty, and I thought Oh my god he KNOWS me this is AMAZING. It’s more impressive because Camus himself was only 20 when he wrote it… it’s for reasons like this that I eventually stopped writing. There is just no way–no way at all–that I could do it like this. Anyway, more to the point. A Happy Death is Camus’ first novel, found among private papers, and while I usually have some qualms about these sorts of things (that is, posthumously publishing things that aren’t finished) I’m very glad that we were able to have the opportunity to read this.

A Happy Death is inevitably going to suffer comparisons to The Stranger, because it does share a lot of similarities. Its protagonist, Patrice Merseult, seems as though he almost shares a name with the progagonist of The Stranger, both men are Algerian clerks, both men kill another man in cold blood and don’t seem to suffer emotional consequences from it. Both are obviously existentialist classics. There the similarities end. A Happy Death is more concerned with man’s ability to will himself to happiness–Merseult lives a rather empty life before coming into contact with the cripple Zagreus, and his decision to kill the man, steal his money, and move on to his own happiness bears little consequences.

In the end, Merseult is able to achieve his happy death. The road that he takes there is punctuated with some of the most beautiful descriptions of Algeria, the sea, and women; this is really just a stunning portrait of where Camus’ mind was at age 20 (and I’m still envious). A Happy Death stands on its own as a tiny but impactful novel.



Hello, North Seattle Community College. In case you were wondering, no, my casual reading blog is not as credible as MIT coursework or the “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” What a fucking stupid assignment.


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Albert Camus — The Plague

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.

One of the sentences in The Plague that really struck me, though the book proves, not necessarily true even in the story itself. The Plague takes place in 1940s Oran, a bland town in Algeria, where one day is much like the last, until rats begin dying by the hundreds, gradually inciting a panic among the citizens. Officials are slow to respond and when they do, unknowingly end up exacerbating the effects of what is to come: an epidemic of the plague, first bubonic, then pneumonic. Still slow to realize the enormous gravity of the situation, the town’s officials bungle things until finally, Oran is sealed off. The townspeople are left to deal with the illness cut off from the world, with Dr. Rieux, a tourist named Tarrou, and a civil servant named Grand organizing a large portion of the efforts to combat the plague and make sure the town can survive. It is also how others are affected by the plague: Rambert, cut off from his wife, plots an escape; Cottard, a small-time criminal is suddenly everyone’s best friend.

This is a novel about many things: about exile, love, suffering, about humanity, etc. etc. Camus always seemed to be frustrated when people would try to find existentialist themes in the novel, though there are many sentences within it that can be interpreted with multiple meanings. This is one of my favorites of his, though: there are several very beautiful paragraphs amid the crushing despair of the plague’s spread; the psychological examination of how different people react to the plagues is extremely well-done. A sometimes eerie but always fascinating book to re-read. The menace of the last few sentences:

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

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Albert Camus — The Fall

I have ceased to like anything but confessions, and authors of confessions write especially to avoid confessing, to tell nothing of what they know. When they claim to get to the painful admissions, you have to watch out, for they are about to dress the corpse

So confesses the nameless protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Fall, a former criminal defense lawyer who after a lifetime of reaching both the highs and lows of his personal and professional life, is doing exactly that as he confesses to the author of the book–dressing the corpse. His voice is the triumph of the novel, confident, seductive, even as he flippantly details the most awful actions and lack of concern for them. It is an arresting voice, see the paragraph below as an example of the moments of lyrical beauty shoved into the constant solipsism:

Paris is far; Paris is beautiful; I haven’t forgotten it. I remember its twilights at about this same season. Everything falls, dry and rustling, over the roofs blue with smoke, the city rumbles, the river seems to flow backward. Then I used to wander in the streets. They wander now, too, I know! They wander, pretending to hasten toward the tired wife, the forbidding home… Ah, mon ami, do you know what the solitary creature is like as he wanders in big cities?…

This is an arresting novel, not because of the plot but because of the narrator’s magnatism, his strange and fully realized character. You follow intently along with the equally unnamed and silent listener as he describes his dislike of depths, the ironic presentiment to his eventual fall to those very same depths–both moral and physical. It is a strange little book, but an absorbing one, that leaves you just a little uneasy after finishing it.

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