Monday, March 06, 2017


Publisher: Vintage Books
Publisher; Chicago University Press


These two remarkable books, both published for the first time in 2017, have preoccupied me over the last couple of months. The last time I was reading Camus and Sartre was back in 1968 and now their words and history seem highly relevant and exciting in the weird world of today.

'At the Existentialist Cafe' is a wonderful, warm and above all clearly-written popular history of the existentialist scene in Paris and elsewhere, fronted by the incredible and admirable duo of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. If like me you knew little about them this is the book to engage and inspire you to investigate their life and works. Sarah Bakewell was a teenage existentialist and brings that energy to her retelling and explanations of the arcane points of the various philosophical streams of thought at play within the matrix. One of the most delightful surprises of the book for me was the discovery of the Phenomenologists - Husserl, Heidegger and Merlau-Ponty. The latter sought to unite philosphy and psychology and taught in both fields. He believed that child psychology was essential to philosophy and wrote: 'We cannot understand our experience if we don't think of ourselves in part as overgrown babies.' [I heard comedian/activist Mark Thomas on the radio yesterday describing Trump as a 'narcissistic baby'].

'Looking for the Outsider' by Alice Kaplan is equally absorbing, telling as it does the life story of Camus' most famous book [also known as The Stranger] which established his reputation. It is remarkable how Camus, who came from a working-class Algerian family, composed this ground-breaking novel in a one-room flat in Montmartre and, without reputation or oeuvre, saw it picked up by Gallimard the best literary publisher in France at that time.

Camus, who was often likened to a young Humphrey Bogart, had come out of the war with a grand reputation as a journalist and editor of 'Combat' the main newspaper of the French underground. A stellar rise in his readership and celebrity led him to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for a body of work that has lasting significance.  Like James Dean, his early death in a car accident in 1960, turned him into a cultural icon.

Kaplan's focus on 'The Stranger' provides a fresh and interesting perspective on Camus and a investigates a book that has intrigued readers, writers and academics alike due to its mysterious
central figure Meursault. Kaplan explains that the book's first person narrative lets the reader into the narrator's head but, she says, 'there's no way to feel close...It's natural to hunger for an understanding when it's withheld.' This scholarly book, impeccably researched, is immensely readable and brings to life the war-torn world that forms the backdrop to the main narrative.

Like many others of my generation, I read 'The Outsider' when I was in my teens. It has the advantage of being short and of appearing to be a simple story and easy to read. In fact, the story is emotionally very deep and raises important moral questions. It's very difficult now to appreciate the impact the book had at the time. In each age it takes on a different perspective. Camus said that it was a book he found in himself that existed before he wrote it. His writing style was, like Sartre, influenced by hard-boiled American crime fiction, in Camus' case particularly 'The Postman Rings Twice'.

In our time, a story of a white man shooting an Arab has new references. Camus was of French and Algerian descent and the book takes place in Oran. Algeria was, in many ways, the starting point for the turmoil that has engulfed much of North Africa and the Middle East. The remarkable movie 'The Battle of Algiers' by Pontecorvo  shows it all.

Camus, incidentally was an Absurdist not an Existentialist, although he was grouped under the E label. Absurdism is a school of thought which states that humanity's efforts to find inherent meaning in our world will ultimately fail and are therefore absurd. Camus believed that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.


Have just finished reading 'The Meursault Investigation' by Kamel Daoud. A truly wonderful debut novel by an Algerian journalist and editor that has been widely celebrated as an extraordinary work since its first publication in French (2013) and English (2015). A hip way of explaining the book is to say it riffs on the Camus novel. The Arab who is killed on the beach was never named in the original. In this book, the dead man's brother tells his story to an investigator in a bar which is empty except for a deaf mute. It interweaves not only all aspects of the crime itself but is very much imbued with the modern history of Algeria and Camus' status and meaning as a French Algerian. Like the original, the book appears to be simple but the complexity of the narrative, the elegance of the language and the sheer brilliance of the conception is impressive. The voice of he narrator is so strong and vivid, poised on the edge of explosive emotions. It provides a way for Daoud to address so many issues that it would have been hard to express in other ways. A truly great book that Camus' himself I am sure would have admired.
You can enjoy the NRP podcast with the author here
A movie of the book is due in 2017 (?)

Also enjoyed Luchino Visconti's wonderful film of Camus' book, starring Marcello Mastroianni which can be watched in full on YouTube here.

See also: Short documentary film Sartre vs Camus on Open Culture site.

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