I happened to be in Paris several years ago on the evening they were giving out the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars. Early the next morning, I turned on the television to see who had won. The first news story was not about film stars, but the posthumous publication of Albert Camus’s novel about the French settling of Algeria, The First Man. The French love to be in love with their intellectuals, but that news story, that early, on that morning, about a man already dead more than thirty years, says something ?about Camus.
On its deeper side, it has something to do with his sense of the sacred, which persisted despite a lifelong inability to believe in the usual sense of the word, and infused his work with larger dimensions than most of the literature of his time. The Nobel Committee that gave him the 1957 Prize for Literature already felt him to be a significant moral and spiritual presence at forty-three (only Kipling won at a younger age): “Even in his first writings Camus reveals a spiritual attitude that was born of the sharp contradictions within him between the awareness of earthly life and the gripping consciousness of the reality of death.”
He rejected Christian, Platonic, and several Enlightenment views of the afterlife, for example, in part because he thought they couldn’t make up for earthly suffering and death and took away from concern for justice in this life. He claimed to have a “pagan nature” that he had discovered via a different Greek strain of thought. He appreciated the beauty of the world, but also its implacable and uncaring tragedy.
And yet he regarded all thatand the human complications within itwith no little irony and humor: “I sometimes dream of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the newspapers. After that strong definition, the subject will be, if I dare say so, exhausted.” Thus Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator of the witty, snaky, and self-damning monologue that makes up Albert Camus’ss The Fall, the last of his novels to be published during his lifetime. The title of that book and the speaker’s name (John-Baptist) point to its muted, but carefully calibrated, religious themes, as does the original title of The First Man, which was supposed to be Adam. Camus’s brilliant working at the frontier between belief and unbeliefindeed, between ancient Greek and Christian waysand his effort to live honestly and decently despite the ideological horrors of the twentieth century were central to what made him great in his time and of remarkably fresh insight, even in our own more confused age.