Sunday, 29 November 2009

Albert Camus

I've been reading a biography of Camus, reminded by a newspaper article that in January 2010 it will be the 50th anniversary of his death. The biography depressed me, it is very well written, but seems to present such a negative slant. His life had its difficulties yes, but it had its good times as well and I think the book concentrated too much on the difficulties while virtually ignoring the larger or spiritual context. Not that biographies usually write about that, but I think if you don't, life itself seems a miserable affair and any 'success' whatever that might be, is inevitably ground down in the next failure - whether that's an attack by some other writer (Camus was attacked by Sartre and other for his views), illness - he suffered from recurrent bouts of TB - nostalgia for Algeria, its climate and sunshine, and his life there, and a feeling of isolation, both from people and from God, who he couldn't seem to find a place for in his life, except in moments in Algeria and a few other times when he was close to nature. He had this huge nostalgia for Algeria, yet knew that he couldn't go back to live there. And in the end, French Algeria disappeared, as Algeria regained its independence. I can vaguely remember that, as a child with my father, who was interested in politics and what went on in the world, commenting on the French-Algerian war.

In Camus' time, writers were supposed to take political stands, left wing or right wing, for or against war, fighting or resistance, so one could get very entangled in political stances. Not to mention trying to find a philosophy of life that one could live by. Camus was not an existentialist, he didn't seem to think that any philosophy could completely explain life but he was driven to try to make some sense of it and particularly of his own moral stance, regarding war, violence, resistance (during WW II) and Algerian independence.

I don't think life can be understood without including a larger dimension than the intellect. Trying to squash it into the box of the left brain seems doomed to failure, to the 'Huits Clos/No Exit' title of one of Sartre's plays. But if one links with the non-rational, even though it's very hard to put into words, it feels, at times it does, very different, it can feel connected.
I'd like to write about the mystical Camus, who experienced a sense of oneness, who talked about innocence meaning that state of being where one is connected to a greater awareness. He wrote about it too.

In Noces – writing about Algeria – I am one with this wind and live within it, am one with these columns and that archway, one with these flagstones warm to the touch.....
In American Journals, when he was crossing the Atlantic
Yes, I’ve loved the sea very much – this calm immensity – these wakes folded under wakes – these liquid routes. ………
O sweetness of night where all the stars sway and slide above the masts and this silence in myself, this silence which finally frees me from everything.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Night Crossing, Paris Streets and Rouen's Musee de Beaux Arts

There's a kind of magic, a tangible feeling of the land being wrapped in something other, different, like entering a fairy story, as soon as the shore on the other side of the water [La Manche] is reached. I don't feel it so strongly now but still feel it. The first time – and it was dark then too - jumped straight up into my imagination, scented and lamplit, first the soft glow of the batons held by the harbour guards at Calais, to guide the cars coming off the ferry and later, the straight dark roads, as we headed south west, the trees lit by the yellow headlamps, these roads had their guardian poplar trees accompanying them. The sheer luck of being waved on by trees, whispered over by trees as the road went on and on. The roadside cafés, the lamps and of course the language. And it's all still there, it comes rushing to meet me, each time I cross the water. There was – and still is – a sense of belonging somewhere different, maybe even belonging in the fairy-story, true home being magical and so – an undercurrent of laughter, sometimes bubbling up.
When I was very young I don't think I was too aware of living on an island. But as soon as I had left it, then, I knew. Each time I leave it now, it's a return to that other place, other self, even – other land of self, entering the magical and other land, as soon as the other side of the water is reached. The north side of the stretch of water has nothing of romantic in it, it is the path of commerce only. There are the rough-hewn steps and blatant props of travel. Rusting cranes by docksides, splinterings of wooden crates, a sheen of oil on water, stench of old and mouldering coiled ropes or nets. No perfume, no distance. Bilge water, old oil, tar and detritus of greasy wrappings ripped and plucked apart by seagulls' beaks. But once on the other side, the south shore, there is the vastness of a continent beneath your feet, that you are joined to. A sense of allure like a lightly fingered treasure casket.
Night crossing.
Waiting at the ferry terminal, flocks of birds rose, strangely silent, spinning like pieces of paper caught in wind. Bright as flecks of foam, tattered flakes catching the beams of light from the string of lamps between ferry and the lines of trucks and cars waiting to drive on.
The water rocks the ferry as if it's determined everyone should sleep, but I'm not sleepy, listening to the regular swoosh of the water, like a thick black whale breathing, with its white foam breath.
The wind on deck is fierce and wet, tearing at clothes, hair, slapping at bare skin.
Because I didn't sleep overnight I'm tired. I wander up Boulevard Magenta, past the Marché de St.Quentin, and the Déjeuner café, down St. Martin, past Notre Dame and a crowd of hunched pigeons, and along by the Seine, with change for the homeless man and the two sleeping puppies.

When I meet up with C she takes me to St. Sulpice, buys me a book by Catherine Clément, and then back to her amazing apartment on rue Vaugirard, every room piled with books. Every room is an office, she laughs. She was the President of the French Byron Society and tells me of someone, whose name I forget, who came to give a talk and claimed to be wearing Byron's ring. 'But how could that be? she said. How could he come to have Byron's ring? Surely they did not sell it? The British, she says, I'm sorry to say this, but the British can be so mercantile.' A truly delicious description! We have an aperitif of port, sitting at a tiny table with a brass tray, books piled all around us, and she then makes soup and lentils à la Auvergnoise.

I wanted to visit the Flaubert museum, but it was closed for renovation. So I went to the Musée de Beaux Arts, where I have never seen so many Impressionist paintings all together. Apart from many Sisleys and Monets – including of course, his Porte de la Cathédrale de Rouen - there was René de Saint-Délis's Le Port d'Honfleur, with light striking the water.

Leaving Calais, the sky was storm grey, but here too, there was a line of light which must have jumped around a cloud, to hit the water.