Thursday, January 6, 2011

the death of camus and the birth of limerence

nobody knows what albert camus and his publisher michel gallimad were talking about as they drove near sens, northern france, on january 4, 1960. camus had won the nobel prize for literature three years earlier for  "for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times," so maybe they talked about that. in his coat pocket was an unused train ticket, bought to carry him back to his wife and children. he had changed plans and taken his publisher's offer of a drive home instead, so maybe they talked about that. or maybe they talked about The First Man, the new novel camus was working on. external forces demanded he produce another hit to show the nobel hadn't been a fluke and to prove he wasn't losing is ability to write. internal forces pushed him in another direction, toward deeper introspection, and that was the direction he was pursuing in The First Man. maybe that's what they were talking about.

gallimad lost control of the car and crashed into a tree, crumpling the american-made sports car. both men died. camus was 46. when futile rescuers made it to the scene, they found a rough, hand-written manuscript of The First Man in the mud.

camus has long been one of my writing heroes for his clear, potent prose and his method of exploring philosophy through novels. in The Outsider, his hero shoots a man dead for no reason and can't understand why anyone else cares. just hang me, he says. spare me the pious outrage. a couple of books later, in The Fall, a character is forever altered when he hears a woman fall into a river and fails to act to help her. and so camus explores a vast territory of the human condition, raising lamps for those of us who would follow.

i finished a first draft of my new novel, Limerence, tuesday. i didn't realize until i sat down to write this post that it was exactly 50 years after camus's death. of course it's just a curious coincidence, but i had been reading The First Man as i finished Limerence. TFM wasn't released until the mid 1990s because his daughters feared his critics would use the rough draft to show he was done as a writer. and it is rough reading, full of half thoughts, ideas to be fleshed out later and repetitions that would doubtlessly have been deleted from the final version.

still, it has more beauty than most of us ever dream of. it reminds me of michelangelo's Slaves. i saw them years ago in florence, after waiting under the midday sun in an outdoor line for three hours. we were all there to see David, which proved impressive, but on the way through the museum you pass by the slaves - a series of pieces he never finished.

they are striking - powerful figures fighting their way out of the marble, forever trapped. so it is with TFM - a masterpiece only partially carved out of camus's mind and left forever unfinished. camus was evidently not one to produce genius easily - the book is full of his scratchings out, notes in the margins, bits of conversation he meant to complete, uncertainty about how to order events.

i've been working on Limerence for a couple of years. i put it down to write The Hermit of Africville and picked it up again in december, during my usual winter slow period as a journalist. it was about half written. in the early stages, when i get to a scene i'm not ready to write, but that needs to be noted to move on with the story, i just put a line in caps - ADAM STARTS OWN BUSINESS? and then, when coming back through to complete the first draft, i flesh it out.

i'm going to leave it for a week or so and then read through from start to finish, tidying up as i go. after that, i'll hand it over to my trusted friends for their opinions, adjust it accordingly, and then start sending it out to fend for itself in the world.

i slowed down greatly as i got toward the end of TFM. it is the last novel by camus and the last i've read. when i turned the last page, there would be no more new words to discover. i finally finished it this morning. i'll reprint the last par below, as it spells out (in untidy, rough prose) why it is any of us write. the first man is jacques, a french writer aged 40 who is finally seeking his father, who died when he was just 1. jacques never knew him and the man has vanished - after 40 years, no friends remember him clearly, no photos exist and jacques knows nothing about him except that he was his own father and he died in world war one. raised in poverty in algeria, every trace of his father has vanished into desert dust. this was true for camus, too - his father died unknown to him. this is what makes him the first man  - like adam in the garden of eden, he is an orphan who must raise himself. the book ends with the young man finding comfort in a woman like him - only her orphaned state came with a full biography through family stories and photos, so she knows who her parents where.

my own adam in Limerence finds himself in a similar situation, though of his own making, after he inexplicably flees a manitoba car crash that has claimed the lives of his wife and son. instead of returning to tell others, he jumps on a bus and rides to halifax to start a new life with a new name - adam. another first man.

here are the last words camus wrote:

"And he, too, perhaps more than she, since he had been born in a land without forefathers and without memory, where the annihilation of those who preceded him was still more final and where old age finds none of the solace in melancholy that it does in civilized lands.

"He, like a solitary and ever-shining blade of a sword, was destined to be shattered with a single blow forever, an unalloyed passion for life confronting death; today he felt life, youth, people slipping away from him, without being able to hold onto any of them, left with the blind hope that this obscure force that for so many years had raised him above the daily routine, nourished him unstintingly, and been equal to the most difficult circumstances - that, as it had with endless generosity given him reason to live, it would also give him reason to grow old and die without rebellion."

that 'obscure force' was, i think, the burning need to write. it solidifies life, gives traction that allows forward movement. that's what camus was after personally with TFM, i think - traction in the sands of his childhood. it's what most writers  are after. we know we are destined to one day be shattered with a single blow and disappear forever. all we can leave behind are our words.
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