A Cruel Man Delighting in Flowers

...the mildness to which men ... had yielded was only half of the intoxication of beauty, while the other half ... was of such surpassing and terrible cruelty—the most cruel of men delights himself with a flower—that beauty ... failed quickly of its effect... 

Hermann BrochThe Death of Virgil


Jeremy Davies is made of ink, but don’t dip a feather in him. It tickles. He once painted a fingernail black and no one really noticed. He was disappointed. He’s also an editor, a religious atheist, a liker of strong coffees, a Shakespeare-lover, a political anarchist and someone who rarely has a pen when he needs one. He has been a PhD candidate, a personal trainer, a life model, a bouncer, an infantry soldier and someone who rarely had a pen when he needed one. He has had words published in a variety of places, in a variety of publications, in a variety of forms, in a variety of moments: Canada, Wet Ink, SMS and twelve minutes past three in the afternoon being some of these. His first novel, 'Missing Presumed Undead', will be re-published by Satalyte Publishing in February 2014. A second is on its way.

The First Man - Albert Camus, David Hapgood, Catherine Camus This begins my Camus’ Centenary year (he was born in 1913) reading list. I plan on reading even more widely than I have of his oeuvre this year, and revisiting some of his works, particularly if there’s a new translation I have not read. On the 7th of November, there will be a celebration at my house.

Now, reviewing a rescued-partial-first-draft manuscript turned into a book is a different kind of thing to other books. When you hover over the fifth star in Goodreads, it says ‘it was amazing’, so I am comfortable with giving this book five stars: I found it amazing. If I didn’t have the same relationship as I do with this author, who is my answer to the ridiculous ‘who’s your favourite author’ question when it crops up and is pressed on me, then perhaps—perhaps—it could be as low as three. I could imagine someone like me, if I was ignorant of this man, giving this book three stars: ‘I liked it’, in Goodreads star terminology.

You could weep, weep the bitter-bright tears of what-could-have-been reading this book. It is quite readable as is, and there are moments of bitter-bright beauty that makes you want to stand up out of your chair and just shake. It is, however, structurally raw and fragmentary. There are sentences that end with a footnote (written by the author in the manuscript) such as ‘develop this’ or ‘give the name of the trees’. There are footnotes to two empty square brackets saying ‘three illegible words’ that the editors, translator and daughter couldn’t work out. In my imagination, the blood from the car wreck is sometimes to blame… There are sometimes several pages of single paragraph text with rolling full page sentences that Camus would obviously have tamed (judging by his finished work), but, but, but … they fill the moment, the place, the people so beautifully; they etch themselves into you with their sheer pain and longing and love and demanding nature.

There is NO WAY a writer would wish this to be published on his behalf if he was alive to see it done. This should NOT be your first, second or possible even your third Camus read. It should be around the last. That’s when you’ll weep for it.

In the pages that were loose and found tucked into the manuscript, and in the Notes and Sketches, there are further fragments, some already used in the draft text, others remaining purely author notes to himself, the bones for the future draft material yet-to-be-written, never-to-be-written. ‘The study of the German officer and the child: nothing makes it worth dying for him.’ And an Arab terrorist character called Saddok who we never really get to meet. And the pursuit ‘from the clandestine editorial office’ (presumably in Nazi occupied Paris where Camus was involved with Combat) where he beats a man to death, or the ‘Conversation with the paratroop lieutenant’, where he’s dishing out threats before getting ‘the third degree’ for talking ‘too well’.

Damn, you wish the rest of this was written. DAMN. DAMN. I’ve never felt the loss of this man more acutely than when nosing through his notes like this.

The story is autobiographical, not an autobiography, which is an important difference of genre. I don’t think Camus would ever have been so blithe as to write something and claim it to be An Autobiography.

In a Hollywood world, this would be a rags-to-riches drama of a poor boy of an ignorant illiterate violent family making it to the big time with Nobel and global literary and philosophical renown. Camus would reject such a narrative outright, and Jacques (the Camus surrogate of the book) would probably spit in their faces. Camus holds them in higher esteem. When it came to choose between the correct political discourse of his moment, and his illiterate disabled mother, a mother who had been powerless to protect him from his grandmother’s abuse and looked on while he was beaten, then he chose his mother, and ostracism from the ‘riches’: he chose his ‘rags’.

‘Or else:
One cannot live with truth—“knowingly”—, he who does so sets himself apart from other men, he can no longer in any way share their illusion. He is an alien—and that is what I am.’

Camus feels his loss of illusion. It’s not something to celebrate or reject: it’s something to live with. This is the absurd. This is his departure from existentialism. You must live with illusion and the knowledge of illusion, because you have a car wreck coming, and that’s actually Real.

You couldn’t live with that, not completely.

Currently reading

Lyrical and Critical Essays
Albert Camus
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages
Harold Bloom
The Rebel (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
Albert Camus