70 Reviews: 4. Summer in Algiers by Albert Camus (Pocket Penguins) #review

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I had read some of Camus’ novels (in translation – my GCSE French textbook, the marvellous Tricolor, didn’t cover existential thought) and loved them. I had not, however, spent much time with his essays. This is another brilliant thing about this Penguin boxset challenge – I’m reading things I might otherwise have passed over because it might prove a tad too taxing for a late night read. Reading these essays, I could feel parts of my brain creaking back into action.

Of the three essays in this collection, my favourite is the second, The Minotaur or The Stop in Oran. I felt that there’s a greater fascination for his subject here – he’s more specific in his description of this city of stones and dust than he is of Algiers in the first essay (it is as though he sees this city more objectively, perhaps, than Algiers, his much-loved birthplace), and it contains some truly wonderful lines in which he attempts to place man within the world at large:

‘… beyond the yellow walls of Oran, land and sea continue their indifferent dialogue. That permanence in the world has always had contrary charms for man. It drives him to despair and excites him. The world never says but one thing; first it interests, then it bores. But eventually it wins out by dint of obstinacy. It is always right.’

Oran, he argues, provides the solitude needed for clear thought, as opposed to the cities of Europe which are ‘too full of the din of the past.’ This essay was probably also my favourite because it contains a greater degree of human interest. Camus relates the brutally pragmatic events in a back-street boxing match and describes the influence of Hollywood on the young ‘Clarques’ and ‘Marlenes’ on the 1950s. As a piece of travel writing (for this is what this essay feels like to me), it is brilliant in its capturing of the feel of a time and a place.

20180624_123844_Burst01-1The third essay, Return to Tipasa, is more explicitly personal – Camus’ use of the first person voice is more prominent here as he describes his feelings as he returns to a place he knew as a youth, using it as a prelude to his response to the war. He acknowledges the danger of such a return, telling us, ‘To be sure, it is sheer madness, almost always punished, to return to the sites of one’s youth and try to relive at forty what one loved or keenly enjoyed at twenty.’ Camus, like all those of his generation, had experienced such a seismic break from a world he had known as a young man, and the war meant ‘I could not, indeed, reverse the course of time and restore to the world the appearance I had loved which had disappeared in a day, long before.’ He goes on to contrast youthful innocence with his new knowledge of what man is capable of and what he has been a part of – ‘our hands were soiled’.

It is testimony to the depth of ideas in Camus’ writing (I’m aware of the absurdity of trying to critique the writing of one of the greatest thinkers of the Twentieth Century in a few hundred words…) that this short collection covers pretty much everything – solitude, man’s relationship with the physical world, nostalgia, war, ambition and so on, in the 55 pages available. It wasn’t the easiest read so far in the box set, but probably (so far, at least) the most satisfying.

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