First love

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the Honors College, University of Houston. Albert Camus: Elements to a Life is published by Cornell University Press in January.

Ever returning to the same sea and her silence

Albert Camus once confessed he "never recovered" from his harsh and spare childhood. Camus's family resided in the Belcourt neighbourhood of Algiers in an apartment with three small rooms and a kitchen, no plumbing, no electricity, and just one toilet shared by the three families in the building. He lived there from infancy until high school with his grandmother, mother, brother, and uncle. Camus's father, Lucien, had died in the Battle of the Marne in 1914. All that his widow retained was a photograph and a fragment of the shell that had killed him. Camus and his older brother, Lucien, shared a single bed wedged into the same room with their mother's bed; the only window gave onto an inner courtyard. The grandmother had a room to herself, while her brother, Camus's Uncle Etienne, slept in a room that also served as the dining area. Under the dull yellow glow of a hanging oil lamp was a single table where, under the fierce glare of the grandmother, the family ate, the children did their homework, and Etienne cleaned his hunting gun and picked fleas from his dog, Brillant.

In an early essay, Camus reveals the impact his childhood home had on his life. The story's narrator sits in an otherwise empty Arab café in Algiers as night falls, deep in thought about the "child who lived in a poor neighbourhood". He recalls his old house so well that he could go back there on the darkest night and climb the unlit stairs "without stumbling once... His legs retain the exact height of the steps; his hand, the instinctive, never-conquered horror of the banister. Because of the cockroaches." The vermin came with the territory, as did the shadows and smells.

But the territory was veined with other and better memories as well. Belcourt was to interwar Algiers what the Lower East Side was to New York City: a densely populated neighbourhood of poor but not destitute workers and artisans, professionals and shopkeepers, attracted to the host country by its credo of equality and opportunity. Most of the residents of Belcourt were European immigrants known as pieds noirs: Spaniards, Italians, Maltese, and a sizable Jewish community. The broad boulevards such as rue de Lyon were lined with ficus trees and laced with trolley lines, while the narrow streets were thick with small shops, workshops, and tenements, with knots of children playing canette vinga (a cross between tennis and stickball), all the while dodging pedestrians, street vendors, stray dogs, and squawking chickens.

The sea offered Camus and his friends an escape from the pounding summer heat of the city. It is a rare work by Camus that is not instilled with the author's abiding love of the Mediterranean. His literary characters, from Meursault in The Stranger to Rieux in The Plague or Cormery in The First Man, all find in the sea reprieve from the sound and fury of society. So, too, does Camus: only when he swims in the waters, then drops to the sand on the beaches of the Mediterranean does he become at one with the world. Under this sun, he "dons no mask". The Mediterranean is a philosophical no less than a physical state, elevated by Camus to the symbol of an ancient world of human values and thought, profane, clasping the earth, a world he erected against the overreaching and dry ideologies he associated with the grey landscapes of urban Europe.

Camus in fact discovered two worlds: one of material poverty, which clung to the spare and tattered family possessions in Belcourt, the other of spiritual wealth, found in the waves breaking in the distance and star-strewn sky sweeping over his head. His work and life were filled with the tension he felt between the kingdoms of scarcity and fullness, of society and nature; he had a palpable sense that he himself straddled the two realms. At night, the young Camus would gaze out the apartment window that gave onto the street: though overwhelmed by the smell of the "stinking corridor" behind him and the feel of the rotten seat bottom fraying under him, at the same time, "with eyes raised, he drank in the pure night."

For Camus, the most overpowering memory of childhood was of silence. The grandmother, Catherine Sintes, a widow, bitter and violent, was unlettered and laconic; with Camus and his brother she often expressed herself with slaps and whippings rather than words. Uncle Etienne had been mute until his early teens; after an operation, he was able to speak, but only haltingly and simply. And his mother, also named Catherine, was illiterate and partly deaf. According to a family tradition, Catherine had been perfectly at ease speaking as a young woman; it was only in 1914, after she received news of the death of her husband, that her speech was hobbled.

It was when she lost her husband and her tongue that Catherine Camus lost what little freedom she had had. With the infant Albert and the toddler Lucien, she moved back in with her mother in Belcourt. She spent the rest of her life working long hours as a cleaning woman, returning to a home ruled by a harsh matriarch and to two sons whom she loved but was scarcely able to protect, much less nurture. When the grandmother grabbed her whip and began to beat one of the children, Catherine stood to one side, pleading only that she not strike him on the head. She was there, yet as elusive as the father Camus never knew; she was indispensable, but silent like the world that refused to surrender meaning; she filled her son's life, though the nature of her presence was forever an enigma.

When we are stripped down to a certain point, Camus wrote, "hope and despair are equally groundless and the whole of life can be summed up in an image." For Camus, that image almost certainly was his mother. Even more than the sea, the figure of the silent mother occupies the centre of Camus's writings: it is the sun, or perhaps the dark matter, toward which everything else is pulled.

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