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Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus
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Lyrical and Critical Essays (1967)

by Albert Camus

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There are two sides of Camus on show here in this wonderful collection of essays; the Lyrical essays mostly dwell on his love for his native Algeria and his celebration of Mediterranean culture, while the critical essays are largely book reviews or thoughts on the writers who he saw as significant. Whichever side of Camus is on show, the writing lives and breaths with a sincerity and a passion that is a highlight of mid twentieth century European culture.

The Lyrical essays start with some of Camus earliest writing taken from his collection "The wrong side and the right side" published in Algeria in 1936. As a young man of 23 it is surprising that much of his subject matter is loneliness and death, it is not so surprising to find him reflecting also on his childhood and family, but there is slight feeling of melancholia if not sadness in some of this writing. We witness a man who is already well on the road to thinking seriously about what he values in life and what he can expect from the world and he is trying not to sink into despair. The sun and the land of his native Algeria are what he clings to as a fillip from a feeling of powerlessness. The next year 1937 saw the publication of Noces and there are four brilliant essays from this collection everyone of which is a gem. Camus is now looking at the world as an absurd phenomenon, but in Algeria he also sees so much life that he is exalted by it and it pours out of him in these truly lyrical essays. In "Summer in Algeria" he seems to be at a crossroads in his thoughts:

Everything that exalts life at the same time increases its absurdity. In the Algerian summer I learn that only one thing is more tragic than suffering, and that is the life of a happy man. But this can also be the path to a greater life, since it can teach us not to cheat..........For hope contrary to popular belief, is tantamount to resignation. And to live is not to be resigned.

My favourite essay here is "The wind at Djemilla" Camus describes how he journeys to and arrives at the ruins at Djemilla a place isolated on the coast and where he is battered by winds:

The violent bath of sun and wind drained me of all strength. I scarcely felt the quivering of wings inside me, life's complaint, the weak rebellion of the mind. Soon scattered to the four corners of the earth, self-forgetful and self-forgotten, I am the wind and within it, the columns and the archway, the flagstones warm to the touch, the pale mountains round the deserted city. And never have I felt so deeply and at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world...... Then I think of flowers, smiles, the desire for women, and realize that my whole horror of death lies in my anxiety to live

Nuptials at Tipasa describes a young mans love for life on a perfect day and "the Desert" has a theme of living in the present and Camus runs with this idea to think about life and perhaps obtains a little wisdom. Other Lyrical essays follow but by the time he writes "Enigma" in 1950 he is becoming, battered by life rather than just the wind. His thoughts now lead him to explain himself to his critics, something he had not needed to do before. He emphasises the fact that his thoughts are developing, he is changing, he does not want to be pinned down. In 1953 he writes an essay titled "Return to Tipasa" where he seeks to rediscover the feelings he had before the second world war. Despite having to climb over barbed wire he is able to recapture moments as a younger man, but now must return to the troubles of Europe. All of these lyrical essays contain moments of beauty, but they all lead Camus to reflect on life and as we move through them we can feel his thoughts developing.

The Critical essays tend to be shorter and take the form of reviews which were published in various magazines or newspapers. They have been selected not only for Camus critique of other writers, but also for what they reveal about Camus himself. All of them are interesting, for example reviews of two books by John-Paul Sartre, before they became friends and then competitors. There are short essays on Herman Melville and William Faulkner; American authors that Camus admired. Other reviews lead him to talk about his views on language and religion and on the writers that influenced him as a young man. There are a couple of essays on French authors that are no longer in print, especially Roger Martin Du Gard, who is much admired by Camus, but who has no voice today, but there is still much to admire in how they are written.

There is a smaller third part to the book which collects a few essays where Camus writes or talks about his own work. Interesting snippets on reading L'Etranger and The Plague and a heartfelt letter to a colleague explaining why Camus has no time to meet him; Camus does not make excuses but tells him straight that his busy life precludes him from doing everything that others wish him to do.

These essays are Camus in bite sized chunks, they all have a ring of sincerity and as usual we feel we are on a journey with a man seeking truth and justice. Some of the Lyrical essays demand to be re-read again and again and although the Critical essays do not hold such a fascination they are nevertheless worth reading. The book ends with three short transcripts of interviews with Camus and his humanity shines through; they are a perfect coda to his essays. A Five star read ( )
2 vote baswood | Dec 17, 2013 |
This is a good introduction to Camus, who is always an interesting writer. ( )
  mewilbur | Jun 17, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Albert Camusprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kennedy, Ellen ConroyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thody, PhilipEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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