essential reading for the summer daze

Albert Camus: A Happy Death

So the school holidays began last week, which means that for many summer is really only beginning even though if I’m honest, I feel the heart of summer has already passed. The first time it’s properly hot and sunny you fall under a kind of madness; a kind of desperation when every moment is so bloody precious (especially working 9-6 with a forty five minute bus journey each way), and it’s really, really great. But the minute it’s not quite so hot and bright any longer it’s also kind of a relief, because living that way is exhausting.

Nevertheless – like I said, for some summer is only really beginning. So it’s the season of what they call ‘jetting off’ and holiday reading, which is of course the topic of this post. My essential summer read is A Happy Death by Albert Camus, and I’m going to tell you why.

Might seem an odd choice given the title. Do people want to read about death on their summer holiday? I for one do, and that may come as no surprise but if you think about it summer’s probably the perfect time to be thinking existential thoughts: when you’re lying in the sun or even better in the sea, escaped from your work, school, or whatever, and especially if you really have ‘jetted off’ to another part of the world, you’ve essentially made a break from your whole world, from your ownself, suspended in some kind of mock paradise, pretend heaven: and even if that doesn’t quite make you tremble with doubt doesn’t it cast a shadow at least on the whole absurd game we think of as ‘life’?

However, I’m not going to talk about death any more and I’m not going to go into too much detail about the novel because it’s already taken me over a week to write this much. I want only to explain why for me this is essential summer reading and hopefully convince you to dash off to your favourite bookshop and find it and read it, so I’ll get to the point.

I’ve already touched on the precise quality that makes these novels so perfect for summer in the heading of this post. It’s the sun: the sun, the sea, and the foreign, hot white city of Algiers.

Brown bodied, sea swimming, truck hopping, casually loving, summer novels – both A Happy Death and L’ Étranger. That’s the first quality. Patrice may be a messed up sort of a hero (Patrice Mersault is the hero of both books, and the books are very close relatives, A Happy Death being the forerunner and blueprint for the later, more famous novel, so if you read both you will find it intriguing to compare them) but you get the impression he knows how to spend his time.
The second is the novel’s capacity to make you think. That’ll seem obvious if you’re at all familiar with the novels’ premise or the author’s philosophy. Still, I’ve read this several times now and I still wonder about it. Without being frustrating or even slightly unpenetrable a text; always found Camus marvellously easy to read, it occupies my mind for days at a time because I don’t feel I have all the answers to it.
Final point is that it is a lean novel and not just in terms of the page count (my Penguin edition comes in at 106 pages). I mean it’s lean in the way you sense Patrice is; slim and efficient, a little hard in its unwillingness to dally with glib charm and pretty language, but intriguing, complex, and even beautiful. A Happy Death does meander; Mersault travels through Europe on a rather futile there-and-back journey. But lean nevertheless; it does not dwell, just as neither Patrice can dwell for long. This makes one think about writing. It makes you think about your sentences, makes you want to make them lean. Lean but beautiful, beautiful in their efficiency.

Saying this makes me feel like I ought not to dwell either, so I won’t.

Patrice and Catherine are having their breakfast on the terrace, in the sun.

everything for happiness, against the world which surrounds us with its violence and its stupidity.

Idleness is fatal only to the mediocre. 


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