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5 - Interpreting, Ethics and Witnessing in La Peste and La Chute

from Section B - Writing the War: Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus

Colin Davis
Affiliation:
Royal Holloway, University of London
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Summary

The previous chapter suggested that Camus's first novel, L'Etranger, is informed by the tragedy of a war which it never once mentions. This chapter examines problems of interpretation and ethics in two later works in which reference to the war is either widely taken for granted (La Peste) or explicit (La Chute). Camus emerged from the Second World War as an established author, after the publication of L'Etranger and his philosophical essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe and the staging of his plays Caligula and Le Malentendu; and, more than Sartre and Beauvoir, his association with the Resistance was strong because of his work on the clandestine newspaper Combat. So he had a claim to both artistic and moral credentials. The ethical question for post-war, post-Absurdist Camus is how to move beyond the impasse of L'Etranger, in which one man kills another in part because he can see no good reason not to. His second novel, La Peste, on which he had begun work during the war, was published in 1947, and marked a new phase in both his writing and his ethical thinking. The move from individual isolation to solidarity and collective revolt would later be theorized in his book L'Homme révolté, leading to his bitter split from his one-time friends Sartre and Beauvoir, and to competing visions of him as the champion of even-handed moderation or an emblem of ineffective liberalism. In Debarati Sanyal's words, Camus has been ‘either celebrated as an exemplary witness to the atrocities of the century or denounced as an accomplice of an imperialist imaginary’ (Memory and Complicity, pp. 57–58). This problem of interpreting his overall stature and achievement is matched by difficulties of restricting the sense of his most important works. In this chapter I want to suggest that the textual complexities of his two major post-war novels, La Peste and La Chute, frustrate the attempt to identify his writing confidently with any settled position.

La Peste does not mention the Second World War any more than L'Etranger; yet the assumption that Camus's novel, set in the Algerian city of Oran, implicitly refers to the mainland French experience of Occupation was quickly accepted, and has remained so ever since its publication.

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Traces of War
Interpreting Ethics and Trauma in Twentieth-Century French Writing
, pp. 80 - 116
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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