The book clearing continues apace, and as I was moving piles of printed matter around I stumbled across this – a little Penguin pamphlet (for want of a better word), containing two essays by Albert Camus and released to coincide with his centenary last year (which is when I picked it up). Camus was, of course, one of my great discoveries in the 1980s, when I was reading every French existentialist I could get my hands on. He stands up to re-reading though, as I found when I revisited “The Outsider” – but these two essays were pieces I hadn’t read.

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They’re titled “The Sea Close By” and “Summer in Algiers” and the first piece is just that – a piece about being aboard ship, sailing on the seas, and the meditations that occur while you’re afloat and travelling. We’ve lost so much of the sense of travel nowadays: speeding everywhere in cars, jet planes and even express trains, we can’t imagine the slow, hypnotic quality of a voyage to another country. The sky and the stars float by; life becomes suspended and dreamy as the days pass and land is still not in sight. Camus captures in beautiful, poetic prose that gradual sense of movement, of changing location, which is often lost today – it’s a wonderful piece of writing.

“Summer in Algiers” is an earlier piece; Camus was of course French-Algerian and here he revisits the area in which he grew up, the Belcourt area of Algiers. Here, the rhythm of life is different; priorities are not the same under the hot sun, and the people are not motivated by the same things as those in big cities and cooler climes. The pace of life is slow; people bloom and blossom early, decay quickly and are existentialist in the sense that they live simply to live, not for any other reason. Pleasure is the motivation, the morals and rule of the street are those which apply, and there is an intensity in living this way. Again, Camus’ prose is evocative and beautiful, conjuring up the glare of the Mediterranean sun on white walls, the still at noon, the slight cool of the evenings.

“Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summonses for my Algiers to be so closely linked with them. When I spend some time far from that town, I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes. A whole little nation of red clouds stretches out until it is absorbed in the air. Almost immediately afterwards appears the first star that had been seen taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming, night.”

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As an object, this little pamphlet is quite lovely – I have similar ones of Orwell essays and they’re just as nice. Certainly, Penguin and other publishers should bring out more of these bite size booklets so we can just pick up our favourite others and indulge a little when the mood takes us. Camus fitted my mood just at this moment and maybe it’s time to revisit my favourite book of his, “The Plague”!

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