The Reading Room

Summer in Algiers

Albert Camus’ book ‘The Sea Close By’….

Seldom have I read an account of a place which draws one in the way Albert Camus (1913-1960) managed so brilliantly in Summer in Algiers, the second part of the tiny The Sea Close By (Penguin Classics 2013) Born in French Algeria and educated at the University of Algiers, Camus’ childhood was far from comfortable. He grew up with few possessions and worked hard at several jobs to support his studies. His memories of his homeland as well as the troubles it faced during the war in the 1950s had a profound affect on Camus and this short essay is a stunning reflection of his deep seated love and concern for Algeria which stayed with him until his untimely death.

Much of what he wrote strikes a familiar chord in anyone who has taken leave of their childhood home, the singular attachment to a place or region where ‘one’s heart will feel at peace’ is but one example of a melancholic view he take of his life thus far and for the inevitability of the future and his own mortality: ‘I know simply that this sky will last longer than I. And what shall I call eternity except what will continue after my death? …It is well known that one’s native land is always recognised at the moment of losing it. For those who are too uneasy about themselves, their native land is the one that negates them. I should not like to be brutal or seem extravagant. But after all, what negates me in this life is first what kills me. Everything that exalts life at the same time increases its absurdity’

Reading his words of those long summer days reminds me of Paul Bowles and the sense of still only a debilitating heat can bring upon a place. Camus looks to the sea from many vantage points in Algiers, he observes the swimmers in the harbour, or a pretty girl sunning herself on a buoy. He paints a picture of youth versus the ageing writer; ‘In Algiers whoever is young and alive finds sanctuary and occasion for triumphs everywhere; in the bay, the sun, the red and white games on the seaward terraces, the flowers and sports stadiums, the cool-legged girls. But for whoever has lost his youth there is nothing to cling to and nowhere where melancholy can escape itself’

The vivid colours of the landscape shaped by the sun’s heat are not lost on its people and Camus watches how both turn colour through those long summer months: ‘Above the harbour stands the set of white cubes of the Kasbah. When you are at water-level, against the sharp white background of the Arab town the bodies describe a copper-coloured frieze. And, as the month of August progresses and the sun grows, the white of the houses becomes more blinding and the skins take on a darker warmth. How can one fail to participate then in that dialogue of stone and flesh in tune with the sun and seasons?’

Camus continues to inspire, I finished this essay determined to take a closer and yes, more profound look at my own home town. Camus observed how the people and the landscape merge, how each have affected the other and that sense of yearning from afar. He describes the unity between the sun and the sea beautifully but for this reader it is the unity between the man and his homeland which is at the core of the essay and of life itself.

Further Albert Camus related posts:

The Outsider

The Mersault Investigation

 

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