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A Very Happy Death

Albert Camus, 1957.

Disclaimer: this is probably a very unfair synopsis of Camus’s early novel, A Happy Death. But I will synopse (is that a word?) it anyway. Another disclaimer: I am more irritated with Camus’s publishers than with Camus, who never meant the novel to be printed.

Enter Act One. Patrice Mersault is a young man who is very dissatisfied with his life. But he likes his girlfriend Martha. Make that he likes showing off with his girlfriend Martha. Or that he likes showing off with his companion—interest—image—Martha whatever. Then he finds out (gasp!) that his girlfriend has a past. The mirror smudges. He wants a list of boyfriends. Martha gives it to him. He doesn’t know one person on it. He wants to meet him. Boyfriend is a very thoughtful amputee. Mersault likes talking to him enough to come back and shoot him. Curtain.

Enter Act Two. Mersault visits Europe to find happiness. He hates Europe. Mersault visits friends to find happiness. He gets bored. Mersault goes home to find happiness. He buys a house in the country and achieves a new sense of reality. He gets sick and dies. He feels connected to Martha’s boyfriend as he is dying. Curtain. Applause.

Camus’s writing style and imagery are remarkable. And the first part of the book is fairly good—the death of Zagreus, Martha’s boyfriend, feels real. But the second part of the book feels disjointed, and Mersault becomes extremely irritating—walking around trying to achieve a higher level of reality while writing off his murder to “innocence” since it doesn’t disturb him.

The only other time that I have rooted for the death of a main character is in Macbeth. I first saw the play done as a staged reading, and all the characters wore such similar costumes that by the time I figured out who Macbeth was, he had gone bad. So I spent the rest of the play enjoying my anticipation of his death. And Shakespeare did not disappoint me.

Maybe I simply have a different personality than Camus did and therefore cannot take Mersault seriously. (Thought leaks from all corners of the novel, which does not help.) But I doubt that a personality difference is the only reason I find Mersault’s meditations (read: self-absorption) annoying. I really, really wanted him to die an exceedingly painful death—perhaps not physically painful, but painful in that all his illusions are stripped away.  But no. Mersault never suffers as a result of his murder; rather, he succeeds because “he had created his life with consciousness, with courage.”

Camus’s existentialism permeates A Happy Death in a frankly ugly way. In Camus’s later book The Plague, he suggests that fighting human suffering is the way to find meaning in a meaningless world. A Happy Death is the opposite scenario—finding meaning in a meaningless world by making choices centered around yourself. Existentialism, without a basis for morality, has room for both scenarios.

The young Camus wrote this end to his book: “The ascent stopped. And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds.”

But here is an alternate ending—if not poetic justice, the justice that suits, at any rate, this very amateur poet.

“And when Macbeth awoke from the dead, he crossed the sea to North Africa and thought to commence haunting the living. Upon looking in the phone book he came upon Patrice Mersault’s name and decided that, since it began with the same letter as his own, he would pay him a visit. The ghost found Mersault sitting at his kitchen table, breathing shallowly.

“’I will be conscious without deception, without cowardice,’ gasped Mersault. ‘I shall be the blood brother of Zagreus. I who have inflicted death am going to die.’

“’Oh?’ said Macbeth. ‘What did you do it for—power? Or money? Maybe a woman? Did the witches come to you, too?’

“’I did it in the innocence of my heart,’ said Mersault.

“’You are an idiot,’ said Macbeth. ‘Have you had last rites?’

“’I wish to return to the motionless worlds in the joy of my heart.’ Mersault laid his head down on his elbows. Unfortunately as he did so his moving elbow accidentally flung a glove that had been lying on the table into Macbeth’s face.

“’Oh, so you wish to die fighting?’ asked Macbeth. ‘Good man!’ And he promptly knocked Mersault on the head.”

If only.

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Posted by on November 14, 2012 in Realistic Fiction


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