on August 12, 2002
It's been written about "A Happy Death" that Camus' unpublished first novel was brilliantly written, and terrible organized. It's hard to deny that the novel may have some structure problems, but it's hard to care when it's written so beautifully. Philosophically, it hints at topics Camus would explore later (exile, suicide, rebellion and of course, the absurd). Even young Camus had a way with words, and although like the existentialist of his time he had a way of telling dark and depressing tales, he manages to write with an emphasis on the simple pleasures of life. Whether he's describing the act of bathing in the sun or savoring food items he has a way of making the reader want to live and experience life, for better or worse, to the fullest. "A Happy Death", in a literary sense, doesn't even come close to the heights of The Stranger (with which it bares many similarities) or The Plague (my personal favorite) but one really can't complain about a novel capable of reaffirming how beautiful (yet absurd) life can be.
on June 19, 2000
In "A Happy Death", Camus took a different approach to writing what later became "The Stranger". The latter work is famous (and sometimes despised) for it terse, efficient prose, its brutal frankness, and its avoidance of moral consideration. As a result, many readers do not know what to make of Merseault and often mistake him for a psychopath. In "A Happy Death", Camus writes in the third person and adds considerably more elements to the story. The ending also differs from "The Stranger".
In "The Stranger", Merseault kills an Arab for no apparent reason other than caprice or irritability. Merseault is then put on trial and condemned more for his flagrant aversion to bourgeois hypocrisy than for the crime he committed.
But in "A Happy Death", Merseault's crime had a clearer motive and a deeper symbolism. Merseault kills his crippled friend Zagreus in order to obtain his wealth and use it to transform his otherwise mundane life. In Greek mythology, Zagreus was torn apart by the Titans but Zeus was able to give his still beating heart to his daughter who later fathered Dinoysis, the god of wine. Zagreus literally means "torn apart" in Greek. The myth of Zagreaus is comparable to the role of Christ in the Christian tradition because Zagreus was mocked, tortured, and executed. But unlike Christ, Zagreaus escaped the final humiliation by having a substitute take his place.
Camus re-appropriates this legend in "A Happy Death". The wheelchair bound Zagreaus essentially prompts Merseault to murder him so that he can escape the humiliation of his infirmity and pass his wealth on to Merseault. There are subtle indications that the two men are inextricably bound to each other. Both men experience the same lover at different times and both share the same cynical view that she is only an image of what they want to see in her. Each man also has what the other needs. Merseault has the physical capability to enjoy life, but he is hampered by routine and by his work. Zagreus has wealth but lacks the physical capability to enjoy it.
The re-appropriation of the Zagreus myth asks the question "what does it mean to truly be alive"? Is it better that only one of the two men live as long as he lives his life to the fullest rather than both living unhappy, restricted lives? After killing Zagreaus, Merseault leads a life of travel, hedonism, and leisure. When he is subsequently stricken ill, he dies a happy dignified death.
In this sense I would disagree with the reviewer who characterized "A Happy Death" as a primer for "The Stranger". Instead, it is a story with a completely different emphasis. Where the stranger depicts the fate society metes out to an honest individual, "A Happy Death" asks what it truly means to be alive.
Camus' book "A Happy Death" was never published in his lifetime. Camus was very specific and deliberate as to when he would publish what. This novel, the first written by Camus, has been published after being reclaimed from his papers.
The question that comes to mind then, is "Why did Camus never publish this work?" It seems that the book was a transitional writing for Camus. It allowed him to move forward from the life he had always thought about, to the life he believed he lived in, that being an "existential" existence.
In reading the book, one finds that Mersault, the protagonist, seems to have too many moments of happiness as compared to other protagonists in Camus' other publications. This in fact, is probably an autobiographical reflection of Camus' early life, and the book, a work to allow him to metamorphosize, transform his vision into what came next, "The Stranger."
The beauty of the novel is recognizing this transition and then, with such recognition, comes the ability to apply those thought patterns and feelings to Camus' later works, seeing how he transformed from a "regular" human being, to an "existentialist" one who has the feeling of being unique, and apart from others and the world around him.
The book gives valuable insight into Camus' mental process as he moves from where he was, to where he will go. For Camus readers, the book is truly a MUST. And for anyone with an interest in the "Existential" genre, it is truly an enlightening piece of literature.
on July 3, 2006
I am a Camus fan. I've read everything of his, starting with The Stranger and ending with A Happy Death. I must say that A Happy Death is my favorite. I (re-)read it several times a year.
A Happy Death is the most beautifully written, in my opinion. Content aside, the language (albeit in translation) is gorgeous and incredibly evocative. I can't get over it.
Content-wise, I felt that A Happy Death was much more human, we got to know Mersault much better. In The Stranger he is so cold, deliberately almost one-dimensional and I felt it was lovely to get to know a different side of him in A Happy Death. The language and descriptions are lush and vivid, the character has a lot more depth, and above all else, when I read it, I can clearly see why Camus vehemently denied being called an "existentialist". Some of the "existentialist" ideas certainly are present, but there seems to be such a different aesthetic.
on March 31, 2015
This book is an existential contemplation about happiness and if we can achieve it. What is it that we need to be happy?
The skill of the writing is excellent, especially the imagery Camus creates in the descriptive passages without being overly flowery. However, the characters themselves suffer from a certain lack of definition to my mind.
The novel is split into two parts. The first is much shorter and a little better than the second, for my taste. His other novel, The Stranger, (the famous pre-quel) is a much better story, but the writing is not quite as good.
Some of the sentences and thoughts were so well constructed that I found myself happily re-reading certain lines.
The story of A Happy Death is one of futility, which left me quite unsettled. It was an uncomfortable read. I felt as though I had watched someone die and learned very little at the end, but somehow I still enjoyed the process.
The book shows his wonderfully philosophical mind whirring away.
on August 15, 2015
Camus' A Happy Death is presented as "May be read as a preamble to The Stranger" (The Stranger, being one of my favorite books).
So, where shall I begin?
There are, undoubtedly, very strong similarities between A Happy Death and The Stranger. As a reader, I could view A Happy Death as a hint of what The Stranger would be. After all, both books feature a protagonist named Mersault, both books deal with death, and both books deal with a character who is, in a way, unaffected by the world that surrounds him.
As a writer, I should view A Happy Death as an incomplete The Stranger. An attempt to put forth ideas expressed in the latter, a writing that is not as good as Camus' later works, a writing that dances around more than takes you towards the destination, a writing where metaphors and side stories are used excessively and distract more than add to the text. For the writer here struggles at times to be concise and on point, and there seems to be an unnecessary array of poetic prose which does nothing for the text at large.
Academia, however (and especially the Afterword) disagrees with my views from both of the above angles. Having been both the benefactor and the victim of readers' (and academia) interpretations of my own texts, I must admit that the academia often looks for hidden meanings in anything which does not follow a clear path or the established ideas of who a writer is. Nevertheless, as a writer, I must acknowledge that, at times, instances and incidents just are random. So, I largely disagree with the academia when it comes to interpreting literature, as it often writes more theses and books about a book than the author himself/herself.
But I shall approach Camus' A Happy Death as neither a reader nor a writer. Instead, I shall approach it as a thinker. (How dare I call myself that?)
A Happy Death consists of two books: The Natural Death, and The Conscious Death.
In The Natural Death we meet Mersault, a man whose mother passed away, who works a lousy job, rents the empty rooms in his house to derelict individuals, and stays in the room that used to be his mother's. Mersault is a vain individual who does not really care about anything (on the surface) a dates a girl because he enjoys the attention he receives when they are out together. It would have been fine, except, he is also jealous. He makes her talk about her past lovers, and she introduces him to Zagreus, her ex-lover who is now crippled.
This book opens interestingly, with its ending, followed by a flashback of sorts where the circumstances leading to Mersault's crime are explained. It comes full circle quite nicely, and we learn a great deal about Mersault, his life, and his state of mind. The language itself has a raw quality to it, matching well with the theme. There were times when I enjoyed The Natural Death more than The Stranger, as it seems more real, more thought-through.
In The Conscious Death, Mersault appears on the scene in Prague, and with a completely different mindset. He is growing derelict, both in his appearance and in his inner state of mind. He is becoming a haunted human being seeking a meaning to his life. Through a series of travels, he eventually ends back in Algiers where he finds himself, and, in the end, finds a happy death.
This book did not satisfy my cravings for more Camus. It is more fragmented, and, at times, appears unnecessarily distracted with snippets of poetic verse that add little to the character himself. Mersault grows tormented, abandons civilization, and then longs for it again. He makes inconsistent choices (and not in the 'unreliable narrator' way). He is at once a hedonist and a puritan, talkative and silent, a seeker who is blind. There were choices that did not sit well with me, and, personally, I felt the build-up to the conclusion (which came at random) was rather drawn-out. All in all, The Conscious Death was an interesting exercise in thinking about the complicated human nature, but it did not live up to the expectations.
Compared to Camus' later works, A Happy Death seems unfisnished (to this reader). It was still worth the read, but not likely a reread.