December 30, 2010

Fifty years on: sad literary anniversaries

Books in the City looks back at two sad literary anniversaries of the departing year

The death of Albert Camus 

Camus in 1957
It's fifty years this year since Albert Camus was killed in an automobile accident while travelling from Provence to Paris. He was 46, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, at the peak of his fame and – see photo – charisma. He had accepted a ride in his publisher’s Facel Vega, a high-speed luxury sports car, a light rain was falling, the car skidded off the road and hit a tree. Camus died instantly, although it took the rescue workers two hours to extricate him from the wreck.

In his briefcase they found his diary, a book of Nietzsche and a copy of Othello, and the manuscript of Le Premier Homme (The First Man). His unused train ticket was in his pocket. I can’t remember seeing it in print myself, so take it for what it’s worth, but I’ve been told that Camus once said that the most meaningless of deaths would be to die in a car accident.

Richard Wright, too 

Fifty years ago, too, and again in France, but this time in a Parisian clinic, the American writer Richard Wright died after being in poor health for years. His body was cremated and the ashes mixed with the ashes of a copy of his novel Black boy, as he had wanted. He was only 52, he was nearly penniless and had spent the last year of his life writing haiku. As an expatriate he escaped the prejudice he experienced back home, but it was one hassle after another and the fire just seemed to dwindle and go out.

You need to read Wright's great novels, Native son and the autobiographical Black boy, to see why this is so sad. In Black boy he tells about how in order to get a library card he had to forge the application using the name of a white co-worker. He was fifteen. The minute he started reading (it was a book by HL Mencken, he of the slashing wit) he was consumed by the desire to be a writer, but immediately as he sat down with pen and paper, he found that the constrictions of his Jim Crow upbringing meant he didn't know what to write.

 He says "I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger."

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 05:30


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