A HAPPY DEATH
This first of Knopf's Camus "cahiers," actually an unpublished novel from 1936-38, reveals a surprising Mersault-in-embryo. Not yet divorced from conventional sentiment or the unsatisfactory Christian name Patrice, he is a respectable son and a resigned shipping clerk who aspires all the same to that elemental strangeness which a later Mersault will achieve as a matter of course. Here it becomes the object of a quest -- a successful quest -- when Patrice is offered a fortune for performing the "suicide" of a wealthy and philosophical amputee. Money buys time, the cripple argues, which equals freedom, the necessary condition to happiness; and happiness, hero and victim conclude together, is the only aim worth considering, the ultimate moral good. From its sensational chapter-one killing on, the novel is a melange of autobiography, travel notes, philosophic dialogue, vignettes and epigrams applied like plasters to the original proposition to illustrate its rightness. But what they show instead is Camus in the last phases of a youthful Romanticism (he would conceive The Stranger before this first Mersault was dispatched to his final ecstasy), groping oxymoronically toward a total embrace of existence, but still believing that simplicity could be willed, that the mind could crown the body king. There is little conviction in the tale or the telling: Mersault is an enthusiast of disinterest in a world that seethes but does not live, and the narrative itself is too fervent and comprehensive to suggest much of the cool integrity of the state it idealizes. The fascination lies in comparing the two books: A Happy Death stands as a measure of The Stranger's sudden, artistic and philosophical maturity -- and provides a rare, unguarded glimpse of the turbulence that was mastered.