Grace Phan Jones
"The Artist at Work" by Albert Camus, Segment 1
"The Artist at Work"is the fifth story in Camus' Exile and the Kingdom. This original translation of the full story will be shared in segments. As I reflect further upon my work and as I improve my method of translation over time, I hope that the reader will be accepting of future refinements and corrections.
Throw me into the sea...for I know that it is me who brings upon you this great tempest
Gilbert Jonah, a painter, believed in his star. For that matter he believed in his star alone, although he felt respect, and even a kind of admiration, before the religion of others. His own faith, however, was not without virtues, as it consisted in acknowledging, in an obscure way, that he would obtain much without ever deserving anything. In addition, when, around his thirty-fifth year, a dozen critics began suddenly to quarrel over the glory of having discovered his talent, he showed no surprise at all. But his serenity—which some attributed to cockiness—explained itself very well, on the contrary, by a confidant modesty. Jonah gave credit to his star rather than to his own merits.
He seemed slightly more surprised when an art dealer proposed to him a monthly wage that would deliver him from all care. In vain, the architect Rateau, who since high school loved Jonah and his star, pointed out that this monthly wage would give him a barely decent life and that the dealer would be losing nothing. “All the same,” said Jonah. Rateau, who was succeeding, but by brute force, in all that he undertook, scolded his friend. “What do you mean, all the same? You have to negotiate.” Nothing worked. To himself, Jonah thanked his star. “It will be as you like,” he said to the dealer. And he abandoned the positions that he used to occupy in his father’s publishing house, in order to consecrate himself wholly to painting. “This,” he said, “is a stroke of luck!”
In reality he thought: “This is a stroke of luck which persists.” As far as he could go back in his memory, he found this luck at work. He nourished a tender recognition of the role of his parents, firstly because they had raised him distractedly, which had furnished him with the leisure of daydreaming, and next because they separated because of adultery. That was at least the pretext invoked by his father who forgot to specify that it consisted of a pretty particular kind of adultery: he could not stand the good deeds of his wife, a veritable secular saint, who without seeing any malice in it, had made of her person a gift to suffering humanity. But the husband claimed to be master of the virtues of his wife. “I’ve had enough,” said that Othello, “of being cuckolded by the poor.”
This misunderstanding proved profitable for Jonah. His parents, having read, or learned of several cases of sadistic murderers born of divorced parents, vied with one another in spoiling him in order to nip the bud of such a pesky evolution. The less apparent the effects of the shock undergone by the conscience of the child, the more the parents worried. According to them, invisible devastations had to be the most profound. When Jonah declared that he was content with himself or his day, the usual alarm of his parents bordered on panic. Their attention was doubled and the child no longer had anything more left to desire.
His supposed unhappiness eventually earned Jonah a devoted brother in the person of his friend, Rateau. The parents of Rateau often invited over his little classmate from school, for they pitied his misfortune. Their pitying discussions inspired within their son, who was vigorous and sportive, the desire to take under his protection the child whose nonchalant successes he already admired. This mixture of admiration and condescension lent itself well to the friendship which Jonah received, like the rest, with an encouraging simplicity.
When Jonah had finished his studies (without any particular effort), he still had the good fortune to enter into the publishing house of his father. There, he found a position, and—by indirect paths—his vocation as a painter. Jonah’s father, who was the foremost editor in France, was of the opinion that books, more than ever—because of the crisis of culture—were the future. “History shows,” he used to say, “that the less we read the more we buy books.” Thus, he rarely read the manuscripts that were submitted to him, deciding to publish them only based on the personality of the author or the popularity of his subject (from this point of view, the only subject always popular being sex, the editor ended up specializing) and he occupied himself only in finding curious formats and free publicity. Jonah received therefore, at the same time as the department of texts, much leisure time for which he had to find use. Thus did he encounter painting.
For the first time, he discovered an unexpected ardor. Tireless, he soon consecrated his days to painting and, still without effort, excelled in this exercise. Nothing else seemed to interest him and he was barely able to get married at the suitable age: painting devoured him whole. For beings and for ordinary life circumstances, he reserved only a benign smile which exempted him from fussing over them. It took an accident of the motorcycle that Rateau was driving too vigorously, his friend riding pillion, for Jonah—right hand immobilized in a bandage and getting bored—to be able to interest himself in love. Here still, he was compelled to see in this serious accident the positive effects of his star. Without which, he would not have taken the time to look at Louise Poulin as she deserved to be.
According to Rateau, however, Louise didn’t deserve to be looked at. Small and stocky himself, he only liked big women. “I don’t know what you see in that ant,” he said. Louise was in effect small, black of skin, of hair and of eye, but well made, and with a pretty face. Jonah, big and solid, felt tenderly towards the ant, all the more because she was industrious. Louise’s vocation was activity. Such a vocation was happily in accord with Jonah’s taste for inertia, and to his advantage. Louise devoted herself firstly to literature, and did so for as long as she thought Jonah showed the least interest in publishing. She read everything, out of order, and became, in just a few weeks, capable of talking about everything. Jonah admired her and judged himself to be definitively dispensed from reading since Louise informed him enough, and permitted him to know what was essential of contemporary discoveries. “One must not say,” affirmed Louise, “that someone is mean or ugly, but that he is acting mean or ugly.” The nuance was important and risked leading at least, as Rateau pointed out, to the damnation of the human race. But Louise prevailed in showing that this truth being at the same time upheld by the press corps and the philosophic reviews, was universal and could not be debated. “It will be as you like,” said Jonah, who immediately forgot this cruel discovery in order to dream of his star.