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  • Writer's pictureGrace Phan Jones

"The Artist at Work" by Albert Camus, Segment 2


Jonah and Louise move to an apartment in the artistic quarter.


Louise deserted literature as soon as she understood that Jonah was only interested in painting. She devoted herself immediately to the visual arts, did tours of museums and expositions, and dragged along Jonah, who misunderstood what his contemporaries were painting and found himself disgruntled in his artistic simplicity. Meanwhile he enjoyed being so well informed on all that touched his art. It is true that the next day, he forgot all but the name of the painter whose works he had just seen. But Louise was right when she reminded him peremptorily of one of the certainties that she had retained from her literary period, to the effect that in reality we never forget anything. The star decidedly protected Jonah who could therefore accumulate without poor conscience the certainties of memory and the commodities of forgetfulness.

But the treasures of devotion that Louise dispensed shone brightest in Jonah’s daily life. This good angel spared him purchases of shoes, of clothes and of linens—which shorten, for every normal man, the days of a life already so short. She took charge of, resolutely, the thousand inventions of the machine that kills time, from the obscure printouts from social security to the ceaselessly renewed moods of the fiscal department. “Yes,” said Rateau, “I get it. But she can’t go to the dentist for you.” She didn’t go, but she called and made appointments, at the best hours; she took care of the oil change for the 4CV, the locations of the hotels for vacation, of coal for the house; she herself bought the gifts that Jonah wanted to give; selected and sent his flowers and still found the time, some evenings, to stop by his house, in his absence, to prepare the bedcover that he would not need this night to untuck before sleeping.

With the same impetus, just as well, she got in this bed, then took care of the rendezvous with the mayor, and led Jonah to him two years before his talent was finally recognized and organized the honeymoon such that all the museums were visited. Not without having found, beforehand, in the midst of a housing crisis, a three-bedroom apartment where they moved in, upon returning. She then made, almost one after the next, two children, a boy and a girl, according to her plan which was to reach three and which was fulfilled shortly after Jonah had quit the publishing house in order to consecrate himself to painting.

As soon as she had given birth, however, Louise no longer devoted herself except to her child, then to her children. She still tried to help her husband, but there wasn’t enough time. Without a doubt, she regretted neglecting Jonah, but her decisive character prevented her from getting hung up on these regrets. “Too bad,” she said, “Everyone has their thing.” An expression with which Jonah declared himself in any case enchanted, for he desired, like all the artists of his time, to pass for an artisan. So the artisan was a little neglected and had to purchase his shoes himself. Meanwhile, apart from this being in the nature of things, Jonah was still tempted to congratulate himself. Without a doubt, he had to make an effort to visit the shops, but this effort was made up for by one of those hours of solitude which give so much value to the happiness of couples.

The problem of living space overshadowed by far, however, the other housekeeping problems, for time and space were shrinking with the same movement, around them. The birth of children, Jonah’s new profession, their narrow setup, and the modest monthly salary which prevented buying a bigger apartment, left only a narrow playing field for the double activity of Louise and Jonah. The apartment was located on the first story of an old eighteenth-century hotel in the old neighborhood of the capital. Many artists lived in this arrondissement, loyal to the principle that in art the pursuit of the new must be done in an ancient framework. Jonah, who shared this conviction, very much enjoyed living in this neighborhood.

As for old, in any case, his apartment was it. But a few very modern arrangements had given it an original air which consisted chiefly in that it offered to its guests a great volume of air although it occupied only a reduced surface. The rooms, particularly high, and ornate with superb windows, had certainly been destined, if one judged by their majestic proportions, for reception and for pageantry. But the necessities of urban crowding and real estate annuity had constrained the successive proprietors to divide with partitions too vast, and in this way to multiply the stalls that they rented at the highest price to their herd of tenants. They emphasized no less what they called the “considerable cubic air.” This advantage was not deniable. It could only be attributed to the impossibility of partitioning the rooms by their height, in which the landowners found themselves. Without which, they would not have hesitated to make the necessary sacrifices to offer a few more shelters to the rising generation, particularly inclined to marry and [particularly] prolific at the time. The cubing of the air did not present, however, only advantages. It offered the inconvenience of rendering the rooms difficult to heat in winter, which unfortunately obliged the landlords to increase the indemnity for the heat. In summer, because of the vast windowed surface, the apartment was literally assaulted by the light: there were no blinds. The landlords had neglected to install any, discouraged without a doubt by the height of the windows and the cost of the labor. Thick curtains, after all, could play the same role and posed no problem to the net cost since they were the responsibility of the tenants. The landlords, moreover, did not refuse to help these last and offered them at unbeatable prices curtains from their own store. Real estate philanthropy was their violon d’Ingres. In ordinary life, these new princes would sell percale and velour.

Jonah was in ecstasy over the advantages of the apartment and had accepted without difficulty the inconveniences. “It will be as you wish,” he said to the landlords with respect to the heat indemnity. As for the curtains, he endorsed Louise, who found it sufficient to cover only the bedroom and to leave the other windows naked. “We have nothing to hide,” said that pure heart.

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