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Review: A Happy Death by Albert Camus

At Claire McKinneyPR, we love books. Many of our daily conversations revolve around not just the books we work with, but those we read on our own time. So we decided to  post reviews, not just of books that are new, but classics and anything we happened to pick up at a local bookstore or library, and fell in love with.  Enjoy!


Camus Book Cover

“And Mersault, in silence, felt in himself  extreme and violent powers to love, to marvel at this life with its countenance of sunlight and tears, this life in its salt and hot stone-it seemed that by caressing this life, all his powers of love and despair would unite. That was his poverty, that was his sole wealth. As if by writing zero, he was starting over but with a consciousness of his powers and a lucid intoxication which urged him on in the face of his fate.”

-A Happy Death, Pg. 83

Senior year of high school my English honors class was required to read The Stranger by Albert Camus. The class was an hour and twenty minutes long and I devoured the book in less than an hour. No one appeared to have finished reading, and we had the entire eighty minutes for the next class to read the book as well, so I started reading it from the beginning. In two days I read The Stranger three times and loved every moment of it, from the character’s bored relationship with his girlfriend, to his indifferent shooting and slaying of a man, to his listless time spent in jail until his own execution.

A Happy Death by Albert Camus has very similar aspects to The Stranger-in fact, the book jacket quotes Time praising the book as its “preamble.” And a preamble it is: the protagonist, Mersault (who has the same name as the main character in The Stranger) murders an older, invalid man named Zagreus, whom Mersault was slowly befriending, and flees the scene. Mersault, like in The Stranger, has a girlfriend he has no real connection with and keeps around just because he’s bored. A Happy Death unfolds the weeks before and after the cold-blooded murder, not unlike Camus’ more famous piece.

Zagreus was introduced to Mersault by Mersault’s lover, Marthe. Although Mersault and Marthe appear to the audience to be in a relationship-they go to the movies, visit Zagreus, who is Marthe’s old friend, and spend quite a bit of time with each other-Camus uses Marthe to further depict Mersault’s inability to have an honest, loving connection with anyone. Calling someone his “lover” rather than his partner or girlfriend creates a distance between Marthe and Mersault because Mersault is a superficial character who is only interested in satisfying himself and making himself happy-which he is finding increasingly difficult to do in the pages of A Happy Death.

A Happy Death is a short novel with so much compressed into its pages, but Camus delivers with a simple and beautiful unraveling of the character’s story.  Like most of Camus’ works, A Happy Death is worth reading, possibly more than The Stranger is; in its pages is sadness, despair, loneliness, unhappiness, and existentialism. You’ll find yourself feeling sympathetic towards Mersault because he is obviously so lost and drowning in his own inability to understand happiness in both staying and going. His random surges of love and passion for life are constantly pulled back by his weighted despair of being.

Reading this book reminded me quite a few times of the novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew, another existential book by German author Thomas Bernhard. One point in the novel Bernhard states that “I am only happy when I am sitting in the car, between the place I have just left and the place I am driving to. I am happy only when I am travelling.” This line perfectly fits Mersault’s drive to travel as well, for when he is on the train from Prague he keeps switching his tickets to continue his train ride, never deciding to stop anywhere: “not for a single moment was Mersault bored…He loved these long nights when the train rushed along the gleaming rails, roaring through the village stations (pg. 73)…”

Book rating: 5/5
Similar books: Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard