By Albert Camus. Translated from the French, LA MORT HEUREUSE by Richard Howard. Afterword and notes by Jean Sarocchi.
Middlesex, England: Penguin books, 1973.
106 pages


Comments of Bob Corbett
July 2001

Posthumously published eleven years after Camus' death, this novel tells the story of Patrice Mersault, a working man who fails to be happy while struggling to make ends meet with meaningless work consuming his days. He meets Roland Zagreus, a rich cripple who tells Mersault that he will never be happy without money. Money doesn't insure happiness, but it buys time; time allows the possibility of happiness. Mersault then murders Zagreus, and takes all his wealth, apparently with Zagreus' consent since his crippled state blocks his own happiness, and the rich Mersault begins his quest of happiness. He tries travel, but that fails; he tries hedonism, living with three young women in "the House above the World," but that fails. He finally retreats within himself, living a solitary life devoted to the will to happiness. Mersault achieves a degree of happiness but this is short lived since he becomes ill and dies his "happy death."

Critics have pounced on the novel as both inferior literature and as a mere preparation for The Stranger. A Happy Death was written in the two years before The Stranger (1936-37) and we do have Mersault as the main character in each case. However, Happy Death has Patrice Mersault, presumably not the Mersault of The Stranger who has no first name. Jean Sarocchi in his end notes in the Penguin edition, argues that the first halves of each of the novels are quite similar, detailing the everyday life of the Algerian working class and showing how it limits life to work within traditional social patterns. But the second half of A Happy Death works out the rejections of this traditional life in a very different fashion. Here Camus seeks meaning in happiness and avoids nihilism. The Stranger seeks meaningfulness even in murder, but finds only nothingness.

Each novel is driven by a murder, but the killing of Zagreus has a purpose -- the necessary condition of Patrice Mersault's happy life. The death of the Arab by Mersault is linked to no plan for meaningfulness and leads to nothing but his own meaningless death at the hands of the state.

There is little question that The Stranger is a better written novel. Camus' organizational structure, singular tone and compelling unity of the whole creates a powerful case for meaninglessness. A Happy Death on the other hand, while dealing provocatively with a fascinating theme -- money as necessary condition of happiness -- is not as flowing and unified as The Stranger.

I was particularly dissatisfied with, even confused by, many weaknesses of transition. After killing Zagreus and going off to Prague and later Vienna, Mersault has a miserable time since he lives so poorly and in miserable dives. But why would he do so? He has a great fortune -- the money stolen from Zagreus -- and just a few short months later in Algeria he buys a glorious home overlook the sea and lives quite well. The entire episode of Zagreus' murder is confusion. It seems Zagreus strongly suggested his own murder to Mersault and wants Patrice to have the happiness he cannot achieve. Yet this is ambiguous. Is this a humanitarian act from which he dramatically benefits, or is this purely and simply a murder of greed? Again, the writing is not clear.

Patrice Mersault has intimate, though not always sexual, relationships with 5 different women. Yet all five are underdeveloped and unsatisfying characters. It's not at all clear what the later Mersault would have found at all interesting, attractive or amusing in the four women of the post murder phase.

All these problems lend credence to the view that this is an inferior novel. Nonetheless I found it to be philosophically fascinating. Camus is deeply influenced by Frederich Nietzsche in this work. Patrice Mersault becomes convinced by Zagreus' arguments that one cannot find happiness unless one has money. Sarocchi, in the afterword, points out that this was a consciously chosen theme by Camus in opposition to the notion that money cannot buy happiness. But money alone can't do it. Money, on Zagreus' view, buys time and time is the precondition to happiness. Mersault himself thus embraces a will to happiness which seems clearly to grow out of Nietzsche's will to power. Camus is not talking about happiness as a particular achieved state. He says that achieving "… women, art, success" are only the trappings. The will to happiness is the willingness to embrace and accept one's world, no matter what; almost an aestheticism of one who is aloof and unattached to the world.

I liked Camus' variation on the theme from Nietzsche since his will to power is too often understood in senses relative to war and violence. On the other hand, Mersault's will to happiness is such a focused and limited aim. I guess I would prefer a third version -- a will to meaningfulness.

Camus continues his Nietzschean themes in being able to will the eternal recurrence as proof of one's sincerity or authenticity. Mersault tell Catherine:

"You make the mistake of thinking you have to choose, that you have to do what you want, that there are conditions for happiness. What matters -- all that matter is -- is the will to happiness, a kind of enormous, ever-present consciousness. The rest women, art, success -- is nothing but excuses….

"You know the famous formula -- 'if I had my life to live over again' -- well I would live it over again just the way it has been. Of course you can't know what this means."

Zagreus also gets a classic Nietzsche line: "Not the will to renounce, but the will to happiness." In both Zarathustra and Toward A Genealogy Of Morals Nietzsche is at pains to argue that the Christian ethic is one of denial of human instinct and power, not an embracing of life.

Finally Mersault embodies in great measure Nietzsche's notion of the overman who can take full responsibility for his own acts, acts not necessarily within the norms of society. Mersault murders Zagreus without a serious flicker of discomfort, much more successfully than Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment.

In the end, however, I come back to A Happy Death and Camus' own theme, not the influence of others. Zagreus is correct. Money buys time and time is the pre-condition for happiness and meaningfulness, at least in any authentic sense. This is a distinction I hear a lot from first world folks who work with and for third world people. The current language is that those of us of "privilege" have options not available to those without. This same distinction is used to separate the life conditions of people within the richer nations, the underclasses from the working and upper classes.

There is a genuine difference in possibilities. It's not clear how often those possibilities are used in Camus' sense among those whose economic situation allows "time." It is clear that when life's basic necessities demand most of one's time and energy, the possibilities for a self-chosen life is much more restricted.

A Happy Death is a young and imperfect novel, but Camus the philosopher is already well-formed. I think this novel deserves much more attention than it typically receives.

John Sharman john.sharman27@ntlworld.com

A Happy Death is Camus’ first attempt at The Outsider,its the chrysalis and matrix of the later book. In it Patrice Mersault thinks in terms of Time Lost and Time Gained with money rather than madeleines to effect that transition.There is a murder,planned rather than spontaneous,to come upon the happiness he seeks,whose vehicle is his will. As in The Outsider,there are two parts:the life before and a life after,where a happy life leads to a happy death in a world that is absurd.

I agree that the writing in Happy Death is less organised than in The Outsider,but it is livier and fresher and seems more autobiographical and depicts a lot more of Camus' lived life.It sets out its stool,has an agenda:how to get happiness? get money to buy the time that can lead to greater happiness.Because it's more of a willed performance,the structure is more improvised and awkward and deliberate but you don't get the excisions of The Outsider where the information surrounding the characters has been stripped away and it becomes mysterious and portentous.The character of Mersault seems more human in A Happy Death and we don't get the darkness of 'the arabs' or 'killing an arab' which makes Camus' position closer to the French colonists.In A Happy Death isn't he more of the working class l'homme moyen sensuel,hedonistic,believable,still able to murder,but the murder has a lighter tone to it and has a purpose,possibly aided by the victim,Roland Zagreus.This book,published after his death in 1972 is hardly ever spoken of.As you say it deserves to be better known.Incidently, there is a gain in impersonality in The Outsider and the reason given for the murder is the heat of the sun,the glint of the sun on the blade etc. I think Camus is consciously taking the character,Meursault,into the realms of myth and away from human psychology.The man appears colder than Patrice towards women,love,marriage,his mother’s death as if he’s become an instrument of the gods.Although Camus I don’t think ever mentions Proust in his writing,he utlizes Time Lost and Time Gained.However he has no ‘time’ for the involuntary will by which Proust gains access to lost time.We have to remember in both novels Mersault is in revolt against society’s norms and commits a murder a la Raskolinkov in both. I wonder if there is any significance in the change of spelling from Mersault to Meursault?Perhaps the 2nd spelling is closer to ‘death’.He also drops the 1st name Patrice.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu