Robert Zaretsky at the LA Review of Books:
To gaze at Camus’ own modest gravestone in the southern French village of Lourmarin, the inscription “1913–1960” delivers a similar shock. When he left us, Camus was younger than many of us are now; what his father left his son, his son has left us: a profound silence that surges through his remarkable writings and life.
This silence is neither poetic nor mere rhetoric: it was a brute fact of Camus’s life. Not just the absent father, but also the present, yet mute mother. An illiterate cleaning woman, Catherine Camus spoke with difficulty — a handicap perhaps due to the shock of her husband’s death. The young Camus would sometimes find his mother “huddled in a chair, gazing in front of her” in the small apartment they shared with his illiterate grandmother and partly mute uncle in a working class neighborhood of Algiers. Her muteness, he recalled, seemed “irredeemably desolate.”
The silent mother haunts Camus’s writings: it is the dark matter toward which everything else is pulled. In The Stranger, it is the death of Meursault’s mother that begins the unmaking of his life; it is the mostly wordless presence of Dr. Rieux’s mother in The Plague that prevents the unmaking of a world swept by disease.