Albert Camus – Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail, 1957 The Artist at Work

Albert Camus 1913-1960

The following day Jonas went out very early. It was raining. When he returned, wet to the skin, he was loaded down with boards. At home, two old friends, come to ask after him, were drinking coffee in the big room. “Jonas is changing his technique. He’s going to paint on wood!” they said. Jonas smiled. “That’s not it. But I am beginning something new.” He went into the little hall leading to the shower-room, the toilet, and the kitchen. In the right angle where the two halls joined, he stopped and studied at length the high walls rising to the dark ceiling. He needed a stepladder, which he went down and got from the concierge.

When he came back up, there were several additional people in the apartment, and he had to struggle against the affection of his visitors, delighted to find him again, and against his family’s questions in order to reach the end of the hall. At that moment his wife came out of the kitchen. Setting down his ladder, Jonas hugged her against him. Louise looked at him. “Please,” she said, “never do it again.” “No, no,” Jonas said, “I’m going to paint. I must paint.” But he seemed to be talking to himself, for he was looking elsewhere. He got to work. Half-way up the walls he built a flooring to get a sort of narrow, but high and deep, loft. By the late afternoon, all was finished. With the help of the ladder, Jonas hung from the floor of the loft and, to test the solidity of his work, chinned himself several times. Then he mingled with the others and everyone was delighted to find him so friendly again. In the evening, when the apartment was relatively empty, Jonas got an oil lamp, a chair, a stool, and a frame. He took them all up into the loft before the puzzled gaze of the three women and the children. “Now,” he said from his lofty perch, “I’ll be able to work without being in anyone’s way.” Louise asked him if he were sure of it. “Of course,” he replied. “I don’t need much room. I’ll be freer. There have been great painters who painted by candlelight, and . . .” “Is the floor solid enough?” It was. “Don’t worry,” Jonas said, “it’s a very good solution.” And he came back down.

Very early the next day he climbed into the loft, sat down, set the frame on the stool against the wall, and waited without lighting the lamp. The only direct sounds he heard came from the kitchen or the toilet. The other noises seemed distant, and the visits, the ringing of the doorbell and the telephone, the comings and goings, the conversations, reached him half muffled, as if they came from out on the street or from the farther court. Besides, although the whole apartment was overflowing with blinding sunlight, the darkness here was restful. From time to time a friend would come and plant himself under the loft. “What are you doing up there, Jonas?” “I’m working.” “Without light?” “Yes, for the moment.” He was not painting, but he was meditating. In the darkness and this half-silence which, by contrast with what he had known before, seemed to him the silence of the desert or of the tomb, he listened to his own heart. The sounds that reached the loft seemed not to concern him anymore, even when addressed to him. He was like those men who die alone at home in their sleep, and in the morning the telephone rings, feverish and insistent, in the deserted house, over a body forever deaf. But he was alive, he listened to this silence within himself, he was waiting for his star, still hidden but ready to rise again, to burst forth at last, unchanged and unchanging, above the disorder of these empty days. “Shine, shine,” he said. “Don’t deprive me of your light.” It would shine again, of that he was sure. But he would have to meditate still longer, since at last the chance was given him to be alone without separating from his family. He still had to discover what he had not yet clearly understood, although he had always known it and had always painted as if he knew it. He had to grasp at last that secret which was not merely the secret of art, as he could now see. That is why he didn’t light the lamp.

Every day now Jonas would climb back into his loft. The visitors became less numerous because Louise, preoccupied, paid little attention to the conversation. Jonas would come down for meals and then climb back to his perch. He would sit motionless in the darkness all day long. At night he would go to his wife, who was already in bed. After a few days he asked Louise to hand up his lunch, which she did with such pains that Jonas was stirred. In order not to disturb her on other occasions, he suggested her preparing some supplies that he could store in the loft. Little by little he got to the point of not coming down all day long. But he hardly touched his supplies.

One evening he called Louise and asked for some blankets. “I’ll spend the night up here.” Louise looked at him with her head bent backward. She opened her mouth and then said nothing. She was merely scrutinizing Jonas with a worried and sad expression. He suddenly saw how much she had aged and how deeply the trials of their life had marked her too. It occurred to him that he had never really helped her. But before he could say a word, she smiled at him with an affection that wrung his heart. “Just as you say, dear,” she said.

Henceforth he spent his nights in the loft, almost never coming down any more. As a result, the apartment was emptied of visitors since Jonas couldn’t be seen any more either by day or night. Some were told that he was in the country; others, when lying became an effort, that he had found a studio. Rateau alone came faithfully. He would climb up on the ladder until his big, friendly head was just over the level of the flooring. “How goes it?” he would ask. “Wonderfully.” “Are you working?” “It comes to the same thing.” “But you have no canvas!” “I’m working just the same.” It was hard to prolong this dialogue from ladder to loft. Rateau would shake his head, come back down, help Louise replace fuses or repair a lock, then, without climbing onto the ladder, say good night to Jonas, who would reply in the darkness: “So long, old boy.” One evening Jonas added thanks to his goodnight. “Why thanks?” “Because you love me.” “That’s really news!” Rateau said as he left.

Another evening Jonas called Rateau, who came running. The lamp was lighted for the first time. Jonas was leaning, with a tense look, out of the loft. “Hand me a canvas,” he said. “But what’s the matter with you? You’re so much thinner; you look like a ghost.” “I’ve hardly eaten for the last two days. But that doesn’t matter. I must work.” “Eat first.” “No, I’m not hungry.” Rateau brought a canvas. On the point of disappearing into the loft, Jonas asked him: “How are they?” “Who?” “Louise and the children.” “They’re all right. They’d be better if you were with them.” “I’m still with them. Tell them above all that I’m still with them.” And he disappeared. Rateau came and told Louise how worried he was. She admitted that she herself had been anxious for several days. “What can we do? Oh, if only I could work in his place!” Wretched, she faced Rateau. “I can’t live without him,” she said. She looked like the girl she had been, and this surprised Rateau. He suddenly realized that she had blushed.

The lamp stayed lighted all night and all the next morning. To those who came, Rateau or Louise, Jonas answered merely: “Forget it, I’m working.” At noon he asked for some kerosene. The lamp, which had been smoking, again shone brightly until evening. Rateau stayed to dinner with Louise and the children. At midnight he went to say goodnight to Jonas. Under the still lighted loft he waited a moment, then went away without saying a word. On the morning of the second day, when Louise got up, the lamp was still lighted.

A beautiful day was beginning, but Jonas was not aware of it. He had turned the canvas against the wall. Exhausted, he was sitting there waiting, with his hands, palms up, on his knees. He told himself that now he would never again work, he was happy. He heard his children grumbling, water running, and the dishes clinking together. Louise was talking. The huge windows rattled as a truck passed on the boulevard. The world was still there, young and lovable. Jonas listened to the welcome murmur rising from mankind. From such a distance, it did not run counter to that joyful strength within him, his art, these forever silent thoughts he could not express but which set him above all things, in a free and crisp air. The children were running through the apartment, the little girl was laughing, Louise too now, and he hadn’t heard her laugh for so long. He loved them! How he loved them! He put out the lamp and, in the dark-ness that suddenly returned, right there! wasn’t that his star still shining? It was the star, he recognized it with his heart full of gratitude, and he was still watching it when he fell, without a sound.

“It’s nothing,” the doctor they had called declared a little later. “He is working too much. In a week he will be on his feet again.” “You are sure he will get well?” asked Louise with distorted face. “He will get well.” In the other room Rateau was looking at the canvas, completely blank, in the centre of which Jonas had merely written in very small letters a word that could be made out, but without any certainty as to whether it should be read solitaire or solidaire.

Albert Camus, 1913-1960.    Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail, in, L’Exil et le royaume, 1957 The Artist at Work, in, Exile and the Kingdom

Originally published in France as L’Exil et le royaume, 1957 ©Librarie Gallimard. Translated by Justin O’Brien, 1957

Image: Albert Camus 1913-1960

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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