I spent a long time looking at faces, drinking in smiles. Am I happy or unhappy? It’s not a very important question. I live with such frenzied intensity.
Things and people are waiting for me, and doubtless I am waiting for them and desiring them with all my strength and sadness. But, here, I earn the right to be alive by silence and by secrecy.
The miracle of not having to talk about oneself.”
— Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1935 – 1951
Uncomfortable in His Skin, Thriving in His Mind
Albert Camus was one of the two pillars of postwar French literature. The other was Jean-Paul Sartre, his comrade in letters if not quite in arms (during the Resistance, Camus dangerously put out a clandestine newspaper, while Sartre stayed safely studying and writing). Then in the early 1950s, they bitterly split.
Camus’s pillar stood in Paris, but in a sense it belonged elsewhere: perhaps among the Corinthian columns in North Africa’s Hellenistic ruins. He was a French Algerian, of course, but the point isn’t his provenance but his temperament. He was Mediterranean, a creature of sun and water, fierceness and the senses.
In Paris, with its cool symmetries, he was, to adapt a French saying, uncomfortable in his skin — the constricting ideological precision that Sartre and his fellow intellectuals fitted on him. They treated him as a marvel, and then when he rebelled against their leftist rigor, they condemned him.
This odd unsuitability, both of emotions and the mind, comes to life in the third and last volume of Camus’s notebooks, appearing in an English translation (by Ryan Bloom) 19 years after they came out in French.
The split took place when Camus took issue with the absolutism of revolutions. Seeking to realize their ideals, he argued, they end up using violence and tyranny. It was an attack on Soviet Communism at a time when Sartre and his followers were becoming its increasingly rigid supporters.
They insisted that overt repression, however repellent, was the only way to fight the insidious structural tyranny of colonialist capitalism. One must choose, painfully. No we mustn’t, Camus rejoined: neither be killers nor victims.
In his notebooks Camus excoriates “the newly achieved revolutionary spirit, nouveau riche, and Pharisees of justice.” He names Sartre and his followers, “who seem to make the taste for servitude a sort of ingredient of virtue.”
He mocks their conformism: cowardly, besides, he implies, citing the story of a child who announced her plan to join “the cruelest party.” Because: “If my party is in power, I’ll have nothing to fear, and if it is the other, I’ll suffer less since the party which will persecute me will be the less cruel one.”
Camus writes more generally: “Excess in love, indeed the only desirable, belongs to saints. Societies, they exude excess only in hatred. This is why one must preach to them an intransigent moderation.”
A convenient refusal to take sides, as Sartre and his circle insisted? There was nothing convenient in Camus. He was closer to Milovan Djilas, once a hard-line Communist, then jailed by Tito, and in the end proclaiming his battle-won political credo: “the unperfect society.”
The most interesting aspect of the “Notebooks” is not politics but its personal substratum. Beneath Camus’s ideological quarrels is a deeper unhappiness with the critical bent of the Paris intelligentsia. “Curious milieu,” he writes of La Nouvelle Revue Française, “whose function it is to create writers, and where, however, they lose the joy of writing and creating.”
It is, in part, the Southerner’s discomfort with the North, with the centralization dating back to the Capet dynasties that drew France’s energies up to Paris. On a trip to Italy Camus writes: “Already the Italians on the train, and soon those of the hotel as well, have warmed my heart. People whom I have always liked and who make me feel my exile in the French people’s perpetual bad mood.”
There is an exultant feel of liberation — and some of his most beautiful writing — as he evokes Italy’s cities and landscapes, and recites the place names of Greece as if they were incantations. Of Mycenae at sunset:
“The space is immense, the silence so absolute that the foot regrets having caused a stone to roll. A train chuffs in the distance, on the plain a donkey brays, and the sound rises up to us, the herds’ bells rush down the slopes like a whisper of water.”
He writes of his mix of happiness and depression after winning the Nobel Prize—“frightened by what happens to me, what I have not asked for” — and the angry attacks it provoked from the Paris left. He writes of his wife’s depression and his lovers (many). “I don’t seduce, I surrender.” Later he varies this to fit Don Juan, who, not surprisingly, fascinates him: “I don’t seduce, I adapt.”
He travels to his birthplace. “Honeysuckle — for me, its scent is tied to Algiers. It floated in the streets that led toward the high gardens where the girls awaited us. Vines, youth.” It was a memory that fought against politics. Camus could not put aside the reality of the French settlers. The vicious war between French forces and the F.L.N. — the Algerian nationalists — was his own civil war.
He writes to an Algerian friend, an F.L.N. supporter: “You should not ignore the shooting, nor justify that they shoot at the French-Algerians in general, and thus entangled, shoot at my family, who have always been poor and without hatred … No cause, even if it had remained innocent and just, will ever tear me from my mother, who is the greatest cause that I know in the world.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 26, 2008
A bibliographical note on Wednesday with the Books of The Times review, about a translation of Albert Camus’s notebooks, misstated part of the title and the years the notebooks cover. The title is “Notebooks 1951-1959,” not 1951-58.
Source: NYtimes.com books