Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 11, 2008

NOTEBOOKS 1951-1959

By Albert Camus

Translated from the French by Ryan Bloom

Ivan R. Dee. 264 pp. $27.50

Many people who grew up in the 1950s and '60s worshipped Albert Camus as a literary god -- albeit a god in a rumpled trenchcoat, with a Gauloise in his left hand. Even more than Jean-Paul Sartre, who was both ugly and often difficult to read, Camus epitomized the drop-dead coolness of what it meant to be a European intellectual. The Stranger, his classic short novel about an affectless young man who, "because of the sun," shoots and kills an Arab, was the very first book in French I read on my own. It was soon followed by the equally classic essay The Myth of Sisyphus, which thrilled generations of impressionable college students by announcing that the only important philosophical question was suicide. Mais, bien sur. Life, after all, was meaningless, though one could somehow still find happiness despite its inherent absurdity.

For instance, one could be engagé, committed like Camus, who not only wrote as an artist but also lived as an activist (and easy-going amorist). During World War II he joined the Resistance and edited the underground newspaper Combat. He argued politics and art with Sartre and Charles de Gaulle. He devoted much of his energy to writing plays and working in the theater, but he also had many love affairs, at least two with actresses, as well as two marriages and two children. And then, in 1957, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature at 43 (only Kipling was younger). Unexpectedly, he capped even this by dying three years later in a James Dean-like car accident. Is it any wonder that my friends and I swooned over everything from Camus's pen -- plays like "Caligula"; the lyrical essays about rebellion or summer in Algeria; and that last, great novel of guilt and responsibility, The Fall.

Eventually, of course, a Camus backlash began to build up, with people arguing that this dreamboat existentialist was really just a Gallic Jack Kerouac -- one of those writers who appeal largely to moody, introspective adolescents. Could this be true? I wondered. Would the scales fall from my eyes during middle age? Would Camus turn out to be another god that failed?

And so the years, as they will, gradually slipped by, and middle age stealthily crept up on me. The portly, sedentary Henry James was now my idea of a literary hero. But one day -- a decade or so back -- I wandered into a used bookstore and chanced upon two handsome volumes of Camus's notebooks, those covering the years 1935-42 and 1942-51. I hadn't read them when they first appeared in the 1960s. I bought the books and took them home.

No scales fell. In fact, love revived. Camus's carnets were clearly distinguished additions to the great French tradition of Montaigne's essays, Pascal's pensées, Simone Weil's arguments with God and the world. Before long, I was copying Camus's reflections into my own commonplace book: "No one who lives in the sunlight makes a failure of his life. . . . The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread. . . . Delacroix is right; all these days that are not noted down are like days that didn't exist. . . . Nietzsche, with the most monotonous external life possible, proves that thought alone, carried on in solitude, is a frightening adventure. . . . People can think only in images. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels." Sigh. In my heart I was still a Parisian man of letters, scribbling away at the Café de Flore.

Having gobbled down those two earlier volumes of Camus's philosophical observations and bon mots, I was naturally eager to read the just published Notebooks 1951-1959, covering the final years of the writer's life. There's much to enjoy in these pages, even if they occasionally do feel a little slack and windy. As translator Ryan Bloom explains, Camus himself prepared the typescripts for the earlier notebooks, published in the 1960s, but that's not the case here. This final volume largely derives from the rough original manuscripts, right down to the occasional illegible word and tired thought. Camus's journeys to Italy and the Greek islands again celebrate the quality of Mediterranean light; he speculates repeatedly about death; and he works out a variety of scenes for possible future books (in particular, the stories of Exile and the Kingdom and the posthumous novel The First Man). Still, Camus the moralist and observer is definitely present, and he keeps us turning the pages:

"Man of 1950: he fornicated and read the newspapers. . . . In the water, the turtle becomes a bird. . . . Only risk justifies thought. . . . It is not poverty or endless work that makes for the degradation of mankind, but the filthy servitude of the factory and the life of the suburbs. . . . She wore chaste dresses and yet her body burned. . . . Never speak of one's work. . . . Each time someone tells me that they admire the man in me, I have the impression of having lied all my life." Workbooks like these also provide us with a glimpse of Camus's reading. Nietzsche is a constant reference point -- The Gay Science was in the writer's valise on the day he was killed -- and so are Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the Notebooks frequently record trenchant, somewhat Camusian remarks by others:

"According to [Henry de] Montherlant, all true creators dream of a life without friends." "[Cesare] Pavese: 'We are idiots. The little bit of freedom that the government leaves us, we allow it to be gobbled up by women.' " "Ortega y Gasset. History: the eternal struggle between paralytics and epileptics." "[Astolphe de] Custine: 'The contradiction that exists between a burning soul and the uniformity of existence makes my life unbearable.' "

Periodically, Camus reflects on his vocation and its personal costs, often envying men who work outside in the open air and sunshine. "I have only been happy and at peace in a trade, a job accomplished with other men whom I can like. I do not have a trade, but only a vocation. And my work is solitary. I must accept it and try only to be worthy of it, which is not the case at this moment. But I cannot protect myself from a feeling of melancholy in the presence of these men who are happy with what they do."

Certainly Notebooks 1951-1959 is worth reading just to discover the curious sequence of thoughts set down for Oct. 17, 1957. This is the day when Camus, while dining with an American lover, is told the news from Sweden: "Nobel. Strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy. At 20 years old, poor and naked, I knew true glory. My mother." One can parse those phrases in several ways, but over the next weeks Camus suffers several "suffocation attacks" as well as mounting anxiety and depression. The writer himself recognizes that such tensions have long marked his inner self and left him full of self-doubt: "The most exhausting effort in my life has been to suppress my own nature in order to make it serve my biggest plans. Here and there -- here and there only -- have I succeeded."

Without the original French at hand, it is difficult to judge the quality of Ryan Bloom's translation. But his syntax -- in his introduction, afterword and useful footnotes -- can sometimes be a bit slipshod: "Although, if by most accounts, he tried not to openly expose his wife to his philandering, he also did little to successfully conceal it." Even if you don't mind those split infinitives, there's no need for "Although." Similarly, Camus's American lover is described with odd coyness as a "woman he'd met in New York and formed intimate relations with." But these are cavils. It's simply a pure and bountiful good to have this book available in English. Even for those long past their college days, Albert Camus remains a god, immortal and forever young. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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