Susan Sontag on Albert Camus

by suu4leaf

Camus’s Notebooks contain an assortment of things. They are literary work-books, quarries for his writings, in which phrases, scraps of overheard conversation, ideas for stories, and sometimes whole paragraphs which were later incorporated into novels and essays, were first jotted down. These sections of the Notebooks are sketchy stuff, and for that reason I doubt if they will be terribly exciting event to aficonados of Camus’s fiction, despite me zealous annotation and correlation with the published works supplied by Mr. Thody. The Notebooks also contain a miscellany of reading notes (Spengler, Renaissance history, etc.) of a rather limited range—the vast reading that went into writing The Rebel is certainly not recorded here—and a number of apercus and reflections on psychological and moral themes. Some of these reflections have a great deal of boldness and finesse. They are worth reading, and they might help dispel one current image of Camus—according to which he was a sort of Raymond Aron, a man deranged by German philosophy belatedly converting to Anglo-Saxon empiricism and common sense under the name of “Mediterranean” virtue. The Notebooks, at least this first volume, exude an endearing atmosphere of domesticated Nietzscheanism. The young Camus writes as a French Nietzsche, melancholy where Nietzsche is savage, stoical where Nietzsche is outraged, impersonal and objective in tone where Nietzsche is personal and subjective to the point of mania. And lastly, the Notebooks are full of personal comments—declarations and resolutions, one might better describe them—of a markedly impersonal nature.

Impersonality is perhaps the most telling things about Camus’s Notebooks; they are so anti-autobiographical. It is hard to remember, when reading the Notebooks, that Camus was a mn who had a very interesting life, a life (unlike that of many writers) interesting not only in an interior but also in an outward sense. There is scarcely anything of this life in the Notebooks. There is nothing about his family, to whom he was closely attached. Neither is there any mention of the events which took place in this period: his work with the Theatre de 1’Equipe, his first and second marriages, his membership in the Communist Party, his career as an editor of a leftwing Algerian newspaper.

Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being. That is why all the personal comments in Camus’s Notebooks are of so impersonal a nature, and competely exclude the events and the people in his life. Camus writes about himself only as a solitary—a solitary reader, voyeur, sun-and-sea worshippers, and walker in the world. In this he is being very much the writer. Solitariness is the indispensable metaphor of the modern writer’s consciousness, not only to self-declared emotional misfits like Pavese, but even to as sociable and socially conscientious a man as Camus.

(On the 100th anniversary of Albert Camus’s birth)