Monday, January 4, 2010

Nostalgia for lost poverty

‘What I mean is this: that one can, with no romanticism, feel nostalgic for lost poverty.’ So began the diary jottings of Albert Camus, the great Algerian-French writer who died 50 years ago today. He wasn’t a typical diarist, by any means, but he wrote in enough notebooks to produce three published collections (of which the above is the first line), and he kept two rather downbeat journals on trips to North and South America in the 1940s.

Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria, in 1913 into a working class family. When he was still very young, during the First World War, his father was killed, and his mother suffered a stroke on hearing the news. Camus won a scholarship and studied at the lycée in Algiers until 1932. Thereafter, he took various jobs, joined the Communist Party, studied at the University of Algiers, and married Simone Hié. He also contracted tuberculosis.

A first collection of essays was published in 1937. The following year, Camus moved to France, divorced Hié who was a morphine addict, and wrote for several newspapers. During the Second World War he was a member of the French resistance, but he also found time to marry Francine Faure (with whom he had twins, born in 1945), to teach at Oran, Algeria, and to publish his first celebrated novel, The Stranger. With Sartre, in 1943, he founded, and subsequently edited, the left-wing paper Combat. After four years, he resigned from Combat and, at roughly the same time, published The Plague.

Camus continued to write novels and journalism, but also became involved in the theatre as both playwright and producer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957; but, he died tragically in a car accident on 4 January 1960, half a century ago today. There is no shortage of biographical information about Camus on the internet: try the Albert Camus Society, Wikipedia, Nobel Prize website, or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Although not a conventional diarist, Camus did keep notebooks and sometimes journals, and most of them have found their way into print. In 1987, Paragon House, New York, published American Journals (translated by Hugh Levick), which Camus wrote on two lecture tours to North and South America in the 1940s. Much earlier, in 1963, Knopf published a first English edition of Camus’s Notebooks 1935-1942 (translated by Philip Thody) and Notebooks 1942-1951 (translated by Justin O’Brien). It would be another 40 years before a third volume - Notebooks 1951-1959 - was translated by Ryan Bloom and published by Ivan R. Dee in Chicago.

The New York Times was not very enthusiastic about American Journals in 1987. It concluded that the book was ‘a downbeat performance’ and in a translation ‘that does not match the etched prose of the original’. However, it adds that the author’s finely developed sense of moral values is evident throughout. The Millions (a US website offering coverage on books, arts, and culture since 2003) is a bit more upbeat: ‘A slight volume, American Journals nevertheless reveals a fragile man at the height of his fame, who can still, through all of his medical and psychological problems, offer observations which are astute and often amusing, and it offers some personal context to the ideas that would show up in his later works of fiction.’

The Millions review includes a few (undated) extracts:

‘Obliged to admit that for the first time in my life I feel myself in the middle of a psychological collapse.’

‘Sad to still feel so vulnerable. In 25 years I’ll be 57. 25 years then to create a body of work and to find what I’m looking for. After that: old age and death.’

Of Rio: ‘Never have I seen wealth and poverty so insolently intertwined.’ Of a Brazilian poet: ‘Enormous, indolent, folds of flesh around his eyes, his mouth hanging open, the poet arrives. Anxieties, a sudden movement, then he spills himself into an easy chair and stays there a little while, panting. He gets up, does a pirouette and falls back down into the easy chair.’ In Bahia: ‘In bed. Fever. Only the mind works on, obstinately. Hideous thought. Unbearable feeling of advancing step by step toward an unknown catastrophe which will destroy everything around me and in me.’

The first few pages of a recent edition of Notebooks 1935-1951 can be read at Here is the start of the first entry

May 1935
‘What I mean is this: that one can, with no romanticism, feel nostalgic for lost poverty. A certain number of years lived without money are enough to create a whole sensibility. In this particular case, the strange feeling which the son has for his mother constitutes his whole sensibility. The latent material memory which he has of his childhood) a glue that has stuck to the soul) explains why this way of feeling shows itself in the most widely differing fields.

Whoever notices this in himself feels both gratitude and a guilty conscience. If he has moved into a different class, the comparison also gives him the feeling that he has lost great wealth. For rich people, the sky is just an extra, a gift of nature. The poor, on other hand, can see it as it really is: an infinite grace.’

The last collection of Camus’s notebooks (1951-1959) were withheld from publication in France for nearly 30 years after his death, and did not appear in English until 2008. The publisher’s blurb says this: ‘Camus’s final journals give us our rawest and most intimate glimpse yet into one of the most important voices of French letters and twentieth-century literature. The first two volumes of his Notebooks began as simple instruments of his work; this final volume, recorded over the last nine years of his life, take on the characteristics of a more personal diary. Fearing that his memory was beginning to fail him, Camus noted here his reactions to the polemics stirred by The Rebel, his feelings about the Algerian War, his sojourns in Greece and Italy, thinly veiled observations on his wife and lovers, heartaches over his family, and anxiety over the Nobel Prize that he was awarded in 1957.’ Again, provides a few pages for view.

The New York Times says that the most interesting aspect of the book ‘is not politics but its personal substratum’, and that beneath Camus’s ideological quarrels there is ‘a deeper unhappiness with the critical bent of the Paris intelligentsia’. For example he calls the La Nouvelle Revue Française, a ‘curious milieu’ whose function ‘is to create writers’ but where, however, ‘they lose the joy of writing and creating’.

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