A saint without God

Albert Camus was 46 on January 4, 1960, when the flashy open convertible that his publisher, Michel Gallimard, was driving smashed into a tree, killing them both. Camus’ afterlife is now longer than his brief but luminous existence. It has included the posthumous publication of two unfinished novels, A Happy Death and The First Man, as well as a collection of articles he wrote for Combat, an underground newspaper published during World War II. It has also included the eclipse and rehabilitation of Camus’ reputation. And it now includes notebooks that were recovered from the fatal auto wreck 48 years ago.

In the middle of the 20th century, when French seemed the official language of sophistication and Left Bank cafés the habitation of literary divinity, Camus — novelist, playwright, philosopher, essayist, journalist, actor, and activist — was the epitome of the intellectual as hero. He became world-famous with his very first novel, The Stranger (1942), the unsettling story of Meursault, who shoots a man on the beach because the sun is bright and who is executed for failing to show sufficient love for his mother. In the United States, where foreign books are rarely read, The Stranger, The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956) became bestsellers, while Camus became the only French author Americans knew.

In France, Camus, a native of Algeria, was revered and, then, following a spat with Jean-Paul Sartre, the poobah of existentialism, reviled. In 1957, when he became the second youngest (after Rudyard Kipling) recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus was the object of envy and derision. “The only French industry that does not experience underemployment,” writes Camus, stung by the spite of fellow intellectuals, “is cruelty.” His journals record panic attacks and depression during the troubled decade before his death.

In his notebooks, Camus writes: “Every man dies unknown.” And despite the fact that the whole world knew about Camus’ sudden death, the man who wrote the books that everyone read remained elusive. His private writings help augment our knowledge of that man. Camus himself assembled and worked over two earlier volumes, Notebooks 1935-1942 and Notebooks 1943-1951, but Notebooks 1951-1959 comes to us raw; except for an introduction and an afterword by translator Ryan Bloom, it offers an unmediated look at the author’s mind in the final years of a productive but tormented life. Though it lacks the polish of the prior diaries and the power of his meticulously crafted fiction, this volume is a valuable guide to understanding the author while he was working on The Fall and The First Man as well as the short stories published as Exile and the Kingdom (1957). 

Camus uses his notebooks to test ideas for works in progress and outline future projects. He rehearses the cynical judgment that Jean-Baptiste Clamence, narrator of The Fall, will pass on modern man: “He fornicated and read the newspapers.” Camus also uses the journals as a commonplace book, in which to collect quotations from favorite authors, including Nietzsche, Chekhov, Emerson, and Tolstoy. In  addition, he records observations on his travels. Euphoria over 20 days in Greece is undercut by realization that he will soon be moving on. The description of a voyage through the Aegean is as incisive as a haiku: “The small yellow islands like bundles of wheat on the blue sea.”

The principal reason to pick up this book, however, is to encounter again Camus’ own pointed reflections on art, love, truth, and justice, etched into exquisite epigrams. “The greatest misfortune,” he, a remorseful philanderer, notes, “is not to be unloved, but not to love.” Like the character Tarrou in The Plague who aspires to be “a saint without God,” Camus declares: “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.” Tormented during the years 1951-1959 by the burdens and indignities of his own celebrity, he writes: “God is not needed to create guilt or to punish. Human beings suffice.”

A quixotic attempt to mediate the vicious Algerian War brought Camus death threats, and his refusal to take sides in what he regarded as the standoff between American imperialism and Soviet totalitarianism condemned him to solitude. During an era riven by radical demands from the right and the left, Camus was an unfashionable champion of classical balance. Posthumous publication of his final journals in the year that would have marked his 95th birth anniversary helps restore that
balance. •

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