Category Archives: French Literature

Reading The Stranger via Camus’s Notebooks

The Stranger was one of those books I read at eighteen that left almost no impression on me.  I’ve had no desire to revisit any of Camus’s writing until recently when a friend, who is one of the most astute readers I know, recommended reading some of Camus’s other, less well-known, writing.  For the past week or so I have been captivated by Camus’s 400 pages of Notebooks that span the years 1939 through 1951.  He includes vivid descriptions of scenery, personal reflections, ideas for new novels and plays and his philosophical views on life, death, love and art.  In an entry from 1942, Camus writes a response to a negative review of The Stranger which he never sends.  It is the response to his critic which inspired me to reread The Stranger this week alongside the Notebooks. 

Of course a lot has been written about Meursault’s taciturn nature and the fact that he only speaks when answering direct questions.  On this reread what stood out to me most was Meursault’s inner strength, especially when settling into life in a small prison cell.  Typical for anyone incarcerated he misses his freedom, seeing and interacting with nature, and women.  But he settles into a routine that gives him comfort and he remembers an important bit of advice his mother gives him (trans. Matthew Ward):

I waited for the daily walk, which I took in the courtyard, or for a visit from my lawyer. The rest of the time I managed pretty well. At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it.  I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything.

Camus often writes about death in his Notebooks and believes that the only way to attain true liberty in this life is to free oneself from a fear of death.  His protagonist hopes for a stay of execution but eventually accepts his fate, without the help of the prison Chaplain who is utterly annoyed with the prisoner’s disinterest in God.  In one final speech at the end Meursault reflects on his argument with the Chaplain and the absurdity of life:

It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising towards me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living.  What did other people’s deaths or a mothers’ love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter tome when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also call themselves my brothers?

Camus’s own description of Meursault in the Notebooks (1942) are enlightening, to say the least, and completely changed the way I view Camus and his most famous novel (trans. Philip Thody):

It’s a very studied book and the tone…is intentional. The tone is heightened four or five times, to be sure, but this is to avoid monotony and to provide composition. With the Chaplain, my Stranger does not justify himself. He gets angry, and that’s quite different. I’m the one to explain then, you say? Yes, and I thought about that considerably. I made up my mind to this because I wanted my character to be led to the single great problem by way of the daily and the natural. The great moment had to stand out.

One final side note, I am also reading Sade and thinking about Lucretius and Epicureanism.  I see some of these same thoughts and threads in Camus—dispelling the fear of death, deity as a distant figure that cares nothing for humans, the random absurdity of the universe. Camus writes about Lucretius and Sade in his Notebooks.  A wonderful reading coincidence for me.

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We Mislead, but Sweetly: Aline & Valcour, Volume I by Marquis de Sade

This is the first English translation, expertly and smoothly rendered from the French by Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons,  of Marquis de Sade’s epistolary novel.  Written in 1786 while he was locked in the Bastille, this book is very different from Sade’s later, more pornographic, writings.  Contra Mundum Press has, wisely, decided to break up the novel into three volumes—easier to carry and nicely displayed on one’s shelves.  My impressions of the first volume are ones of astonishment—at the riveting adventure story, the slowly unraveling mystery, and a philosophical statement on Epicurean/Lucretian philosophy.

Aline and Valcour are young lovers kept apart by Aline’s vicious and depraved father, President Blamont,  who wants to pawn her off to his equally sadistic friend, Monsieur Dolbourg.  Blamont and Dolbourg take extreme pleasure in keeping young women as sex slaves and doing unspeakable things to them—although, as I mentioned, Sade’s descriptions of these debaucheries is minimal compared to his later writing.   The mental and physical pain that Blamont causes for his wife, daughter, and victims is a theme that occurs constantly in the letters and his choice of epistolary style allows Sade to struggle with the concepts of pain and pleasure on a philosophical level.  Madame Blamont writes to Valcour :

Can I justly pretend to some perfect happiness?  Does it exist anywhere beneath the heavens above? To be put on earth to suffer is the simplest thing in the world.  Are we not here as gamblers around the table? Does Dame Fortune favor everybody seated there? By what right dare they accuse her of squandering their gold instead of winning it?  The hand of the Eternal One suspends above our heads good and evil in equal portions and they spill indifferently upon us.  I might have been happy just as, so it happens, I’m miserable—a question of chance.  And the greatest fault of all is to complain.  Moreover, can’t we imagine taking pleasure even in extreme unhappiness? But dint of sharpening our soul, unhappiness intensifies sensitivity; its impressions, by developing in a more vigorous way all manner of feeling, bring about pleasure unknown to those who are cold-hearted and unfortunate enough to have experience only tranquility and prosperity.

Sade’s vision of a deity is Epicurean in the sense that this being is indifferent to our fmisortunes.  Pain and pleasure for Sade are very closely related and one cannot experience happiness without first being exposed to extreme forms of pain.  Does Sade see his novel as didactic, as a way of teaching us this lesson?  Is he trying to dispel our fears of pain and death?  The epigram that Sade writes at the beginning of Aline & Valcour in which he quotes Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 2.55-61 gives us a a small clue (this translation is my own; in the Contra Mundum version, the authors use R.C. Trevelyan’s 1937 translation):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

 

Lucretius sees poetry as a way of tricking people into dispelling their fear of pain and death.  In his most famous metaphor, poetry is the honey we rub on the edge of a bowl in order to coax a child into  taking his bitter medicine.  One other, quite obvious allusion, to Lucretius in Aline & Valcour also gives us a clue as to Sade’s philosophical motivations with his writings.  Once again, it is Madame Blamont that writes to Valcour on behalf of herself and her daughter:

I ought not to have allowed you to come to know Aline or her unfortunate mother; today, we would certainly all have less pain; and for the pain we inflict upon others we can never be consoled.  But all is not lost—no, Valcour, not all. My barbaric husband, who torments you so, might yet reconsider, so too the ridiculous monster who trails his every step. It might dawn on him that he’ll reap non of the hoped-for pleasure from she who hates him so. That much, at least, I can only hope and believe, though I know illusion is to unhappiness as honey rubbed round the rim of a glass of absinthe, offered to a child in pain: we mislead, but sweetly.

Sade, however, has a more sinister view of this deception.  How much is an author or philosopher really fooling anyone with this “honey?”

Will the lovers eventually be together?  Will Blamont’s victims escape his torments?  And who are the mysterious house guests that appear at Madame Blamont’s at the end of Volume I?  These plot considerations as well as Sade’s philosophical threads have me eagerly reading Volume II.

 

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There is no Wealth But Life: Ruskin at the Yale Center for British Art

Proust’s translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilles.

In a letter to his English friend, Marie Nordlinger, dated January 1900 Proust writes (trans. Mina Curtiss):

On learning of Ruskin’s death, I cannot keep from thinking of you so poignantly that I must write to you. Not that it needed this to make me think of you. Having been ill for several days, unable to write easily and unwilling to dictate a letter to you, all mo most friendly and grateful thoughts of you, of your letter, of the book [Queen of the Air, by John Ruskin] you sent with its even more precious annotations, are lodged in the very forefront of my being, not in that secluded part of oneself that one visits only rarely, but in that intimacy of the heart where we meet each other several times a day. But when I learned of Ruskin’s death, I wanted to express to you before anyone else, my sadness, a healthy sadness, however, and indeed full of consolations, for I know how little death matters when I see how powerfully this dean man lives on, how much I admire him, listen to him, try to understand him, to follow him more than I do man of the living.

Proust began reading Ruskin in 1897 and translated two of his texts: The Bible of Amiens in 1904 and Sesame and Lilles in 1906 and also contributed prefaces to each book. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, while visiting family in the New Haven area, I was able to see the Ruskin exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art which is on until December 8th. I was eager to see what Proust admired in this author, artist and critic and came away with a much greater appreciation for Ruskin.

The exhibit begins with one of Turner’s paintings of Venice (the museum also has quite a nice collection of Turner in its main gallery) which inspired Ruskin not only to defend Turner’s work but also to write a three volume history of the city, The Stones of Venice.

Turner. Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute. 1835. Oil on Canvas.

Ruskin. The south side of the Basilica of St. Mark’s from the Loggia of the Doge’s Palace, Venice. 1850-52. Watercolor over pencil, heightened with gouache.

My favorite parts of the exhibit were, no surprise, the books and notebooks on display. The collection of Ruskin’s first edition books was impressive, many of them borrowed from the nearby Beinecke Rare Books library. Here are few of Ruskin’s personal notebooks with drawings and sketches:

Ruskin. Manuscript notebook with watercolors, sketches and drawings. 1842

Ruskin Notebook containing a partial manuscript of The Ethics of Dust. 1865

I also enjoyed Ruskin’s attempts to replicate 5th century Ancient Greek red figure paintings:

Ruskin. Owl after and Attic Kantharos. 1870. Pen and black ink and watercolor on paper.

The Ruskin exhibit is absolutely worth a trip if you are anywhere near the New Haven area. The gallery also has a fabulous collection of British Art from various eras. I lingered for a while on the upper floors looking at their Turners and the few Blakes that they have. One can easily spend half a day looking at this gem of a gallery in the heart of New Haven. The Yale Art Gallery is also across the street and the Beinecke Rare Books library is a short walk. And New Haven abounds with fantastic cuisine. New Haven is the place of my birth and where I lived until the age of 18. It’s interesting to think about how a city evolves in one’s memories and impressions.

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The Various Stages of a Voyage: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

It took me about fifty pages of Kundera’s book (in Aaron Asher’s translation from the French) before I was drawn in and absorbed with it. The seven chapters of the book are more like short stories which are loosely tied together by theme. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting has been described as a novel and, at times, autobiographical. But, like many great authors who invent their own genres of writing (Musil, Proust, Kafka, etc.) Kundera instructs us on how to read him:

This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a them, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina goes offstage, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its principal character and its principal audience, and all the other stories are variations on her own story and meet with her life as in a mirror.

It is a novel about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about the angels.

Like the author himself, Tamina lives in exile in another country in the west after she escapes political persecution by the Communist government in Prague. Shortly after their escape, Tamina’s husband dies and she leads a very lonely, monotonous, and silent existence. As the years slip by she is worried that her memories of her life with her husband are fading as well. She is desperate to somehow retrieve her notebooks and diaries which she left in Prague.

For Tamina is adrift on a raft and looking back, looking only back. Her entire being contains only what she sees there, far behind her. Just as her pas contracts, disintegrates, dissolves, so Tamina is shrinking and losing her contours.

She wants to have her notebooks so that the flimsy framework of events, as she has constructed them in her school notebook, will be provided with walls and become a house she can live in. Because if the tottering structure of her memories collapses like a clumsily pitched tent, all Tamina will be left with is the present, that invisible point, that nothingness moving slowly toward death.

Throughout the book I kept thinking about memory and how our minds choose what to keep and what to discard. Even with important or traumatic events our memories can’t possibly retain every detail. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about the Supreme Court nominee comes to mind: “indelible in the hippocamus is the laughter” is the horrifying detail she remembers when Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to assault her. Tamina doesn’t have the opportunity to get her diaries back but she learns that there are some parts of her memory, even though they are fragments—good or bad, that she will always have with her.

One final word about Kundera’s astonishing piece of writing is the eroticism that pervades every chapter. Orgies, menage a trois, assault, casual sex, etc. are among the acts that are described in the narrative. It was an odd theme that stands out among the others for me. But I don’t know enough about Kundera’s style and other writings to make any intelligent comments about it. So I will simply mention that it’s there and keep processing it as I read more of his fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a favorite Kundera? Please do let me know!

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A Proust Reading List

I thought it would be helpful to share the list of books related to Proust that I have compiled as I have done previously with Kafka and Dante.  This is a very short list so please leave me additional suggestions in the comments.  The translation I used to read Proust was the Moncrieff et al. version published by The Modern Library which I would highly recommend.

By Way of Sainte-Beuve by Marcel Proust.  This collection of essays is a good introduction to Proust’s style of writing for those who don’t want to dive right into his novel.

The Collected Poems by Marcel Proust. Translated by a wide variety of talented translators.  A wonderful dual language edition by Penguin of Proust’s poetry.  I find that a lot of people don’t realize he wrote poetry.

On Reading by Marcel Proust.   Another great way to get a taste of Proust through his ideas on reading.  It is also a dual language edition I found published by Macmillan in 1971.

Letters of Marcel Proust.  Translated and edited with notes by Mina Curtiss.

Monsieur Proust by Celest Albaret.  Translated by Barbara Bray. Albaret was Proust’s housekeeper in his final years while he was writing his magnum opus.  This book also has a lot of nice photos of Proust.

Marcel Proust: A Biography. Volumes I and II by George D. Painter.  There are two other biographies of Proust by Tadie and Carter that were recommended to me  but I chose the Painter.

Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles.  This was a perfect companion to reading Proust for those who like a visual of all the paintings that Proust discusses.  It also saves a lot of time from having to look each one up individually.  The photos in the book are beautiful.

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein.  An interesting little book that discusses books and reading in Proust.

The Albertine Workout by Ann Carson.  I happened to buy this at The Strand a few years ago because I was interested in Ann Carson.  This is not any kind of truly revealing “workout” of who Albertine was but if you like Carson’s writing then it’s a quick, interesting read.

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski.  Translated by Eric Karpeles.  An inspiring little book that uses Proust to show prisoners that there is hope.

“Proust and I” by Gabriel Josipovici. An essay included in his collection The Teller & The Tale.

“The Image of Proust” by Walter Benjamin.  An essay included in his collection Illuminations translated by Harry Zohn and edited with an introduction by Hannah Arendt.

“The Experience of Proust” by Maurice Blanchot.  This essay, which discusses Proust’s unfinished novel Jean Santeuil, is included in his collection The Book to Come translated by Charlotte Mandell.

And, of course, there is the famous essay on Proust by Samuel Beckett which I have yet to find a copy.  Finally, since Proust was so fond of Balzac and his work is constantly mentioned in In Search of Lost Time, I acquired a complete set of Balzac’s novels.

Addenda:

Thanks to Steve at This Space for sharing these great recommendations with me-

Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method by Gerard Genette.  Translated by Jane E. Lewin.

Proust & Signs: The Complete Text by Gilles Deleuze.

And Eric (@spaceisagrail) who is also reading Proust recommended Roger Shattuck who has a couple of books that are field guides through Proust.

There is an obscure short story that I mentioned in  my last Proust post translated by Burton Pike.  It is wonderful and gives the reader a taste of Proust’s fiction before one decides to dive into the big one:

“The Indifferent One” by Marcel Proust.  Translated by Burton Pike for Conjunctions No. 31.

Thanks to Derek Kalback (@dkalback) for this addition:

Proust Among the Stars by Malcolm Bowie.

Thanks to the amazing flowerville for sharing this essay by Jean Amery and translated by @shirtysleeves and an additional book:

http://shirtysleeves.blogspot.com/2017/11/a-translation-of-zugang-zu-marcel.html

The Quest for Proust by Andre Maurois.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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