Dear Camus

LETTERS TO MEN OF LETTERS, Part 3

/ by Diane Joy Charney

 

We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.

I write them letters.

 

Albert Camus, born in Algiers (November 7, 1913-January 4, 1960), won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature. His L’É tranger is ranked number one on Le Monde’s “100 Books of the Century.” But Camus also excelled in ethics, politics, philosophy, journalism, theatre, soccer, tuberculosis survival, and more.

 

ALBERT CAMUS

 

Dear Meursault,

 

I’ve been in constant conversation with your creator, Albert Camus, since our first encounter when I was a 16-year-old student.

 

It wasn't exactly love at first sight, a coup de foudre, sort of thing. At first I didn't know what to make of him--found him very strange, indeed. But sometimes a lifelong affair starts out that way.

 

You may have been guillotined long ago, but you are often on my mind. And when that happens, I feel the need to drop you a line. I am feeling closer to you than ever. But unlike you, I've been put on notice about my mother's situation: at 92, my mother is on borrowed time. How long will she be with us? Well, she looks good, but her heart could give out at any moment.

 

Maybe I'll still end up like you, confused and traumatized enough to say,"Aujourd'hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier. Je ne sais pas."(“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.") But I can't say I wasn't warned.

 

Unlike you, I'll be trying not to kill anybody else and lose my head over the inevitable. Even so, it's hard not to be greedy and to wish for better news. On the other hand, when the long-suffering mothers of friends were dying, I recall saying, in empathy, "it's hard to know what to wish for.”

 

That's what I'm thinking as I go about my daily business of trying to salvage what's left of my rotting peaches, before disposing of the rest.

 

Once a week, Sunday comes around. Like today, which makes me want to send you a note. I think I understand why you never liked Sundays, but I must respectfully disagree. Here in Umbria, where you might not have lost your head, Sunday is my favorite day. Except maybe on September 1, the start of bird hunting season when anything with wings (but that doesn't sing) is fair game.

 

Some might think me crazy for suggesting that you, a man condemned for not having remembered whether your mother died today or yesterday, could have gotten a fair shake in mother-worshipping Italy. But here they might have understood how an only son could have been so disoriented by his mother's death that he lost all sense of time.

 

Though Sunday is no longer the day to find everyone in Italy's churches, it certainly remains a family day on which no one else would intrude. In fact, that's probably what I like best about it. I could do without the gunshots, though. As you know too well, guns combined with a merciless sun can bring nothing but heartache. Although the bird hunt here has a long tradition, as a lifelong bird lover, I hope the hunters miss their target. I wish you had not become a target, either.

 

I see that I’m not the only one with you on my mind. I’ve been hearing great things about Kamel Daoud’s first novel, The Meursault Investigation, that my son says he’s giving me for my birthday. According to the review “Algerian Writer Kamel Daoud Stands Camus’ The Stranger On Its Head” (John Powers for NPR Books), “this tour de force forever changes the way you see Camus’ novel.” I also see that because I have been on leave this semester, I missed hearing the author speak at Yale this fall. Maybe after I read his book, I can write Daoud a letter, too.

 

Who would have guessed that I would be writing to you all my life? And why is that? As close as I feel to you, I think I need to go directly to the source. Albert, have you been listening?

 

*

 

Dear Albert,

I first encountered you as a 16-year-old student at l’Université de Montréal, when we were reading your L’étranger (The Stranger) under the guidance of Professeur Pierre Pagé, who was way too handsome to be a priest. I had no clue what was going on in there, but to be alone in a foreign country for the first time, I, too, felt like a stranger. It was a first contact, but I sensed at the time that it was the start of a life-long infatuation. To try to come to grips with your text is a long-term project, and little did I realize that I would teach that very book at Yale University for many years.

 

When you were killed in a suspicious car accident (some suspect the KGB, and if your publisher, Gallimard had not been at the wheel, others might have thought suicide), an unpublished manuscript was found with you. An agreement was made that the text would not be published while your wife was alive. Your children chose to publish it after their mother’s death. Your wife had said that you would never have allowed it to be published as is, because it was too personal. She knew that you would always write large and then cut away, but this text had not been trimmed. That manuscript that subsequently became Le Premier Homme was more autobiographical than anything you had written, and it re-opened international dialogues about you, albeit well after you had won the Nobel Prize. It granted access--a chance to crawl inside your head, in a way that had never been possible before. I love that book, and intend to read it again and again.

 

It’s too bad that you died too soon to know author André Aciman, who might have been thinking of you when he wrote, “The better the writer, the better he erases his footprints—yet the better the writer, the more he wants us to intuit and put back those parts he chose to hide.”

 

In 2002, I left a pensée flower and a stone on your grave at Lourmarin, but I never got to tell you how much your work has kept me company for so many decades. This is my chance.

 

*

 

Let’s go back in time. At 16, I’m the youngest student at the French university. It’s 1962, the year of bombs in mailboxes. The radical movement of French separatism is centered at l’Université—a fact nobody had mentioned in the promotional materials for L’École Française d’Été—and one that I hoped my parents would not discover until after I had persuaded them to let me study in Montreal. Montreal is just beginning to metamorphose into the cosmopolitan city it will become: The Métro is sprouting; islands are being connected to the mainland in preparation for Habitat, the International Exposition that will put Montreal on the map.

 

It’s all very exotic to an innocent born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and raised in Middletown, New York—a place which is, just as it sounds, neither here nor there. Middletown is best known as the BIG city in the Borsht Belt of the Catskills.

 

As I meander through the side streets of Montreal, Paul Verlaine is my favored companion, especially on rainy days: “Il pleure dans mon coeur /Comme il pleut sur la ville/ Quelle est cette langueur/ Qui pénètre mon coeur?” It is here that I learn to be alone--a rehearsal for my 1966-67 Junior Year in France.

 

Highlights of that 1962 summer experience included my somewhat lost innocence of being in the front seat of a masturbating taxi driver who was driving a bunch of us girls to a Montreal restaurant; and my Montreal boyfriend's burly, shy friend posing as a famous--but not to me--Canadian hockey player of the same name. I now recognize that French summer boyfriend Gérard’s calling me a potential Madame Bovary was a bit self-serving: He could tell that I was excited to be with him, but that I didn't intend to sleep with him. Kissing an older French dental student was one thing, but I fully intended to return to my Middletown boyfriend as the same relatively virginal "innocente" I had been at the beginning of that summer. Gérard may have been, as a jealous friend proclaimed, "the best-looking thing around here in pants!" But he wasn't getting into mine.

 

But back to you, Albert. Your prescience never ceases to amaze me. In today’s cyber-dominated world, it’s become a cliché to say we have to unplug ourselves and learn to “be in the moment.” But you figured that out long ago, and where I live in Umbria, the Chianina cows soon to be beef have mastered this art. I am trying to watch and learn.

 

To bury our noses in our smart phones gives the illusion of connectedness. My students love to brag about pulling all-nighters, and so-called grown-ups pride themselves on being perpetually busy. To look at the number of domains in which you excelled--ethics, politics, philosophy, writing, theater, soccer, tuberculosis survival, and more—one can see that you knew how to keep busy. But you also understood the trap of busyness for its own sake. As you put it so simply: “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But to be active is still wasting one’s time, if in so doing one loses oneself.”

 

*

 

Flash forward many decades to 2015. I’m wondering what you would think about “Serial,” a recent American radio podcast that attracted over five million obsessed followers as it unfolded in so-called “real time.” “Serial” is a true journalistic whodunit about a teenager jailed for life after being convicted, on slim evidence, of murdering his girlfriend. As revolutionary and new as “Serial” is touted as being, it may ring a lot of bells for your readers—at least for this one.

 

Who hasn’t, at some point, felt like an outsider, on the margins, estranged? As in The Stranger, the murder trial of young Adnan Sayed demonstrated how evidence can be twisted to suit the prosecution’s desired story line—forcing puzzle pieces to fit, even when there are too many of them—and how the accused’s intelligence, as was the case for Meursault, can become a weapon against him.

 

Like Meursault, Adnan, having spent 15 years in prison before becoming the focus of “Serial,” still comes across as a naïf. What Adnan says he wants most is to be seen as a person again, not a monster.

 

At one point in Meursault’s trial, the prosecutor who feels personally threatened by the absurdity of the crime shouts, “Do you want my life to no longer make any sense?” If Meursault would just play the game and say he’s sorry, he wouldn’t be a threat to others who demand that life make sense—that absurd murders don’t just happen because ”the trigger gave way.” (translations are mine) But Meursault can’t play the game because he doesn’t even know there is one. In the courtroom, what makes him most sad is to see how everyone hates him and views him as a monster.

 

This reminds me of Adnan not appearing to understand that his consistent claim of innocence is what’s condemning him to a life behind bars. At first, in what appears as his naïveté, he could not imagine pleading guilty just to minimize his punishment. Someone more savvy might realize that the hypocritical “just say you’re sorry” demanded by well-intentioned moms also makes an impression on juries.

 

The prosecutor in The Stranger loves to make fun of the role of chance as Meursault’s explanation for how the Arab ended up dead. In fact, Meursault is only on that fatal beach by chance, and only has the gun by accident. Ironically, he had pocketed it to PREVENT violence by his trigger-happy friend with the short fuse.

 

I recently read that you, Albert, said, “If there were a party of those who aren’t sure they’re right, I’d belong to it.” And, “Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism.” The obituary in The Guardian of historian, Tony Judt, mentions that in two of his books, he used quotes from you as epigraphs. One was the first that I mentioned above; the other was “Every wrong idea ends in bloodshed, but it’s always the blood of others.” To quote Geoffrey Wheatcroft who wrote the Judt obituary, “Camus’ words could stand as the mottoes of his (Judt’s) own sadly abbreviated but splendid life.”

 

Adnan has adapted well to prison life. Meursault, who ended up literally losing his head, had to learn to do this. He did not understand that deprivation of his hedonistic pleasures was part of the punishment. It seems illogical to him: why would his smoking or sexual desire for his girlfriend harm anyone else?

 

While in jail, Meursault concludes that the memory of the details of just one day could be enough to sustain a man for the rest of his life. I wonder if the same could be said for Adnan. As conflicted as I am about what would be the right decision to his upcoming last appeal, I confess to hoping that he will not be condemned only to remember, for the remainder of his life, what life was like on the outside.

 

I think he would be lucky to have someone like you on his jury.

 

*

 

It’s probably time to bring this letter to a close. In writing to you, I know I’m writing to someone who understood the value of a letter. And as a teacher, I was deeply moved by the one you wrote after winning the Nobel Prize to thank the teacher who had believed in you.

 

I speak for myself now when I say that you’ve been teaching me for years. And to quote you from your own letter to your former teacher, I am grateful for this “opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me.”

 

*

 

(As it turned out, that previous “good-bye” was what is known in music as a “false coda.”)

 

Dear Albert,

Well, it’s a new year, and I’m back already. By now you are probably used to my saying goodbye and then circling back with another letter. Here’s what happened.

 

I mentioned earlier that I was told to expect Kamal Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation for my 69th Xmas birthday. Well, I actually ended up with two copies, one in French, the other in English. As a translator, I think I am going to enjoy the opportunity to compare them. But I’m concerned about what’s going to happen to my relationship with your Meursault when the formerly silent Arab who dies on the beach is given a voice. Being so involved with Meursault, I admit that I hadn’t paid much notice to the voiceless Arab. In any case, it’s not as if Meursault himself actually had much of a voice. Whenever I think of the trial scene, I get sick. After I do some reading, I will get back to you about all this.

 

*

 

Mon Cher Albert,

I know I said I was leaving, but here I am again. I even started to write my primary writing partner (who had told me to go to sleep early instead of obsessing about you) that I thought I was mostly done writing to you. But I will never be (which I guess is a big part of my point with this Letters to Men of Letters book--you are forever companions). At that moment I had 60 pages left in Kamel Daoud's original French version of The Meursault Investigation, to which I merely alluded in my earlier letter to you, where I said I heard I was getting it for my Xmas birthday, had missed the author's speech at Yale, etc. I was going to do double duty by also reading it in English. I even thought that maybe our flagging book group would go for it.

 

As I mentioned earlier, I was worried about reading Daoud’s book. How was I going to deal with Daoud's decision to conflate you and your protagonist? Come to think of it, in writing to both you and Meursault, would I be accused of doing some version of that, myself?

 

At least I don't have to worry about being marked for death by those who might read me the wrong way and take offense. I admit that I know only superficially (and largely from the view of the colonizer) about Algeria's political history. Because of this, I found it hard to relate to that important aspect of what Daoud, an Algerian journalist, has on his agenda. Even so, like Daoud's angry protagonist, brother of the nameless Arab of L’Étranger, I have, as you know, been carrying Meursault around with me since 1962.

 

Therefore, just for the record, Meursault and I have a bond that remains intact in the face of Daoud's new view of him. Yes, Daoud's is a brilliant idea and a tour de force, but while acknowledging that, I can be just as stubborn as his and your contrapuntal protagonists.

 

So, what would you think of Daoud's book? Jizo43 on Amazon thinks you would be pleased. I'm not so sure.

 

*

 

Dear Albert,

Yes, I'm back again. You keep popping into my consciousness, and often in the oddest ways, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and sometimes the other way around. For example, who would expect that a comment from a local goat farm owner (via a message from City Seed, the voice of our New Haven community farmers' markets) would make me think of you and your Meursault?

 

The goat farmer, who was asked about his favorite products, said "right now my favorite product is our goat milk yogurt which is strained like a Greek-style yogurt. It is nothing but yogurt, and when a bit of maple syrup is added to it, it becomes a lot like Sunday. I love it for dessert." Although I've never tried his goat yogurt (with or sans maple syrup), I think I know what he means. As easy as it is for me who frequently feels like an outsider to channel my "inner Meursault," unlike him, I love Sundays. That is especially true in Italy where, since I have no immediate family, I know that on a Sunday no one would dream of intruding. Of course I live deep in the countryside, so I am in no position to observe (and feel excluded from) other families. Furthermore, I realize that families can be a mixed blessing.

 

But goat yogurt aside, Kamal Daoud's Yale lecture, the very one I had lamented missing, actually presented itself right in my email. A message from our course chair, Alice Kaplan, proudly announced that it had been recorded, and was available via a single click.

 

On watching it, I could not help but be impressed by Daoud's sincerity and humility, which took me by surprise. When I wrote about this to my French writing partner, herself a North-African native, she had some comments of her own about Daoud's book:

 

The two books, Camus' and Daoud's, are as different as the two men themselves, and the history of their country, which includes the colonizer and the colonized.

 

Camus managed to transcend the world of his impoverished childhood, was saved by his love of literature and his immense talent and brilliant intelligence, became in Paris the perfect, sumptuous Don Juan (six mistresses at the same time, and all as well loved and brilliant, two of whom were renowned actresses!). A journalist, writer, intimate friend of the biggest names. A lighthouse and a tragic death.

 

And the other, writing in a language not really his own, and who seeks, like the protagonist he invented, to emerge from the shadows, to have a name!

 

L’étranger, when it first appeared, was a revolution! The style, its very subject were revolutionary.

 

My friend goes on to admit that before commenting any further she thinks it would behoove her to reread Daoud's book. But she added: "I only know from a first reading that I didn't feel the intense reading pleasure that binds me to a book and that makes me unable to stop reading it. I recall that I stayed calm from the beginning to the end. It's true that I am one of the colonized, like Daoud, but my maternal language is French, not Arabic. Therefore, our point of departure is not entirely the same.”

 

*

 

Cher ami, (I hope you don't mind that I'm going to call you that, since "Dear Albert" and "Mon cher Albert" as salutations may have worn out their welcome.)

 

I haven't read much about your sense of humor, but I confess to having appropriated your very serious "Myth of Sisyphus" to use in a frivolous way. My "Will the Real Sisyphus Please Stand Up" deals with the infinite struggles of an Albert Camus fan to prevent her Italian home from disappearing under a thick cloud of dust and insects. At the risk of offending you here it comes.

 

WILL THE REAL SISYPHUS PLEASE STAND UP?

 

How many times have I had occasion to demonstrate my lack of artistic skill in the classroom? Fortunately, he's easy to draw: a stooped stick figure of a man rolling a huge boulder up something that looks vaguely like a mountain. Then an arrow pointing up, and one from the top pointing down. During my many decades of teaching French, this guy keeps popping up. A man for all literary seasons, he never fails to shed light on the conversation.

 

And not just when it comes to discussing literature. He is equally at home in Bella Italia. Living as I do in the Italian countryside, I share my home with lots of dust, spider webs, and local fauna. Even though I make my dusting rounds several times a day, there is always more to be done.

 

I'm no great housekeeper, but in America, to have many spider webs and dead insects in evidence is not going to win you the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

 

But Camus says we must imagine existential hero Sisyphus happy. Why? Because there's that brief moment before the boulder rolls back down the mountain when he gets a respite from his absurd task.

 

Now one can think of this timespan as a metaphor for our own brief span of life, or as the perpetually existential state of every housewife with a feather duster in hand.

 

When I commiserated about the omnipresence of webs and dust and the dim view of them taken by Americans, the former surgical nurse from Moldova who occasionally helps me clean just shrugged and said in very good Italian, "What do you expect? You live in the countryside!"

 

Getting back to me in the French classroom: Perhaps I've been going about this all wrong. The next time I draw Sisyphus, maybe she should be wearing a skirt and have a Dust Buster in hand?

 

*

 

And while we are on the topic of frivolous things, I am going to defy my risk-averse self and show you the original opener I was considering for this book. It was nixed as too zany by my most trusted critics, and probably rightly so, but we'll see what you think. And while I'm in this confessional mode, I'll admit straightaway that I am a hoarder. But you probably guessed that already. I hoard objects, which is making it especially painful for me to downsize and divest my beautiful 1907 home of 35.5 years worth of "treasures" (actually 69.5 years worth, to tell the truth). But I also hoard my words. How many times have I written on the drafts of my writing students, "Less is more!"? Yet here I am, trying to find a place for words that do not serve their original purpose.

 

My friendly critics who have my best interests at heart say that to organize this book of letters, I should arrange them in an order chronological to my life and my discovery of the recipients. I tried to listen, but as a life-long rescuer of abandoned stuff (I have tried to justify my hoarding by saying that I see the poetry in everything), I'm feeling sorry for this discarded bit. See what you think. You can be frank. I'm working at developing the thick skin that writers and teachers need in order to keep going.

 

As a possible opener for Letters to Men of Letters, in answer to the self-imposed question, "Can you name the important addresses in your life?" I made a list of all of my previous addresses: 336 Pleasant Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota; Middletown, New York; Rochester; Montreal; my five addresses in France; Durham, North Carolina; Seattle; Maui, Hawaii; New Haven, Connecticut; and Italy.  

 

The above was an answer to the self-imposed question, "Can you name the important addresses in your life?"

 

Do you ever imagine that you could knock on the door of a former home and find everyone and everything as you left it?

 

Or dial DIamond 2-2048 and your father's secretary would answer? (Never mind that he would be 95 and unlikely to still be diagnosing the skin woes of a tri-state area.)

 

What about your encounters with the authors who formed you? What if you could write to them? (Never mind that most of them are long dead and unlikely to reply quickly.)

 

Last night I saw the film "In Search of Memory" about Nobel Prize winner, Eric Kandel's research on how memory works. My stubborn memory has a mind of its own. Maybe yours does, too? If so, you might not consider a leap the following:

 

I just signed up for Professor Kafka's seminar. I think it will go nicely with the one Professor Nabokov is teaching.

 

But as a French literature major, I absolutely have to take Professor Proust's class, even if it means having to commute to his cork-lined room.

 

And I'm wondering what I can say to worm my way into Camus' class, which is sure to be oversubscribed. I might have a better chance of getting into Flaubert and Balzac's classes, since they are being held in a bigger venue.

 

Course selection time at Yale--always a moment of great expectation!

 

What could she be talking about? Isn't she supposed to be the teacher?

 

Well, yes, you could say she is, but she knows how to strategize like a Yale student. Further, even after decades of teaching, she's still studying these writers. And even if she tries to be an auditor and gets closed out of their course, she will never give them up. In fact, she's been in constant conversation with them via letter. You’ll see what I mean.

 

Here's another little piece of which it's hard to let go. Earlier I asked why I find myself so obsessed with your Meursault. Although the circumstances are very different, I had a long relationship with someone who, against all odds, went from being our town’s most promising scholar to being the only US physician since the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth to be arrested for accessory to murder after the fact. Other parts of his trajectory included being pursued by the FBI, jail, and lastly, and honored career as a humanitarian. One day while at the post office, I was stunned to see his face on a "WANTED" poster. (Inspired by that event, I wrote a poem called “Wanted,” but I will have to show it to you some other time, since at the moment, it’s packed out of reach.) In our small town where it was not easy or a social asset to be more intelligent than nearly everyone else, he knew what it was like to feel "Other." Unlike Meursault, however, his life journey had a rise, fall, and rise. But although given the right circumstances and an expert lawyer, it's possible to redeem oneself in the eyes of the law, implacable leukemia will not be denied. This feels like the right moment to finally say “adieu” to him, and “au revoir” to you.

....
Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.

 


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