Patti Smith in Camus’s Lourmarin: “This is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action.”


Author and performer Patti Smith and I don’t have much in common, except for two mutual friends – Robert Pogue Harrison, a lover (and performer) of rock music, and publisher Steve Wasserman. Oh! Patti and I share one more common trait: a devotion to visiting the places of writers, whether homes, graves, or the settings they wrote about.

We’ve written about this before, when we published Steve’s remarks at a Writers’ Conference on the topic “A Writer’s Space.”

Patti Smith’s new book Devotion (Yale University Press) is dedicated to that topic. She describes her visits to the grave of Simone Weil, the garden of the great publisher Gallimard, and the Parisian streets of Patrick Modiano’s novels.

But perhaps the most moving passages are in the final chapter. She visits Albert Camus‘s daughter Catherine in the family home in Lourmarin, an hour outside Aix-en-Provence. It is the home he built with his Nobel money, as a family refuge from Paris. She writes: “His room was his sanctuary. It was here that he labored over his unfinished masterwork The First Man, unearthing his ancestors, reclaiming his personal genesis. He wrote undisturbed, behind the heavy wooden door, carved with twin griffins supporting a crown.”

Then she goes to his downstairs office:

Last words from “First Man”

Camus’s daughter entered, placing the manuscript of Le Premier Homme, The First Man, on the desk before me and went and sat in a chair giving us distance enough so that I could feel alone with it. For the next hour I was privileged to examine the entire manuscript page by page. It was in his hand, each page suggesting a sense of unflinching unity with his subject. One could not help but thank the gods for apportioning Camus with a righteous and judicious pen.

I turned each page carefully, marveling at the aesthetic beauty of each leaf. The first hundred watermarked sheets had Albert Camus engraved on the left-hand side; the remaining were not personalized, as though he had wearied of seeing his own name. Several pages were augmented with his confident marking, lines carefully revised and sections firmly crossed out. One could feel a sense of a focused mission and the racing heart propelling the last words of the final paragraph, the last he was to write. …

This is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action. And I, time and again, am overcome with the hubris to believe I can answer that call.

The words before me were elegant, blistering. My hands vibrated. Infused with confidence, I had the urge to bolt, mount the stairs, close the heavy door that had been his, sit before my own stack of foolscap, and begin at my own beginning. An act of guiltless sacrilege.

I rested my fingertips on the edge of the last page. Catherine and I looked at one another, not saying a word.

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