Posts Tagged ‘Albert Camus’

Albert Camus: his childhood, poverty, and “the solar side of his work”

Saturday, August 6th, 2016
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A morality made from very concrete things.

I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

The Nobel author was much on our mind last year – when Another Look featured Camus’s masterpiece, L’EtrangerIn my reading for that project, I managed to miss his daughter Catherine Camus’s 1997 interview, when she and her partner Robert Gallimard were interviewed in London by Spike Magazine‘s Russell Wilkinson. Much of the of the conversation was about the author’s last unfinished work, First Man, which had been published in English in 1995.

Much of it reminds me of these words from his Nobel banquet speech: “Art … obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.”

A few excerpts:

R: Will we get a clearer notion of his ideas through The First Man?

…I think he wanted to write something to explain who he was, and how he was different from the age that had been conferred upon him. He was viewed by many as an austere moralist, but it was on the football pitch and in the theatre that he learnt his ‘morality’. It’s something sensed, it won’t pass uniquely through thought. It couldn’t possibly. He started thinking through sensation. He could never think with artifacts or with cultural models because there were none. So it’s true to say that his morality was extremely ‘lived’, made from very concrete things. It never passed by means of abstractions. It’s his own experience, his way of thinking. There are those who will find his notions about absurdity appealing, and others who will be drawn by the solar side of his work, about Algeria, the heat and so on.

R: Since The First Man deals with Camus’ birth and childhood in Algeria, it seems strange that Camus’ deep personal involvement with the Algerian nationalist crisis tends to get overlooked in the traditional portrayal of him as a French writer. Do you think The First Man will re-emphasise the importance of Algeria in our consideration of Camus?

CC: I hope so. Camus’ was born in Algeria of French nationality, and was assimilated into the French colony, although the French colonists rejected him absolutely because of his poverty. Politically, he was in favour of a federation, and effectively he considered that like South Africa today (or as they are trying to do), there should be a mixed population with equal rights, the same rights for the Arab and the French populations, as well as all the other races living there.

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Lots of the solar side here.

R: So Camus tried to live the paradox of being both “solitaire et solidaire”?

CC: I think Camus felt very solitary. You can see it in all his books. The Outsider isn’t Camus, but in The Outsider there are parts of Camus. There’s this impression of exile. But where he is in exile isn’t especially in Paris or elsewhere, but from the intellectual world, because of his origins. And that’s a complete exile. Just because of his way of sensing before thinking. He’s in a field that he often feels like escaping from. In any case, you have to learn what blood is. It all has to be rationalised. In that he feels exiled, solitary…

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And love is very important in The First Man, in that Camus loves these things he never chose, he loves his childhood experience in a very real way. Their poverty meant that there was nothing else they could think about but what they would eat, how they would clothe themselves. There’s just no room for other things in his family. It’s difficult for others to imagine the position in which he found himself. There is no imaginary existence in their lives.

French intellectuals are mostly petit bourgeois, and it’s hard to say whether that makes Camus’ work more valuable. I’d rather say that it’s different. Necessarily. His positions are sensed. So, naturally, those intellectuals who don’t have that experience have difficulty in comprehending it. But I think it made Camus more tolerant because he had already seen both sides of things when the others had only ever seen one. They imagine poverty, but they don’t know what it is. In fact they’ve got a sort of bad conscience about the working classes. It’s the perspective they could never adopt, not in the way Sartre wants to, because they weren’t familiar with them. They could never address themselves to the working classes. They don’t know what it means, and that gives them a bad conscience about it. Camus has a greater proximity to those in poverty.

R: And does this proximity result from his humility, which can been seen in the letters at the end of The First Man to Monsieur Germain, his old schoolteacher?

CC: It’s because his teacher in The First Man has a primary place. Camus shows us this teacher exactly how he was. The First Man is completely autobiographical. The mother he describes is the woman I knew, and she was exactly as he describes her. And this teacher really existed. But it’s also to show that people attach so much importance to celebrity, and Camus writes his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in thanks to his teacher. … It’s to show that this is what has come from what his teacher did for him. And also throughout the world there are Monsieur Germains everywhere. That’s why I published the letters, so that he could have a place in the work. But I couldn’t ever act or think on behalf of what my father would have said or done. He’s an artist, he considers himself an artist, and so he takes on the responsibility of speaking for those who are not given the means or the opportunity.

Read the whole thing here

The Stanford book club that rocks the news

Friday, April 22nd, 2016
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Toby Wolff’s Another Look send-off last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Author Peter Stansky‘s “A Company of Authors,” the annual event where Stanford authors present their books, had its best day ever last Saturday. As I told Stanford Report“The author presentations were eloquent and excellent, without exception, and the audience questions ensured the discussion was spirited and intelligent.” And longtime Hoover fellow Paul Caringella even gave an impromptu pitch for my forthcoming René Girard biography. What’s not to like?

“I always find these occasions extremely exhilarating,” Peter said. “The heart of the university is the life of the mind and you could not have a better example of that than in the books that their authors presented here today.”

Well, you can read the whole thing here. Nearly everyone stayed through all the presentations, and the excited and audible buzz in the lobby afterwards told the story.

And I told a story, too, during my ten-minute solo for “The Wonderful World of Books at Stanford.” Peter introduced me as “the leading figure at Stanford in keeping us involved in so many exciting ways in the world of books.” So I took up the cause of the Another Look book club it has been my privilege to manage for four years. Here’s what I said:

I’m here to tell you the Another Look story. It’s a good story, and I’ve been proud to be part of it. I think you’ll like it because it’s a story about books finding their people.

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Founder Tobias Wolff. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Four years ago, the distinguished author Tobias Wolff – who was recently named a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts – approached me with an idea: he wanted to create a forum where members of the community would interact with Stanford writers, scholars, and literary figures in the world beyond, to talk about the books they love. He wanted the first book to be a beloved favorite, William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow. He asked me if I could make all this happen. Frankly, I have to say, I was doubtful. The term “book club” did not have good associations for me. But as we hashed it out, I realized my issues were two-fold: first, I figured most people, like me, didn’t have the hours and hours to read long books of other people’s choosing; and second, the books tended to be mainstream, middlebrow, middle-of-the-road “safe” choices.

Inspired by Maxwell’s novel, we decided that we would focus on short books – short enough for Bay Area professionals who are pressed for time, and who may spend their days going through legal briefs or medical documents. Also, we would focus on books that were forgotten, overlooked, or simply haven’t received the audience they merit. We would call it “Another Look.” It would be for people who wanted to be part of the world of books and literature – a world they may have lost touch with once they left university. They would be connoisseurs’ choices for books you must read – discussed and even championed by the people who love them.

Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Nobless oblige. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

We had a full house the first night, and our audiences have been steadily climbing upward ever since. One highpoint: for Philip Roth‘s The Ghost Writer, we were joined by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. It was the only time to date we have had a living author. And although he had become something of a recluse, I decided to see if I could interview him. The subsequent Q&A was published on The Book Haven and republished in La Repubblica, Le Monde, and Die Welt. It made the international press, and the high-profile Another Look was featured in The Guardian.

Toby retired … or said he was going to retire … last year (he was recalled for another year, but that’s another story). When we announced that Another Look was going to close shop a year ago, we got record numbers of people attending our event for Albert Camus‘s The Stranger – a book, Toby claimed, that was more honored than read. One member in the audience, the acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, stepped forward that night to offer to assume the directorship of the program. We’ve developed subscribers’ list pushing up to 1,400. Our February’s event with Werner Herzog at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, discussing J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine, is now on youtube, in both highlights and full-length version. (The event was covered by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner here.) The repercussions of that powerful book event will continue to unfold in the months to come.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It’s been enormously gratifying for me personally to be the point of contact with all of you in our book-loving Bay Area community – and sometimes around the nation and world, too. We have one aficionado driving in from Carmel – others write from far-flung places to tell me they’re reading along with us. And Toby has talked about this program, during his speaking engagements around the country. He’s proud of his brainchild, too.

Why am I so keen on this program? Because it’s rocked my world. Those who know me as a literary journalist know that I’ve sunk my time into the world of Eastern European poets, particularly Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, and more recently, into the French theorist René Girard, a longtime Stanford faculty member, a dear friend, and the subject of my biography. Hence, there are huge holes in my knowledge of modern fiction, and particularly American fiction. Without too much investment of time, I’ve caught up with a lot of writers I’d somehow missed. No membership fees, no meetings with minutes, no commitments – just show up, please!

So please join us next month, on Tuesday, May 10, at the Bechtel Conference Center, when we discuss Joseph Conrads novella The Shadow-Line. The story will run in Stanford Report Monday and be on the Stanford news website – we have books in the lobby. Meanwhile, take some freshly minted bookmarks – and take a few for your friends who might be interested, too.

Fiction versus philosophy: the word from John L’Heureux

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015
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lheureuxI owe the Stanford University Libraries five books by Saturday, and naturally one of them is AWOL. The other four are stacked up neatly by the door, ready for return. Where did the fifth go? Meanwhile, in my search I stumbled across Dikran Karagueuzian‘s Conversations with John L’Heureux, and opened it at random:

Q: You’re saying you didn’t like philosophy?

JL: The way a philosopher thinks is by its nature opposed to the way a fiction writer must think. I really believe that.

Q: Explain that, will you?

JL: Philosophy moves from the particular to the abstract on its way toward universal truths, whereas fiction is concerned with the practical, the concrete. Philosophy wants to investigate eternal questions such as whether or not we can know anything for certain and, if so, how? These are fascinating questions, but they don’t make for fiction, which wants to know who this particular man is and how the thinks and acts, and why.

Q: What about philosophical novelists?

JL: The more philosophical they are, the less engaging they’re likely to be, I think. There’s Gide, Joyce, and Mann, and you certainly have to regard them as philosophical novelists, but don’t you agree that each of them is more admired for his fiction than for the philosophical questions he raises? I’ve never known anybody who reads Joyce for his philosophy. But then there’s Sartre and Camus, whom you do read for their philosophy, but they make it worth your while. Camus is a wonderful novelist. The Stranger is a fascinating book and it’s certainly the fictional embodiment of an existential issue, but in general I think it’s true that the more philosophical the work, the less impressive it is as fiction.

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Hide and seek.

Q: Okay. You’re saying that philosophy is concerned with the pursuit of truth with a capital T whereas fiction is concerned with a particular truth of everyday experience … which may reflect something larger, but in itself it’s not concerned with abstractions.

JL: Exactly. But the real danger is the habit of mind. The The habit of speculating philosophically is opposed by its nature to the fictional process of observing the way somebody curls his lip as he puts out his cigarette, a gesture that may turn out to be trace evidence, say, of an act of violence. The fiction writer must be an observer. He has to see. “One of those on whom nothing is lost.” James.

Back to the hunt.  The missing book? Leszek KołakowskiMetaphysical Horror. Tell me if you see it. It must be here somewhere…

 

So long see you tomorrow, Toby! An evening of Camus, crowds, and many fond farewells.

Saturday, June 6th, 2015
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I present some surprises to Toby. Another Look’s graphic designer Zoë Patrick at left. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Stanford’s Another Look book club was born of one man’s love for a short novel – that is, acclaimed author Tobias Wolff‘s love of William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow, which became the first book discussed in the three-year series. He wanted to share the book not just with colleagues, but the the world. He called Another Look “a gift to the community.” (We’ve written about it here and here and here and a zillion other places). So it was fitting that we concluded the era Toby’s directorship with a Maxwell tribute. Why “see you tomorrow”? Because he’s not going far. He’s simply beginning his well-earned retirement. He’ll be around. Meanwhile, the future of the highly successful program he founded is uncertain. We’ll see what happens. Cross your fingers. Burn incense. Whatever works.

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Toby begins – a little amazed at the turn-out. (Photo: D. Schwartz)

The Monday discussion of Albert CamusThe Stranger was a knockout event – the turn-out beyond anything we had anticipated. It was way beyond standing room only. The room was impassable, with a mob in the doorway, and another outside the sliding doors to the patio, opened so a smaller crowd could listen in. People sat on the floor in the aisles. There was no place in the room that didn’t have people in it. (I squatted behind the podium and couldn’t see anyone on the panel – you could say I had audio, but not visual, reception.) It was, in short, a love-bomb.

The photos above and below don’t quite capture the size of the crowd – photographer David Schwartz, who happened to be in the audience, didn’t have much choice about what he could capture at all. The fans who were lucky enough to have seats were so jam-packed that he couldn’t move.

David couldn’t photograph all three panelists together – so we augment his photos with one of Marie-Pierre Ulloaa scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria, taken by Remmelt Pit.

No surprise that the discussion was lively and wide-ranging. Intellectual and cultural historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center, and Toby are old friends, as their spirited exchanges show in the photos. The audience was bubbling with questions – more than the panelists could possibly answer. Many of them focused on the four extra shots fired by Meursault into the Arab – in Matthew Ward‘s esteemed “American” translation (read about him here) is rendered “And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”

camus-9All in all, it was a wonderful send-off for Toby’s retirement – we presented him with a signed first edition of the late William Maxwell’s The Outermost Dream, a collection of his essays from The New Yorker – fitting, because Toby himself is a regular contributor to the magazine.

But the biggest surprise of the evening was the edition of Maxwell’s later novels from Brookie and Kate Maxwell, the author’s daughters, who have appreciated Toby’s attention to their father’s legacy, and his efforts for Another Look more generally. Brookie, also a photographer, included a photograph of her father that she had taken – the photograph with the kitten; you can see it here.

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Teamwork: Toby and Caroline. (Photo: David Schwartz)

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A spirited exchange between Toby and Caroline (Photo: David Schwartz)

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Toby makes a face; Marie-Pierre giggles. (Photo: Remmelt Pit)

Translator, poet Matthew Ward and his “immense intellectual hunger.”

Friday, May 15th, 2015
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Gary Ward

A fierce poem from a feverish bed. (Photo courtesy the Ward family)

In his brief life, Matthew Ward translated works by Colette, Jean Giraudoux, and Roland Barthes into English – but his favorite project was Albert Camus’s The Stranger. His celebrated “American” translation of the classic earned him a PEN award in 1989, as well as critical acclaim.

In a sense, the translation was born at Stanford, where Ward learned French and fell in love with France during his stay in Tours as part of Stanford’s Overseas Studies program in 1971 (he earned his B.A. From Stanford in 1973). Clearly, Ward’s translation of The Stranger is a perfect choice for the “Another Look” book club discussion at 7:30 p.m., Monday, June 1, at the Stanford Humanities Center – and not only for aesthetic reasons. It represents a sort of homecoming.

If Ward’s Stanford roots are not widely recognized, part of the reason may be that he was known in those days as “Gary,” an energetic, gregarious presence who was very, very smart. “He had an immense intellectual hunger,” recalled Stanford English Prof. John Bender, who was the faculty advisor in Tours the year Ward attended, and recalled the poet and translator’s “eagerness and sparkle.”

“He wanted to know everything, whatever he could know.” Most of all, recalled Bender, “he was passionately interested in French.”

During the six-month sojourn in Tours, Ward also forged an important friendship with Monika Greenleaf, now an associate professor of Slavic literature at Stanford, but then a “scholarship kid” as he was. “I have an intense memory of his face and body when he became enthused about something:  his big brown eyes would glow, then a huge mocking grin and demonic chuckle, and a flurry of gestures. It was always a manifesto about literary style, freedom, religion, young men’s conquests of their world, and above all, Joyce” – and, she quickly added, Kerouac, Hemingway, Ginzburg, Camus, and Proust, too.

“He and I bonded above all in our mutual and rivalrous pursuit of le mot juste,” she said. “Being Irish, he had the scintillating verbal gift that comes with the territory.”

Irish was only half the story. He grew up as one of nine children in a Spanish-speaking, working-class family in Denver. ”I internalized Romance languages listening to my mother,” he told The New York Times. ”Our family goes back to 1598 in old New Mexico, with a governor as an ancestor. And I really do have a mother named Carmen.”

Greenleaf remembers the Stanford students taking a night train to Spain during the running of the bulls at Pamplona, “standing the whole way talking – about Hemingway, of course – and drinking.”

“We were so hung over the next morning that we climbed trees to watch the spectacle and ended up falling asleep among the branches.” Ward and a friend, however, “took off down the street in front of the bulls.” The kids had little money, and lived on potato omelettes, wine, and cioccolate calliente. Traveling to the Basque city of San Sebastián, “we got off the train and ran straight into the ocean waves to wash off.  That town and its churches perched on the edge of the ocean seemed like a paradise to us.”

When the sun went down, Ward would entertain them with his stories and his poems: “He always had a diary with him and filled it with extravagant Joycean sketches, which he would read to us at night.  We all liked to catch glimpses of ourselves in the textures he created.  He was constantly practicing to become a writer,” she said.

At the party to celebrate the end of their stay in Tours, Ann Bender recalls swing-dancing with Ward. He was the only student who knew the dance steps of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. “He was very much a people person,” she said, despite the usual writer’s life of solitude and thought.

Back in Palo Alto, Ward rented a cottage behind the home of English Prof. William Chace, who remembers him fondly as a great conversationalist and immensely smart. Ward received an acknowledgement in Chace’s The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. “I think he helped me just talking about the topics,” he recalled. “What did Gary contribute? Friendship and good humor.”

After Stanford, Ward went for advanced degrees in Anglo-Irish literature at University College in Dublin and at Columbia University; Chace left Stanford to become president of Wesleyan and later Emory University. “He wrote us to say he had become involved in the atelier of Richard Howard, translator of great things,” recalled Chace, and that he had taken a pen name, too. Ward told his mother he was dropping “Gary” for his confirmation name,“Matthew.” It had more of an authorial ring to it, he told her.

Hardscrabble life of a translator

The breakthrough moment came when Judith Jones, the legendary editor at Knopf who had worked with John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey, Elizabeth Bowen, and William Maxwell, felt that a new translation of Camus was needed, one that was closer to the spirit of the author than the 1946 translation by the highly respected translator Stuart Gilbert, which was faulted for its British flavor. (One example: “You’ve knocked around the world a bit, and I daresay you can help me.”)

”I jumped at the chance and worked with Judith on it for nearly three years,” said Ward. “It gave me an opportunity to push my one grain of sand up the beach of culture.”

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“I jumped at the chance.”

The dramatically new translation was praised by The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and others. Ward told The New York Times, “what I’ve done is closer to the author’s intent, and that’s what counts.”

“Camus admitted using an ‘American method,’ particularly in the first half of the book,” Ward said. “He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences. My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.”

By that time, Ward was living in a fourth floor walk-up in Manhattan. Bender recalls his visit to Stanford, where they talked about translation and the hardscrabble life of a translator. “He had lived a life without a lot of material rewards in it, and yet he did extraordinary translations,” said Bender. “All this acclaim, but it paid almost nothing.”

Greenleaf, by then at Stanford, also remembered a reunion about the same time in the 1980s. “We talked our heads off, as of old, and toward the end he read me excerpts of a narrative poem in progress, called, I believe, ‘The North.’ It was thrilling to recognize his mature talent.  He sent me a paper copy, but I lost it during one of my moves, and I don’t know if it was published.

“He let me know when his translation of The Stranger won its prize, and we were sure that this was the beginning of his writerly renown. I found out about his infection with AIDS through a fierce poem he sent me from his feverish, sore-ridden body and still incandescent mind, not at all resigned.  I cried hot tears reading it.”

Ward died on June 23, 1990, at the age of 39. A memorial evening to celebrate his life was organized in Greenwich Village. Chace and his wife drove to the event from their Connecticut home, with plans to return afterwards. As the clock was moving closer to midnight, Chace asked the playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer when the formal remarks would begin. Kramer looked back at him with surprise. “What do you mean? I go to these every night,” he replied. As the AIDS crisis swept through the city, formal memorials had been abandoned – the strain would have been unbearable, he explained. No one had the energy anymore.

Twenty-five years’ distance makes any strain bearable, but it doesn’t fill the missing chair or put the subtracted voice back into the conversation. Ward left his traces in many of the pitch-perfect intuitions that informed his translation of The Stranger, fulfilling his wish that his work “would bring a new generation to the great Camus novel.”

 

More honored than read? Albert Camus’s The Stranger reconsidered

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
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FRANCE. Paris. French writer Albert CAMUS. 1944.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic 1944 photo in Paris. (Courtesy Magnum/Cartier-Bresson)

 

I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is drenched in the North African sun, but heat and light take an ominous turn. The Nobel Prize-winning author’s tale of a senseless murder on the hot Mediterranean beach has been a staple of high-school classes for decades, ever since it was published by the up-and-coming writer in 1942. But does it carry a new meaning for our time?

Acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff has chosen The Stranger for the Another Look book club event at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 1 at the Stanford Humanities Center.  With Tobias Wolff’s retirement at the end of this academic year, the spring event on Camus’ The Stranger will be the last in the popular three-year series.

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Translator Matthew Ward (Courtesy Ward family)

Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look, will moderate the final event. He will be joined by cultural and intellectual historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center; and Stanford lecturer Marie-Pierre Ulloa, a scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria who has received France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the nation’s highest cultural honors. The event is free and open to the public.

According to Wolff, “The Stranger is not an overlooked book. But I believe that among adult readers it is more honored than read. We usually encounter it in our student days, and I doubt that many of us read it again later on.

“Yet it’s very much worth our renewed attention in this moment for the questions it raises about our attempts to find meaning in our lives, about the often violent encounters of different cultures, about the way we create consoling, even heroic, narratives to explain and absolve ourselves while remaining willfully blind to the personal and social forces that actually drive us, about the question of free will – do we have it? –  and about the problematic nature of institutional justice and punishment, indeed of all human judgment.

The event will spotlight the translation of Matthew Ward, who learned French at Stanford. He died of AIDS in 1990, two years after his translation was published, and a year after it received a PEN award. In a New York Times article, Ward said he used an “American method” to translate Camus.

“He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences,” said Ward, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford in 1973. “My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.”

According to the New York Review of Books, Ward’s highly respected version rendered the idiom of the novel more contemporary and more American, and an examination of his choices reveals considerable thoughtfulness and intuition.”

Camus was born in 1913. His father died less than a year later in the Battle of the Marne. His illiterate mother moved with her two sons into a cramped family apartment without electricity or running water. Camus wrote that poverty “was never a misfortune for me: it was always counterbalanced by the richness of light. And, because it was free from bitterness, I found mainly reasons for love and compassion in it. Even my rebellions at the time were illuminated by this light. They were essentially – and I think I can say it without misrepresentation – rebellions in favor of others. It is not certain that my heart was inclined to this kind of love.”

strangerWith the publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in the same year, Camus became a public figure and an existential legend, though he eschewed the link with Jean-Paul Sartre‘s philosophy. Within a few years, he would also become a hero of the Résistance in occupied France. During the war years, he formed an important friendship with Sartre, and also a rivalry with the man who called him “the street urchin from Algiers.” Their break, over Camus’ refusal to justify or excuse the atrocities of Stalin as they became known, would be as famous as their camaraderie.

The 1957 Nobel Committee hailed Camus “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Camus was killed in a car accident in 1960 – some claimed it was a Soviet secret police job, although proof has been elusive.

He left behind a range of novels, plays, essays and short stories, but perhaps none as enduring and popular as The Stranger, with its anti-hero Meursault, who is condemned, not so much for murder, as for “not weeping at his mother’s funeral,” according to the author. Camus, an avowed atheist, said enigmatically, “Meursault is the only Christ that we deserve.”

The books will be available at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Stanford Bookstore on campus and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

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The Another Look book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

News that’s not news: CIA funded Dr. Zhivago

Monday, April 7th, 2014
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No trip to Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Hoover Institution)

The internet is all abuzz with the news that the CIA funded Boris Pasternak‘s classic Doctor Zhivago.

Except that this is not news. I wrote about Pasternak, who was awarded a 1958 Nobel Prize that the U.S.S.R. would not allow him to accept, here.  An excerpt from the 2007 article, featuring a Stanford conference on Pasternak’s famous book:

The Nobel lightning bolt came not a moment too soon for Pasternak. Dark political clouds had been gathering around him. Without the prize, the poet might have faced more obvious persecution—poet Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp, poet Marina Tsvetaeva was hounded to her suicide. Both were friends of Pasternak.

Doctor Zhivago was published in Milan. Albert Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, nominated it for a Nobel. However, the book required publication in its original language to be considered. There was little financial motive for a non-Russian publisher to publish a book in Russian, and huge disincentives for Russian publishers, who faced long imprisonment in a very cold place—or worse. In recent years, researcher Ivan Tolstoi has revealed details of how the CIA financed a Russian translation of the book. Tolstoi is one of the speakers at the Stanford event. He will be speaking in Russian on a panel. A discussion in English will follow.

Tolstoi told the Moscow News this year that “both sides during the Cold War used different methods, but as for ideological subversion of Soviet power, the Americans always used above-board methods. Instead of using poison, derailing trains and kidnapping, the CIA subverted the Kremlin by Russian culture, which the Soviets were prohibited to know or remember.”

“Thanks to the fact that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, Pasternak wasn’t arrested,” Tolstoi told Radio Free Europe last year. “This deed by the CIA served to ennoble and save Pasternak. The actions of American intelligence saved a great Russian poet.”

The CIA similarly published Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others. “Such a reprehensible organization—and such nice deeds,” Tolstoi told the Moscow News. “How is that for thinking evil, but doing good.”

At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, copies of Doctor Zhivago were distributed by a Russian-speaking priest at the Vatican Pavilion. The ground nearby was reportedly littered with the dark-blue binding. Russians tore it off so the book could be divided in half, one for each pocket—it was a huge book, and Russians could assume they were being watched. With samizdat redistribution in the Soviet Union, it achieved fame on the underground book market.

Pasternak's_Doctor_Zhivago_-_Flickr_-_The_Central_Intelligence_Agency

Skip the movie. Read the book.

It would be 30 years before the book was published in its native land. Its launch heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the “Warsaw bloc” of socialist countries.

[Nikita] Khrushchev, after his own fall from power, expressed regret for the hounding of Pasternak. He had entrusted the matter to others, he said, and only realized later, when he had had a chance to look through the book himself, that he had been misled.

“In connection with Doctor Zhivago, some might say it’s too late for me to express regret that the book wasn’t published,” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs. “Yes, maybe it is too late. But better late than never.”

It was known that the CIA was underwriting other efforts, such as the YMCA Press in Paris, which published Aleksander Solzhenitsyn‘s astonishing Gulag Archipelago. That’s what made the work of Ardis so astonishing – it didn’t.

So what’s new?  The Washington Post article here makes use of 130 newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency’s secret involvement in the printing, so it’s worth a read. It’s just not the lightning bolt it’s made out to be.

Hurry hurry hurry! Get your Simone Weil t-shirt! 10 hours to go!

Saturday, March 17th, 2012
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Okay, Okay, I know. What on earth would Simone Weil, the brilliant philosopher and mystic who worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and the disenfranchised, have thought of a t-shirt in her honor?  Nevertheless, I’m going to go for it. You should, too.

Here’s why: the funds go to her new movie, An Encounter with Simone Weil. Anything that promotes the work and writing of the woman Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our time” is a worthwhile endeavor, but this one especially so.  Here’s what filmmaker Michael Moore said of the film:

Julia Haslett has made a profound and moving film on a woman who continues to speak to all of us. Few Americans know of Simone Weil, but this deeply affecting documentary will make you want to know more. An Encounter with Simone Weil challenges all of us not to look the other way when we see the suffering of others. Julia’s personal journey through the film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.”

New York Magazine made it a “critic’s pick” with these words:

Haslett’s intensely personal and touching film about the twentieth-century French philosopher and activist uses Weil’s writings, spiritual journey, and short, sad life as a way to explore her own personal emotional landscape—from her relationship with postmodern capitalism to her relationship with her troubled family.

The event on Kickstarter is here, with 10 short hours to go.  A $75 pledge gets you a signed copy of Sylvie Weil‘s new book, At Home with André and Simone Weil.

Postscript:  So here’s the final tally: 247 backers signed in, pledging $20,077 on a $15,000 goal.  Good news!

Albert Camus: The words that may have cost his life

Monday, August 15th, 2011
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"Hungary conquered and in chains has done more for freedom and justice than any people for twenty years."

A few days ago we discussed the new theory that French writer and Nobel laureate Albert Camus may have been snuffed by the KGB.

According to the new theory:  “The order was given personally by [Dmitri Trofimovic] Shepilov [the Soviet foreign minister] as a reaction to an article published in Franc-tireur [a French magazine] in March 1957, in which Camus attacked [Shepilov], naming him explicitly in the events in Hungary.” In his piece, Camus had denounced the “Shepilov Massacres” – Moscow’s decision to send troops to crush the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

I got curious, of course, so I tried to look up this article – so far I’ve failed.  But I did find this famous 1957 speech on the first anniversary of the Hungarian revolt, “The Blood of the Hungarians.”  It’s punchy stuff.  If the Franc-tireur article is anything like it, it’s no surprise the KGB was chagrined.

Since this has been a day with more than the usual dispiriting portions of  gutlessness, I include a long excerpt:

I am not one of those who wish to see the people of Hungary take up arms again in a rising certain to be crushed, under the eyes of the nations of the world, who would spare them neither applause nor pious tears, but who would go back at one to their slippers by the fireside like a football crowd on a Sunday evening after a cup final.

There are already too many dead on the field, and we cannot be generous with any but our own blood. The blood of Hungary has re-emerged too precious to Europe and to freedom for us not to be jealous of it to the last drop.

But I am not one of those who think that there can be a compromise, even one made with resignation, even provisional, with a regime of terror which has as much right to call itself socialist as the executioners of the Inquisition had to call themselves Christians.

And on this anniversary of liberty, I hope with all my heart that the silent resistance of the people of Hungary will endure, will grow stronger, and, reinforced by all the voices which we can raise on their behalf, will induce unanimous international opinion to boycott their oppressors.

And if world opinion is too feeble or egoistical to do justice to a martyred people, and if our voices also are too weak, I hope that Hungary’s resistance will endure until the counter-revolutionary State collapses everywhere in the East under the weight of its lies and contradictions.

Hungary conquered and in chains has done more for freedom and justice than any people for twenty years. But for this lesson to get through and convince those in the West who shut their eyes and ears, it was necessary, and it can be no comfort to us, for the people of Hungary to shed so much blood which is already drying in our memories.

In Europe’s isolation today, we have only one way of being true to Hungary, and that is never to betray, among ourselves and everywhere, what the Hungarian heroes died for, never to condone, among ourselves and everywhere, even indirectly, those who killed them.  …

Those Hungarian workers and intellectuals, beside whom we stand today with such impotent sorrow, understood this and have made us the better understand it. That is why, if their distress is ours, their hope is ours also. In spite of their misery, their chains, their exile, they have left us a glorious heritage which we must deserve: freedom, which they did not win, but which in one single day they gave back to us.

Nobel prizewinner Albert Camus – snuffed by the KGB?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
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On the verge of a breakthrough? (Photo: NY World-Telegram/Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection)

There is a danger, of course, in being exposed to literature too young.  So when  I read Albert Camus‘s L’Etranger in high school, in French and in English, it was like being punished twice.  I thought it a squalid little book.  I never returned to it, so I’ve never reconsidered my youthful impression.

But I have changed my mind several times in recent years about the author.

Camus himself seems to have been a remarkable man.  Czeslaw Milosz, for example, praised Camus as the only man in postwar Paris who remained friendly to him after the Polish poet’s 1951 defection.  The entire French intellectual class, which was entirely left-wing, turned against him for abandoning the communist dream.  Pablo Neruda denounced him in an essay as “The Man Who Ran Away” (and if anyone has ever seen the article, I’d love to get a copy).  And recently, I’ve been reading René Girard, who praised La Chute as an “admirable and liberating book” in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.

Now we hear that the Soviet authorities hated him enough to have the KGB snuff him in 1960 – at least according to a new report in Corriere della Sera, which was reported in The Guardian.  Another point in his favor:

The theory is based on remarks by Giovanni Catelli, an Italian academic and poet, who noted that a passage in a diary written by the celebrated Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana, and published as a book entitled Celý život, was missing from the Italian translation. In the missing paragraph, Zábrana writes: “I heard something very strange from the mouth of a man who knew lots of things and had very informed sources. According to him, the accident that had cost Albert Camus his life in 1960 was organised by Soviet spies. They damaged a tyre on the car using a sophisticated piece of equipment that cut or made a hole in the wheel at speed.

“The order was given personally by [Dmitri Trofimovic] Shepilov [the Soviet foreign minister] as a reaction to an article published in Franc-tireur [a French magazine] in March 1957, in which Camus attacked [Shepilov], naming him explicitly in the events in Hungary.” In his piece, Camus had denounced the “Shepilov Massacres” – Moscow’s decision to send troops to crush the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, angered the Soviets even more when he publicly supported Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, nominating the clandestine novel for a Nobel. I tell the astonishing story of its Cold War publication here and a little bit here.

Pasternak: The final straw (Courtesy of Hoover Institution Archives)

Pasternak: The final straw (Courtesy of Hoover Institution Archives)

Oliver Todd, author of Albert Camus: Une Vie, doesn’t necessarily believe the new assassination theory:

“My first reaction is that nothing about the activities of the KGB and its successors would surprise me, but this claim has left me flabbergasted. You have to ask yourself who would benefit from this coming out and why.”He added: “It’s interesting and amusing and it is certainly true that KGB documentation is full of accounts of how the Soviets used the Czechs to do their dirty work. But while I wouldn’t put it past the KGB to do such a thing, I don’t believe the story is true.”

But I have to admit that, whether it’s true or not, the fact that the story is plausible enough to publish makes me almost ready to take on La Chute, though I’m still creeped out by L’Etranger‘s  Meursault.

But the fatal car accident en route to the René Girard’s own native Provence was a different kind of tragedy.  His final published novel,  La Chute, René said, marked a turning a point:  “Albert Camus died at the moment when a whole new career was probably opening up for him.”

Read the whole story here.