The Mask of Albert Camus

Notebooks 1942-1951

by Albert Camus, translated and annotated by Justin O'Brien
Knopf, 292 pp., $5.00

Albert Camus
Albert Camus; drawing by David Levine

The subtle but radical change that separates the intellectual atmosphere of the Fifties from that of the Sixties could well be measured by one’s attitude towards the work and the person of Albert Camus. During his lifetime he was for many an exemplary figure; his work bears many traces of the doubts and agonies that such an exalted position inevitably carries with it. He has not ceased to be so: In several recent literary essays, written by men whose formative years coincided with the period of Camus’s strongest influence, the impact of his presence can still be strongly felt. On the other hand, one can well imagine how he might prove disappointing to a new generation, not because this generation lacks the experience that shaped Camus’s world, but because the interpretation he gave of his own experience lacks clarity and insight. That Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, different from each other as they are, seem more closely attuned to the modern temper is by itself no proof of their superiority. Nor indeed does this make Camus necessarily the defender of permanent values. Before we can blame our times for moving away from him, we must clarify our notion of what he represents.

The publication of the Notebooks is a useful addition to the understanding of a writer who, in his fiction, always chose to hide behind the mask of a deliberate, controlled style or behind a pseudo-confessional tone that serves to obscure, rather than to reveal, his true self. The “I” that addresses the reader in The Stranger and in The Fall, and the collective “we” of The Plague, are never to be directly identified with the voice of Camus; in accordance with the tradition of the novel, the author reserves the right to keep his interpretations of characters and events implicit and ambivalent. The genre of the novel is, by definition, oblique, and no one thinks of blaming Cervantes for the fact that, up to this very day, critics cannot agree whether he was for or against Don Quixote. More contemporary figures, however, are not allowed the same immunity especially if, like Camus, they openly intervene in public and political matters and claim to experience personal conflicts that are typical of the historical situation in general. In such cases, one is certainly entitled to look for utterances in which the true, commitment (or the true uncertainty) of the writer is revealed.

Camus’s Notebooks do not offer an easy key to the understanding of an irresolute man. In this second volume of his private notes—the first volume of the Notebooks, covering the period from May 1935 to February 1942, has also been published in English—Camus’s personal reserve has increased rather than diminished, and the lack of intimacy or of self-display is both admirable and unusual. There is nothing here of the abandon, the indiscretion of many intimate journals, very little self-justification or, for…

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