Nothing in a professional writer’s life more resembles the life of a traveling salesman than the literary book tour. The superficial difference between writers on tour and salesmen on the road is that writers are encouraged to imagine themselves prized personae whose pitch is eagerly awaited by the anonymous crowd, whereas salesmen know themselves to be an intrusion, albeit one with an edge. While both are beggars at the gate, each one singing for a bit of supper, salesmen are independent entrepreneurs, pretty much calling their own shots; writers, on the other hand, are performers in someone else’s show—a talk at ten, a class at twelve, a panel at three, a reading at seven, and oh, did I forget the ten or twelve interviews tucked in at every break in the day?—all the while being dragged around by people otherwise known as “handlers” who every half-hour tell them how much they are loved, how much their work is prized, how many lives it has changed, and yes, they know how tired you must be by now, but would you mind giving just one more very small interview, this guy’s been waiting all day to talk to you. By now it’s ten or eleven at night, and you, the writer, are sitting in a restaurant, still smiling and nodding at a tableful of people whose small talk is nailing you to the wall. The handler can see you’re falling off your feet, but believe her (it’s almost always a her), it will be good for the book if you could just have one more drink with one more admirer.
So if you happen to be a veteran of this circuit, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that one day in 1949, in the middle of a two-month-long South American book tour, the celebrated French writer Albert Camus, a man who’d recently endured the German occupation of Paris, wrote in his diary, “Obliged to admit that for the first time in my life I feel myself in the middle of a psychological collapse.”
Albert Camus was already a cultural hero of the West when in March 1946 he crossed the Atlantic by ship and arrived in New York City, the first port of call on a North American tour undertaken to promote the publication in English of his 1942 novel The Stranger. Three years later, after finishing his second novel, The Plague, a book that would bring him world fame, he again crossed the Atlantic by ship, this time landing in Rio de Janeiro, where he delivered the first of the lectures he was due to give in South America. Now a selection of Camus’s diary entries from those two trips comes to us in the form of a slim volume of 148 pages that allows us to glimpse something of the emotional experience of a literary great on a book tour.
Born in 1913 into a working-class family in French Algeria, Camus grew into a man of the left bitterly opposed to the colonial regime under which he himself had grown up. In 1940, having been blacklisted for his anticolonial journalism, he left Algeria for France, a country where he never felt at home. Nonetheless, when the war started he joined the Resistance and soon became the editor of Combat, one of its clandestine newspapers. Camus’s editorials, both before and after liberation, revealed a man who, as the conflict wore on, had become more and more sobered by the great paradox of life: that human beings are compelled to seek meaning in a world where meaning clearly is not to be found. It was the condition he famously labeled absurd.
For a nihilist the principle of the absurd might have seemed worthy of mass suicide, but Camus was not a nihilist. It was not suicide that he saw ahead for humanity; it was struggle. It was struggle alone, he said, that would humanize us. In the middle of the war he published two of his most important works, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. The message that each delivered was this: it is our obligation as individuals to value the life within us for its own sake; indeed, it is our obligation as individuals to embody that value. Not an easy task for any but the saintly. Yet the essay on Sisyphus—who is destined to roll up a mountain a stone that, just before it reaches the top, rolls right down again—concludes with the declaration that the struggle itself ennobles our lives. The implication here is that life can be lived all the better if one accepts that it has no meaning.
And as for the philosophically high-minded writer on a book tour, did he take his own advice? To begin with, it must be said that whatever else might make Travels in the Americas of literary or historic interest, it will not be Camus’s insightful responses to the New World. Most of his evaluations on his trip are superficial or banal or laughably snotty. What intrigues is how quickly he demands that things make sense.
Here’s Camus, still on the boat, his ship just coming into New York Harbor in a fog, the city barely visible:
A tremendous sight despite, or because of, the fog. Order, power, economic strength, they’re all here. The heart trembles before so much remarkable inhumanity…. At first sight, a hideous, inhuman city.
Grudgingly, he adds, “But I know people can change their mind.” He, however, will not.
Some pages later, now out and about, trying to get an actual handle on the city he is prepared to despise, he catches sight of the words FUNERAL HOME and observes,
One of the ways to understand a country is to know how people die there. Here, everything is planned. “You die and we do the rest,” the promotional flyers say. Cemeteries are private property: “Hurry up and secure your spot.” It’s all bought and sold, the transport, the ceremony, etc.
Somehow, what he thinks of as a slangy approach to a sacred ceremonial makes perfect, affronted sense to Camus because, as the writer Niccolò Tucci (who found shelter from fascism in New York) has assured him, “How very easy human relationships are here because there are no human relationships here. They remain superficial. Out of respect and laziness.”
But then, unexpectedly, a bout of stormy weather elicits a declaration of emotional fragility that complicates the reader’s assessment of Camus’s issues with the New World:
Rains of New York. Incessant, sweeping over everything. The skyscrapers rise above…this city of the dead…. Terrible feeling of abandonment. Even if I were to hold everyone in the world tight against me, I still wouldn’t be protected from anything.
Portents of much that is to come.
A few things in New York do surprise him favorably. Despite America’s famously deplorable relation to the “Negro Question”—and here, from out of left field we get the startling observation that “only Negroes give life, passion, and nostalgia to this country that they colonize in their own way”—he is amazed by the sight of a white man giving up his seat on a bus to “an older Negro lady” and again struck when the cashbox is stolen the evening of his talk at Columbia University and almost everyone in the audience chips in to replace the lost money. “Typical of American generosity,” he reluctantly observes. “This is what’s best about them.” Nonetheless, by page 46 he’s writing, “My curiosity about this country has suddenly ended.”
This dismissal of the US will very promptly include Canada. “Boredom. Boredom,” we read no sooner than he arrives in Montreal. “This great country, calm and slow. You get the feeling it’s completely unaware of the war.” Suddenly we’ve gotten to the heart of Camus’s quarrel with the New World: everything in it seems light-years removed from Europe, which, having just endured World War II, has gained several centuries’ worth of human self-awareness while North America in particular has remained an alienating innocent. In a paragraph about Quebec’s beauty he notes his inability to care much about the fact that the Americas represent one of the greatest efforts in human history to subdue nature; the accomplishment simply doesn’t do much for him. In fact, the word “accomplish” leaves him cold:
I know now there are many things, artistically speaking, I could accomplish. But this word no longer holds any meaning for me. The only thing I’d like to say I’ve so far been unable to say and I’ll probably never be able to say.
Three years later, on to South America, where he experiences the enormity of nature—outsize mountains, rivers, rainforests—as distastefully overwhelming. Is “space enough to create culture?,” Camus asks, and lets the question answer itself. We quickly learn that Brazil, “with its thin framework of modernity laid over this immense continent,” makes Camus
think of a building slowly chewed, bite by bite, by invisible termites. One day the building will collapse, and a small and teeming people, Black, red, and yellow, will spread out over the surface of the continent, masked and brandishing spears, ready for the victory dance.
Eventually he concludes that “in this immeasurable land that holds the sadness of wide-open spaces, life is lived close to the ground and it would take years to become a part of it. Do I wish to spend years in Brazil? No.”
Two elements alone hold Camus’s sustained attention during these American trips: his precarious health and the oppressiveness of the tour itself. Having contracted tuberculosis as a teenager, all his life Camus suffered repeated bouts of symptoms derived from the original illness. In the Americas they seem never to have left him in peace. In entry after entry in Travels in the Americas we get “Sick.” “Flu.” “In bed.” “Fever.” Two days into the first trip, “Get up with a fever and slightly sore throat.” Five days from the end of the second trip, “Two awful days dragging about with my flu.” Final entry, “Sick. Bronchitis, at the least. They call to tell me we’ll be leaving this afternoon. Glorious day. Doctor. Penicillin. The trip finishes in a metal coffin.”
The incredible regularity with which these symptoms are announced but then, for the most part, ignored often made me feel that Camus’s morose temperament was at least partially responsible for the flu, fever, and chills keeping him constant, almost metaphorical company.
Most of the South American trip is spent in Brazil, where Camus is constantly dragged around to receptions, festivals, dinners, ceremonies. And then there were the crowds at his talks! Enervating. But it’s the literary meetings that really do him in. After lunch at a society matron’s beautiful apartment,
When I think we’re wrapping up, Mme. M announces I’ll be dining with a Brazilian poet. I don’t say a word, promising myself that, starting tomorrow, I’ll cut out everything that’s inessential. I resign myself. But I didn’t expect the ordeal that was to follow. The poet arrives, huge, indolent, squinty-eyed, mouth hanging open…. He talks about Bernanos, Mauriac, Brisson, Halévy. He knows everyone, apparently. They didn’t treat him well…. Anyway, he’s never been honored. In this country, they honor all of France’s enemies, but not him, no, etc., etc.
The poet seems periodically to go into a self-dramatizing trance, but then he
emerges from his 330 pounds of weight to tell me, finger raised: “There is no luxury in Brazil. We’re poor here, impoverished,” he says, affectionately patting the tasseled shoulder of the chauffeur driving his enormous Chrysler…. We end up in a restaurant near Halles—where all you can get is fish…the space so brutally lit with neon we look like pale fish gliding through irreal waters…. The señorito [host] ordered fried shrimp for me, which I turn down, explaining to him, in what I believe to be a friendly manner, that I’m familiar with the dish, a common one in Algeria. Hearing this, the señorito turns an angry red. [Later] the señorito takes the opportunity to explain Figaro’s administrative difficulties to us, which I know well, but of which he gives us an absolutely false, peremptory description. Chamfort’s right, though: if you want to succeed in society, you have to let yourself learn a lot of things you already know from people who don’t know anything about them.
The very next day he’s taken to lunch at the home of a Brazilian novelist who supposedly was once heard saying, “English authors like Shakespeare, Byron, or David Copperfield.”
The only thing in Brazil Camus seems to have been prepared to love is Afro-Brazilian culture, especially its music—“because Brazil may be the only predominantly Black country that continuously produces new tunes”—but here too the experience is mixed. One evening he’s taken to dance the samba after dinner. He’s been looking forward to this event, but:
Disappointing evening. In a neighborhood way on the outskirts, a sort of working-class dancehall brightly lit with neon, of course. There are, for the most part, only Black people…. I wanted to find the people here beautiful, but if I imagine their skin being White, what I find is more a pretty collection of calicos.
Nor has the music moved him, especially.
Back to the relentless tour: “Get up with flu and fever. Legs unsteady. I get ready and wait at the hotel for three intellectuals who want to see me.” The conversation is again unremarkable. Later, on the way back to the hotel,
I shake with fever and swallow some aspirin and gin. Lunch at the consulate. After lunch, stroll along the sea…. The flu is getting worse, and I ask to rest before the interview at 5 o’clock…. A roundtable that I make it through thanks to two whiskies. Afterward, head over to a folk festival organized for me. They give me a flu shot. Uninteresting songs and dances.
A few days afterward:
In bed. Fever. Only the mind stubbornly persists. Awful thoughts. Unbearable feeling of walking step by step toward an unknown catastrophe that will destroy everything around and inside of me…. Evening. They come get me. I’d forgotten that the Black troupe was going to put on an act from Caligula for me tonight…. The evening ends with some Brazilian music that seems mediocre.
On the plane to São Paulo:
Tired of making notes about nothing…. (Yesterday was a whole lot of nothing. Even a conversation with [Murilo Mendes, a Brazilian poet] about the relationship between culture and violence, which helped me sharpen my thinking, seemed like another nothing.)…
What finally seemed clear to me yesterday is that I wish to die.
Existentially, one presumes.
The rides from city to city on potholed roads are long and grueling, the car churning up tons of red dust while Camus sits in back, coughing and shivering. And then there are the talks themselves, at the end of which lies the necessity of responding to endless numbers of fans who need to gush all over him before the handler takes him off to another restaurant or club or wealthy South American’s apartment. At the end of one such evening he writes that he is “tired of the human face.”
Among the final entries in the book:
Hellish day. Radio, sightseeing. Lunch with [a poet’s] son…. Colloquium with the local theater people. At 7 o’clock, a talk in a room so packed it’s exhausting. Dinner at the embassy, a flood of boredom.
Two awful days dragging about with my flu…numb to all I see, concerned only with regaining my strength, amid people who, in their friendship or hysterics, notice nothing of the state I’m in and so make it that much worse.
On the plane taking him to Chile: “We pass over the Andes at night—and I can’t see a thing—which just about sums up the trip.” If a book can seem not only to demonstrate but to embody the truism “There’s no free lunch,” this one is it.
When I turned the last page of Travels in the Americas I closed the book and found myself remembering a story I heard many years ago about Camus. After a talk that he gave a year or so before he died, a young woman in the audience asked the following question: “Mr. Camus, if everything is absurd, does that mean that nothing we do matters?” Camus supposedly looked at her for a long moment and then, in a measured voice, said, “It matters. It all matters. If the telephone rings, and I don’t answer it, it matters.” Now I can’t help wondering if he wasn’t thinking of his time in the Americas, when the principle of the absurd must have seemed most alive to him.