I’ve been working my way through these Notebooks for the last few months. I love reading writer’s journals and letters, but I often just dip and out of them, and ultimately leave them unfinished. This is the same way that I used to treat large poetry anthologies, but after reading all of Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire in a couple of days, I’ve been convinced that reading anthologized collections of poems, letters or journals in the same way I read novels and (traditional) poetry books and short story collections. Just as in reading novels, there is something beautiful about immersing yourself in another writers’ mind for a stretch of time, especially into the relatively unfiltered mind as represented in published journals and notebooks.I originally bought this collection in a small used bookstore I stumbled unto in a visit to Boston in the Fall of 2009. I bought the books (both this and the second edition) because they were beautiful and were the original translation and only the second printing (I could never afford the first printing). They sat on my mantel for a few years, with a handful of other “collectible” books, but then, in late March 2014, in a bit of a bad mood, and unable to find any book I wanted to read (despite having a to be read stack of over fifty books), I pulled this book off the shelf and began reading it. I believe I also may have been prompted to do this because of the various Camus celebrations that had been hosted a few months earlier, celebrating what would have been Camus’ 100th birthday on November 17th 2013, like this podcast on TTBOOK. And I am so glad I did, because this book cheered me up, and gave me perspective when I needed it, and a peek into the formative years of Camus, from the age of 22 to 29.
Camus is often heralded as an existentialist writer, a man who engaged in the philosophy of the absurd, and how to meaningfully live a life when there is no inherent meaning. With this description, it seems like it is the prescription for despair, and thus the last thing to read while depressed, but this is hardly the case. Camus spoke against nihilism, and embraces life, and he writes eloquently about how to do anything less than to fully embrace life is pointless, because life is all we have.
Camus is often mentioned as a philosopher, but he was not – or at least not the pure definition of a thinker engaged with pure reason and argument. He was a writer, a novelist, because that was where he could best seek for meaning and understanding. As he wrote in his journal:
People can think only in images. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels” (10) and then continues to remark that “A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images. And in a good novel, the whole of the philosophy has passed into images. (11)
He is a man very much in touch with the substantive and physical world, and writes about physical setting in a way that rivals the great nature writers, and like romantic poets, also finds meaning and metaphor within the natural and manufactured world. He wrote:
In the evening, the gentleness of the world on the bay. There are days when the world lies, days when it tells the truth. It is telling the truth this evening – with what sad and insistent beauty.”(33)
And then he later remarks that “The world is beautiful and this is everything.” (56)
He wrote about his struggles in balancing earning a living and writing. When he turned down a teaching post, he wrote that:
I rejected it, doubtless because I saw security as unimportant compared to my opportunity for real life. The dull, stuffy routine of such an existence made me draw back . . . I was afraid, afraid of being lonely and permanently fixed . . . what made me run away was doubtless the fear not so much of settling down but of settling down permanently in something ugly.” (70)
I have been engaged in similar conflicts between practicality and writing throughout my own life, and so find comfort in Camus, as I do with this more practical advice:
Don’t give way to conformity and to office hours. Don’t give up. Never give up – always demand more. But stay lucid, even during office hours.(73)
I think I will post that on my office wall, or office door, to remind myself to stay lucid even when (or especially when) holding my University office hours.
And I must to remember what he wrote earlier in that same paragraph, that:
The demand for happiness and the patient quest for it. We need not banish our melancholy, but we must destroy our taste for difficult and fatal things. Be happy with our friends, in harmony with the world, and earn our happiness by following a path which nevertheless leads to death.(73)
Camus is so hopeful in these early journals, calling for us to:
create a new man within ourselves. We must make our men of action and men of ideals, and our poets into captains of industry. We must learn to live out our dreams – and to transform them into action.(79)
I could continue to quote Camus over and over again here. I haven’t even mentioned all the moments of “The Stranger” and the “Myth of Sisyphus,” and “The Plague” in their draft stages, but I’ll end with two thoughts about writing from near the end of the journal.
The problem in art is a problem of translation. Bad authors are those who write with reference to an inner context which the reader cannot know. You need to be two people when you write.(197)
And finally, this great conundrum, and call of the artist:
Is it possible to live a monotonous repetitive life while perpetually haunted by the thought of a work to be created, or should we adjust our life to this work, follow the lightning flash?(198)
That is the task of the writer, to bend and shape their life so that they can chase the lightning flash.