Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The First Man, by Albert Camus

I have always had mixed feelings about Camus. I read his three major novels – two of them twice – and always felt like I was missing something. I was never bored but I remember straining very hard to find the profundity that was supposed to be there and never coming up with anything. The Stranger seemed like it was about someone from another planet, and fascinating as it was I never felt like it was saying anything particularly true about human nature. There were some cutting passages in The Fall, but again, I felt like something essential had again been pared away and left a document that was somehow not fully human enough to be a great novel. The Plague, honestly, I barely remember, except for a strange flatness that hung over the entire thing, from the setting down to its gray narration.

It was not until I came to Camus’s essays – selections from his Actuelles, collected in English as Resistance, Rebellion, and Death – that I started to get some sense of why people consider him a great writer. Here at last was a whole person. Every page had a sense of immense honesty and, for me at least, nobility – the voice came from a man who thought things out from himself and felt intensely that it was his responsibility to convince people of what he believed was the truth. Like Orwell, like John Holt, I get a sense from his pages that he feels that communication with many different sorts of people is possible, and that his prose is motivated, before any consideration of beauty, with reaching them.

It is for this reason that Reflections on the Guillotine and The Unbeliever and Christians are so strange to read in today’s political climate. Despite the fact that people are still producing hundreds of articles on the death penalty and the place of religion in society, with many of the same points that Camus made, something about his voice is totally different. One feels that he includes in his audience people who don’t agree with him and makes an honest effort to change their minds. He actually believes that intellectual debate is possible. He occasionally even concedes that in past arguments he has been wrong (incredible!). I have very little idea what sort of life he led, but I get the impression that he was a good man. To paraphrase a line out of his last novel, there are people who vindicate the world just by existing, and he is one of them.

That last novel is The First Man, and I had actually never heard of it until I saw a huge number of copies sitting on the library shelf. Apparently it was an unrevised first draft, written by hand, that he was working on when he died; it was found in his bag, sitting in the car that he crashed in. It is the best thing he ever wrote, and if he got a chance to finish it I think it would have been one of the world’s great novels. At the moment, all that is even close to finished is the sections about his childhood in Algeria (almost completely autobiographical, apparently) but it is still some of the most beautiful and warm-hearted writing I have ever read, and the fact that such finished passages spooled onto the paper with barely any edits makes me convinced that there is such a thing as genius and inspiration.

There is no real plot, yet. It is just the story of a poor, gifted kid growing up in Algeria. His father died when he was still an infant and he is raised along with his brother by his half-deaf mother, his handicapped uncle, and his grandmother. Everyone in the family besides the two boys is illiterate, and it is a hard life that is still filled with joy. When you look at the notes, it is clear that the book is as motivated by ideas as Camus’s other novels – what it is like to grow up without a past, the psychological impact of poverty – but here the ideas are wearing flesh and blood; they come out of the material instead of the other way around. There are also some sections that have no thematic importance at all, that are just there to communicate the pleasure of being a child and playing with friends.

I love reading but I am very rarely moved by novels anymore, and I was by this one – on its own merits and also, although this is purely secondary, because of how Camus died. There is something unbearably sad about an artist dying precisely at the moment that he finds his true voice, his greatest voice. It is the same feeling I get when listening to Sam Cooke’s last records. I remember laughing when I came across a note that Camus had added to the end of an ordinary sentence; it said, for no reason that I could make out, “Exoticism pea soup.” And it seemed so strange and sad that no will ever know what he was thinking when he wrote that to himself.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Huckleberry Finn

After a decade or so, I picked up Huckleberry Finn again. I’m not sure if I was a slow child, but I don’t remember getting very much out of it in high school. I really wonder whether there is any point in giving children great books. Maybe we should just let them read whatever they want. Almost everything assigned was wasted on me, from Don Quixote to Donne’s poetry. I only noticed what I missed years later, reading on my own.

In this case, I bow to the consensus. This book is as beautiful as anything in English literature. When I re-read Gatsby, I started wondering whether the other American classics lived up to their reputations, but no revaluation is necessary here. Moby Dick is as great as people say; so is Leaves of Grass, so is Huckleberry Finn. They are wild, cobbled-together messes, but they are the genuine article. All books of travel, all with immense, swirling casts of characters, all somehow centerless, tied to no single place or community. America!

Well, I’m not sure what has happened to my country. We still produce the big wild books, but the vitality is somehow gone. The vitality is gone in more and more places every day. In Twain and Melville’s picaresques, I get a sense of immense freedom and space — in Pynchon and Barth, the capers seem frantic and somehow childish, a terror of boredom instead of a joy at possibilities.

Let me type a passage out for you. Read it and remember that there was a time when America held out a promise of freedom that was like nothing that had ever been offered before. There were slaves then and there are detainees now, but when I read certain books that this country has produced, I refuse to believe that this promise was ever entirely a lie. Maybe it will contain some truth again one of these days. Anyway, I have built it up too much, but here it is — Huck pushes off in his canoe at night, because his father is looking for him:
I didn’t lose no time. The next time I was a-spinning down stream soft but quick in the shade of the bank. I made two mile and a half, and then struck out a quarter of a mile or more towards the middle of the river, because pretty soon I would be passing the ferry landing and people might see me and hail me. I got amongst the driftwood and then laid down in the bottom of the canoe and let her float. I laid there and had a good rest and a smoke out of my pipe, looking away into the sky, not a cloud in it. The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before. And how far a body can hear on the water such nights! I heard people talking on the ferry landing. I heard what they said, too, every word of it. One man said it was getting towards the long days and the short nights, now. ‘Tother one said this warn’t one of the short ones, he reckoned – and then they laughed, and he said it over again and they laughed again; then they waked up another fellow and told him, and laughed, but he didn’t laugh; he ripped out something brisk and said let him alone. The first fellow said he ‘lowed to tell it to his old woman – she would think it was pretty good; but he said that warn’t nothing to some things he had said in his time. I heard one man say it was nearly three o’clock, and he hoped daylight wouldn’t wait more than a week longer. After that, the talk got further and further away, and I couldn’t make out the words any more, but I could hear the mumble; and now and then a laugh, too, but it seemed a long ways off.

How lovely is that? Anyone but a genius trying to create this effect would have describing the rocking of the boat, or the stars, or the rush of the water; Twain does it entirely with a pointless, beautiful conversation. The book is so much better than Twain’s others because here, for once, he has no fear of stillness. Until the end, that is. Then he returns to caper mode. And I must say, I dreaded getting to it and hated it as much as I was afraid I would. What an utterly awful close to a great book.

The ending has been defended by some very smart men, including T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lionel Trilling (anytime people agree that something is either very bad or very good, a critic somewhere is writing an essay). I can see their points (sort of) and still think that nothing will ever convince me to like that ending. Hemingway told people that they should stop reading when Jim is recaptured, because "This is the real end. The rest is cheating."

I agree, but I have a small modification. Like Hemingway, people usually say that the book’s inspiration flags when Tom Sawyer appears. This is not true; the decline actually begins earlier, and I can pinpoint the exact spot. After the Duke and the Dauphin run the Royal Nonesuch, and Jim has his wonderful line ("But, Huck, dese kings o’ ourn is regular rapscallions; dat’s just what dey is; dey’s reglar rapscallions") it is obvious that they should be jettisoned from the novel. They are minor, comic characters and their performance is over.

Instead, they take center stage for an immense caper. The Twain restlessness, that dread of stillness, comes back and continues from here until the end. The episode is hilarious, but it is the sort of thing that one can only read once — it is not, like what has come before, art. Tom’s adventures, his pointless manhandling of Jim, are just continuations of this trend and contain roughly the same amount of inspiration; they only feel worse because they affect a character that we care about, whereas the Duke-Dauphin escapade is entirely irrelevant.

I noticed something else recently, too. All of the books I’ve mentioned, all of these American classics — every single one is told in first person. Why is this? The American canon is dominated by first person narratives like no other national literature. I could make some lame guesses, but I have no real theory. It seems interesting, though.