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A Stranger in the Americas : AMERICAN JOURNALS by Albert Camus; translated by Hugh Levick (Paragon House: $15.95; 160 pp.)

September 20, 1987|Helen Vivienne Wenzel | Wenzel has taught French literature at Yale University. and

If you went to college in the 1960s, chances that you didn't read and weren't enthralled by either "The Stranger" (1942), or "The Plague" (1947), both written by the internationally renowned French existentialist Albert Camus, are slim. With the publication of these newly translated "American Journals," an avid follower has intimate access to the innermost feelings and reactions Camus experienced on two separate voyages in North and South America between 1946 and 1949.

In the first notebook, "The United States," we are privy to Camus' overwhelmingly mixed reactions to the high culture and extravagances in New York City in 1946, just as Europe is emerging from World War II. In his search for more interesting types, he is rewarded when he goes roller-skating, when he eats in Chinatown, and when he spends an "astonishing night" on New York's Bowery, to Camus' mind America's most "European" milieu. South America obviously held much more fascination for Camus, as does the second notebook of the same title. Here, the people and streets of Rio and Sao Paulo, the beaches of Recife, the port at Bahia, and especially the different cultural and religious ceremonies Camus attends, are avidly swallowed up, digested, and worked over by the foreign traveler.

What binds these two very different adventures together is the voracious eye and appetite of Camus, the writer, who attempts to write a little each day, to record the sites before him, and to make sense of his own life and the lives of these very different cultures. Certain constant themes re-emerge--Camus' well-documented fascination with the sea, which he has ample time to contemplate on both ocean crossings, and his equally morbid preoccupation with death, which he extrapolates from the rites and rituals of these newly discovered lands. He reworks certain descriptions in the notebooks, pieces of which will show up his fiction.

Unless one is already familiar with him, these notebooks read alone won't reveal much about Camus. One would be well-advised to read the fiction cited above, or his essays on summer ("L'Ete," 1954). After which, these "American Journals" serve very well to flesh out this most compelling of the existential novelists.

(This year seems to have produced a bumper crop of works in translation by and about three of the most celebrated and controversial French existentialists. It would almost seem that the recent biographies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were waiting for this new translation of Camus' "American Journals." With it, Camus, who died in an auto accident in 1960, rejoins Sartre, dead in 1980, and De Beauvoir, who died in 1986, comrades and colleagues from whom he became politically and personally estranged in 1952.)

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