What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, April 13, 2012

April 9, 2012 Issue

Over the years, The New Yorker has run a number of excellent critical pieces on Albert Camus, including A. J. Liebling’s “The Camus Notebooks” (February 8, 1964), John Updike’s “In Praise of the Blind, Black God” (October 21, 1972), and V. S. Pritchett’s “Albert Camus” (December 20, 1982). Now, Adam Gopnik’s “Facing History,” in this week’s issue, joins the distinguished list. It’s interesting to compare them. Liebling’s review is the most admiring (“He was not only a great writer but a great man, almost before he ceased being a boy”). Updike’s is the most analytical and, to me, the most interesting [“Technically, the third-person method of A Happy Death, frequently an awkward vehicle for alter egos (see the sensitive young man light his cigarette; now let’s eavesdrop on his thoughts), becomes the hypnotic, unabashed first-person voice of The Stranger”]. Pritchett’s piece is the most biting (“He was entangled in the fierce and barren quarrels about political and moral commitment during and after the Second World War, and allowed himself to appear as a hero of the Resistance from the beginning, though in fact he did not join it until eight months before the liberation”). Gopnik’s “Facing History” is the most normalizing (“Responsibility, care, gradualness, humanity – even at a time of jubilation, these are the typical words of Camus”). Gopnik says, “His watchwords were anxiety and responsibility.” Contrast this with Pritchett’s quotation from Patrick McCarthy’s biography Camus: “‘Anonymity’ and ‘amputation’ remain, McCarthy writes, ‘the watchwords of Camus’ art.’” For Updike, Camus’s watchwords were “Love, despair, silence, mother, nature.” I agree with Updike. The silence he refers to links with what Camus described as his “profound indifference.” Both Updike and Pritchett concentrate on Camus's indifference. Curiously, it appears to escape Gopnik’s notice.

Gopnik’s description of Camus as “the Don Draper of existentialism,” contrasts with Pritchett’s observation: “His famous novel L’Étranger (The Outsider) seemed to put the bleak halo of existentialism above his head, although, as he said and Sartre feelingly agreed, he was no existentialist.”

Gopnik appears to downplay Camus’s tuberculosis. He refers to it as merely “a bout of tuberculosis” (“he was a strong swimmer and, until a bout of tuberculosis sidelined him, an even finer football player”). However, Pritchett, in his piece, assigns Camus’s illness major significance. He says, “The tuberculosis seems to have been responsible for his euphoric excesses, his sexual promiscuity, his gallows humour, and his obsession with death.” He further comments: “At the age of sixteen, he had become tubercular. The disease never left him; it is at the heart of his ‘indifference,’ and the almost too vivid sense of the instants of hope.”

I crave stylistic analysis. Unfortunately, except for a brief description of the tone of Camus’s Combat editorials (“He struck a tone not of Voltarean Parisian rancor but of melancholic loft”), Gopnik provides very little of it. He seems much more interested in Camus’s ideas than he is in the way Camus expresses those ideas. But, as Gopnik himself points out, many of the principles that Camus believed in (e.g., liberty, equality, fraternity) weren’t new. It’s Camus’s unique way of expressing them that was new. That’s what I respond to when I read him, and want to understand. What I’m saying isn’t new either. It’s a variation on Alexander Pope’s clear-eyed remark, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” For example, consider this line from Camus’s beautiful “Summer in Algiers” (1936):

And when, having suddenly interrupted the cadenced beat of the double paddle’s bright colored wings, we glide slowly in the calm water of the inner harbor, how can I fail to feel that I am piloting through the smooth waters a savage cargo of gods in whom I recognize my brothers?”

This is an expression of fraternity with his “brothers,” the Algierian youth, many of them Arab, with whom he grew up. All his life, he felt near them. But what delights me about this sentence is its surprising combination of "cadenced beat," "bright colored wings" and "savage cargo of gods." How did Camus conceive it? Liebling, in his excellent “The Camus Notebooks,” offers a clue. He points out that the spoken language of Camus’s people in Algiers “took over not only words but constructions from Italian and Spanish and, most of all, the colloquial Arabic of North Africa. Liebling says:

Camus savored and cherished this language; “Carnets” is full of examples affectionately jotted down, so the book has almost a bilingual flavor – lost, naturally, when it is turned into English. Camus had from the first – in addition to a remarkably pure, poetic French style, learned at school and from reading – a command of this street language of Algiers, learned in the street. That gave him an arresting change of pace.

I find this fascinating. That Camus's style is at least partially sourced in Algierian street language is a point well worth developing. Perhaps there's a study already in existence. If so, I would appreciate knowing about it.

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