Albert Camus hated travelling. ‘Fear is the price of travel,’ he wrote in his journal of an unhappy trip through Central Europe in the summer of 1935, where he found himself gripped by ‘an instinctive desire to regain the shelter of old habits’. For Camus, who had tuberculosis, travel abroad raised the prospect not only of psychic unease but of illness: ‘We are feverish but porous. The slightest shock shakes us to the depths of our being … There is no pleasure in travelling … Pleasure takes us away from ourselves … The journey, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back again.’
This was certainly true of the trips Camus made to North and South America in 1946 and 1949. In the diaries he kept – collected in an elegant new translation by Ryan Bloom – Camus seems unusually vulnerable, as if he’d forgotten to strike one of his customary poses. (Camus had acted in the theatre in Algiers and was no stranger to vanity.) His admirers will look in vain for the Resistance hero and romantic rebel in a trenchcoat, or the philosopher of absurdity and opponent of totalitarianism, or the anguished pied noir, torn between his anti-colonial convictions and his fierce attachment to France. Aside from the occasional aphorism in progress (‘the idea of messianism is at the root of all fanaticism’), there’s little trace of the moralist who, as Sartre remarked, always carried ‘a portable pedestal’ with him. Instead, we find a grouchy author on tour, bedevilled by ‘fevers’ (as he referred to his condition), oppressed by the demands of fans and sycophants, and faced with a New World which seems to him somehow menacing.
The absence of philosophical preening is a relief. Although novels of ideas such as L’Étranger and La Peste brought Camus international renown, their success led him, and others, to misjudge his gifts. Ideas – his ticket to Left Bank intellectual circles – were never really his strong suit. He was a Mediterranean writer whose flair lay in his rapturous, often elegiac descriptions of place and climate: Algerian cities and Roman ruins, desert, sky, sun and, above all, the sea, the ‘call of life and an invitation to death’. As Susan Sontag wrote in a 1963 essay, he ‘is at his best when he disburdens himself of the baggage of existential culture … and speaks in his own person’. In Travels in the Americas, he does so with unusual intimacy.
Camus made his first and only trip to the United States in March 1946, to mark the publication in English of L’Étranger. At 33, he was nearly as well known as his friend Sartre, who had visited New York a year earlier. (That his name always appeared after Sartre’s in discussions of existentialism grated on him, and helps to explain why he was so keen to disavow his ties to the movement.) He was an editor at Gallimard and the leader writer for Combat, the newspaper of the Resistance, which he’d joined in 1944 under the nom de guerre Albert Mathé. With his heroic wartime record, good looks (Camus relished being compared to Bogart) and exotic North African origins, he attracted no little attention from women, and he often reciprocated.
Gallimard had given him a sabbatical so that he could finish La Peste, his allegorical novel about a plague in the Algerian coastal city of Oran, but it wasn’t going well and Camus was struggling, as he often did, with punishing self-doubt. His wife, Francine Faure, who had spent the war in Algiers, had rejoined him in Paris and given birth to twins, but their reunion had cost him his greatest love, the Spanish actress María Casares. He and Casares, the daughter of left-wing Spanish exiles, had been inseparable since they’d met in March 1944 at a reading of Picasso’s play Le Désir attrapé par la queue, at the home of Michel Leiris.
He was also mourning the clarities of the Resistance. France had been liberated from Nazi Germany, but there were ferocious arguments among former comrades over the purges of collaborators (which Camus supported) and the execution of fascist sympathisers such as the writer Robert Brasillach (which he opposed). With the start of the Cold War, the always precarious alliance between the communist and non-communist left was beginning to crumble. Camus was fretting, too, about his native Algeria, ‘pacified’ by the army after a nationalist uprising in the eastern cities of Sétif and Guelma, at the cost of thousands of Algerian lives.
Camus had been a communist in Algiers as a young man, but turned against it in 1939, when he wrote that the Soviet Union ‘can be classed among the countries that prey on others’. Nonetheless, he fell under the suspicion of the State Department months before his arrival in New York for ‘filing inaccurate reports which are unfavourable to the public interests of this country’. In his visa application, Camus falsely stated that he’d never been a communist, but he was already under FBI scrutiny, and when he arrived in New York in March 1946 on the SS Oregon, he was detained by immigration officials acting on the orders of J. Edgar Hoover. Released shortly after, he was whisked to the offices of his host, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French embassy’s cultural attaché. The FBI continued to monitor him throughout his three-month stay.
‘I hate travelling and explorers’ was the famous opening line of Lévi-Strauss’s memoir Tristes Tropiques, but aside from this, he and Camus had little in common. Lévi-Strauss found Camus insufferably pious (‘conformist in his left-wing virtues’), while Camus dismissed Lévi-Strauss as a smug academic, unconvincingly disguised as a diplomat. When Lévi-Strauss organised a press conference for him with a group of American journalists, Camus made no effort to ingratiate himself. American literary techniques, he warned, threatened the future of the novel. He neglected to mention that he had availed himself of some of those techniques in L’Étranger, whose deadpan style owed much to James Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. Coming from a country where rationing was still in effect, he was unnerved by America’s enormous wealth, but even more unnerved by what struck him as its blissful amnesia: ‘This great country, calm and slow,’ he wrote in his journal. ‘You get the feeling it’s completely unaware of the war.’
In fact, New York’s intellectual community was very much aware of the war, and keen to hear from one of its most influential witnesses. On 28 March, a week before Knopf published L’Étranger under the title The Stranger, more than 1500 people turned out for Camus’s lecture at Columbia University. In the audience were the Resistance leaders Vercors (Jean Bruller) and Thimerais (Léon Motchane), anti-fascist exiles including the publisher Jacques Schiffrin and the writer Nicola Chiaromonte, and US army veterans brandishing copies of Combat that they’d picked up in France. The title of his talk – later published in Vogue – was ‘The Crisis of Man’. Camus had been asked to speak about the current state of French literature and philosophy, but said that it would be more interesting to discuss the struggles of French railway workers and miners. In the end he chose to reflect on the experiences of his generation, French citizens in their thirties ‘whose intelligence and hearts were formed during the terrible years when, along with their country, they fed off shame and lived off rebellion’. Confronted by an ‘absurd world’, and by the ‘monstrous hypocrisy’ of their elders, they had embraced an ‘ethics of freedom and sincerity’, and ‘said no’ to ‘the world of murder’. He recounted gruesome stories of torture, one involving a Gestapo interrogator who had made a show of his compassion for a man – a friend of Camus’s – whose ears he had just mutilated. ‘The man who is capable of showing friendly concern for ears he has previously torn,’ Camus said, ‘is a mathematician whom nothing can stop or persuade.’ Hitler was dead, he concluded, but ‘the poison has not disappeared’, and ‘white civilisation … is as responsible for its perversions as for its successes.’
Camus used his North American tour to audition ideas he would later develop in L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), a critique of revolutionary violence published in 1951. Speaking at Brooklyn College a month after his lecture at Columbia, he declared that ‘there is a crisis because there is terror.’ And terror existed, he said, because people in the West had surrendered either to fascist nihilism or to Marxism’s ideology of historical determinism. Fascists and communists, who trafficked in ‘abstraction’ and therefore in terror, had successfully claimed the mantle of ‘realism’, whereas ‘what we want, precisely, is never again to justify force, never again to bow down before the power of arms or money.’
Camus’s reports on the Old World were majestically sombre, but their grimness was offset by a stoic idealism, and New York’s journalists found him irresistible. (Sometimes literally: Eleanor Norman of the New York Post sent him flowers and tried to seduce him.) He sat for a portrait by Cecil Beaton, in which he looked upwards, his face illuminated as if he were an angel. Five days after his arrival, A.J. Liebling interviewed him at his hotel on West 70th. In his profile for the New Yorker, Liebling suggested that Camus’s idea for a ‘critical newspaper’, correcting the ‘probable element of trash’ in other publications, ‘would take a lot of the fun out of newspapering’. But he was charmed by Camus, and surprised at how ‘cheerful’ he seemed for a man who in The Myth of Sisyphus had written so frankly about the temptation of suicide. ‘Just because you have pessimistic thoughts,’ Camus replied, ‘you don’t have to act pessimistic … One has to pass the time somehow. Look at Don Juan.’
A few days before the New Yorker profile appeared, he met Patricia Blake, a 20-year-old intern at Vogue. He didn’t think much of her passion for Proust, and even less of her interest in Marx and Lenin. Yet they began a relationship, and she took care of him as he fought off frequent and ghastly episodes of tuberculosis. Travels in the Americas has no shortage of descriptions – invariably physical, often rather catty – of the women Camus encountered: the ‘elegant Parisienne’ who can’t stop crying because she’s left her twin sister back home, the ‘long, brunette girl’ who ‘says whatever pops into her head’. Oddly, Blake is never mentioned.
A month into his stay, Camus took her on a trip to the Adirondacks and New England, but the landscape left him unmoved. ‘New England and Maine. Lands of lakes and red houses. Montreal and the two hills. A Sunday. Boredom. Boredom. The only amusing thing: the trams that look, in their shape and gilding, like carnival rides.’ It wasn’t until he visited Quebec, with its ‘spectacular landscape’, that he had a ‘real impression of beauty and true greatness … It seems I should have something to say about Quebec, about its past, about men coming here to struggle in solitude, driven by a force greater than themselves.’ That force, unnamed by Camus, was French settler colonialism, the same force that had attracted his ancestors to Algeria in the 1840s.
You’d never know, reading Camus’s diaries, that New York in 1946 was the centre of bebop and Abstract Expressionism. As Anatole Broyard wrote in a memoir, Greenwich Village ‘was as close in 1946 as it would ever come to Paris in the 1920s’. The intellectual and creative ferment of the Village and Harlem seems to have been almost entirely lost on Camus. He gravitated instead to the working-class, immigrant neighbourhoods of the Lower East Side, perhaps because they reminded him of the Old World. He was touched by the spectacle of Romanians dancing in the Bowery, looking as if they’d been ‘transported to the edge of an exalted land’. Wandering through Chinatown, where he saw a Chinese opera and ate Chinese food with Chiaromonte and Lionel Abel, he was thrilled to find ‘real life … teeming and steady, just as I like it’.
In her introduction to Travels in the Americas, Alice Kaplan writes that, thanks to the dispatches of Sartre and other French writers, Camus ‘was prepared for the postwar spectacle of American racism’. He had also read Richard Wright, whose work he arranged to be translated by Gallimard. Yet in his North American diaries he has little to say about the ‘Negro Question’, other than that a Martinican employee of the French embassy, forced to rent in Harlem, had only just discovered that ‘he wasn’t of the same race’ as his French colleagues. Camus then adds, hopefully: ‘An observation to the contrary: an average American sitting in front of me on the bus stood to give his seat to an older Negro lady.’ After attending a concert by a Black nightclub pianist called Maurice Rocco, he registers his ‘impression that only Negroes give life, passion and nostalgia to this country that they colonise in their own way’.
Colonise in their own way. The phrase leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and it’s not helped by the praise of life-giving Blacks that precedes it. ‘In their own way’ suggests the reverse colonisation that would later be evoked by theorists of the Great Replacement, such as Renaud Camus (no relation). Camus’s relationship to race combined openness and personal integrity, on the one hand, and an unthinking racism and existential fear typical of European Algerians, on the other. In 1939, he published a scathing series of articles exposing poverty and malnutrition among the Berbers of Kabylia. One of the few Europeans to denounce the massacres in Sétif and Guelma, Camus was friendly with militants in the nationalist Algerian People’s Party. Algerian writers such as Mouloud Feraoun and Jean Amrouche considered him an ally, unusually free of ethnocentrism, and reliably opposed to colonial injustice. Yet Camus, who grew up in poverty in a working-class quarter of Algiers, was also acutely aware of being a member of the European minority in Algeria, loath to admit that he was the beneficiary of colonial privilege, and wedded to the idea of Algérie française, in some form. The depth of his opposition to colonial rule had yet to be tested – another eight years would pass before the FLN launched its armed struggle – but in the journals it’s hard to miss the intensity of Camus’s race consciousness, or his longing for silver linings. He would continue to place inordinate hope in symbolic acts of recognition, as if racism were a misunderstanding that could be overcome by gestures of good will.
What Camus found most objectionable on his visit to New York was the vulgarity of its culture and built environment. ‘A hideous, inhuman city’, a ‘desert of iron and cement’, was his first impression of Manhattan, and it didn’t evolve much. Everyone he saw looked like a character in a ‘low-budget film set’. ‘So much bad taste seems hardly imaginable,’ he remarked after visiting a tie shop. He was bewildered by the ‘circus of bright lights’ in the streets, the ‘screaming mechanical phonograph’ at a bistro downtown, the skyscrapers that resembled ‘stone monsters’. One night Camus’s friend Jacques Schoeller, a French journalist with a taste for New York nightlife, took him roller-skating (spelled ‘rolley skating’ in the diaries) on West 52nd Street. Surrounded by sailors and young women in jumpsuits inside ‘a huge velodrome covered in red velvet and dust’, he felt assaulted by an ‘infernal racket of metal wheels and pipe organs’.
Camus appears to have succumbed to a malaise that Sartre described as ‘a New York sickness, akin to sea sickness, air sickness or altitude sickness’. As Sartre pointed out, European visitors who made the mistake of ‘looking for a European city’ all too often found themselves lost amid the ‘red and green lights and obscure buildings’, ‘the numerical anonymity of streets and avenues’. Camus suffered from an especially severe case of New York sickness. Looking out on the city from the top of the Plaza Hotel at night, he imagined a ‘gigantic blaze burning itself out, leaving thousands of immense, black carcasses along the horizon’. Riding in a taxi in a rainstorm, he felt ‘trapped in this city’, terrified that he could ‘run for hours without finding anything other than new cement prisons, without the hope of a hill, a real tree, or a face overcome with emotion’. The only faces he describes are the ‘rosy cheeks and glittering smiles’ of the women in Salvation Army advertisements, garish symbols of the American cult of happiness. In a country ‘where everything is put towards proving life isn’t tragic’, he writes, Americans ‘feel as if something is missing. This great effort is moving, but we have to reject the tragic after having looked it in the face, not before.’
The question is how many people Camus spoke to – much less looked in the face – during his time on the East Coast. Aside from Patricia Blake, his companions seem to have been mostly European exiles like Chiaromonte and Schiffrin. For all his praise of the ‘hospitality and cordiality’ of Americans, Camus at one point declares that ‘my curiosity about this country has suddenly ended’ – a lack of interest in other people that, he admits, his wife ‘reproaches me for’. In his essay ‘The Rains of New York’, which borrows extensively from his diaries, Camus confessed that he knew ‘nothing about New York, whether one moves about among madmen here or among the most reasonable people in the world’. If New York had left an imprint on him, it had also mystified him, ‘like certain women, who annoy you, overwhelm you, and lay bare your soul’.
On 10 June, Camus boarded the Fort-Royal, after sending a care package to his wife containing eighty pounds of coffee, flour, rice, baby food, sugar, canned meat and soap. He passed the time composing odes to the ‘peaceful immensity’ of the sea, later reworked into his 1953 essay ‘The Sea Close By’, and watching a love affair develop between ‘two young and beautiful people’ who reminded him of the ‘tumultuous desire’ he’d felt in his twenties. On 24 June, the day after he arrived back in Paris, he wrote to Blake that all his sunbathing had left him with ‘a face like a Negro’s’. He remembered a walk they’d taken on 8th Avenue: ‘the red sky above the ugly houses, the enormous indifferent crowd, and your face turned towards mine to remind me that beauty was stronger than an entire city’. But her beauty was not enough to tempt him back. In August, he went to the Vendée to complete La Peste, which he’d begun five years earlier.
Published in 1947, La Peste was an even greater success than L’Étranger. But Camus’s circle was coming apart. Although he remained in contact with communist friends he’d made in the Resistance, he was alarmed by the Stalinist ‘people’s democracies’ of Eastern Europe – and by the failure of some of his erstwhile comrades, including Sartre and Beauvoir, to condemn them. At a gathering of left-wing intellectuals in Paris in December 1948, he declared: ‘It is better to be wrong by killing no one rather than to be right with mass graves.’ He immersed himself in Gandhi’s theory of non-violence, but decided that he lacked the ‘grandeur’ to be a Gandhian. He took up strange causes, such as the case of Garry Davis, an American former war pilot who tore up his US passport at the Palais de Chaillot, the UN’s temporary headquarters in Paris, and proclaimed himself a ‘world citizen’.
Camus’s break with Sartre and Beauvoir wouldn’t become official until the publication of L’Homme révolté, but he was already coming under attack on the left as an anti-communist renegade, even as he was denounced by the right for refusing to embrace the capitalist West. When he told Roger Seydoux, the director of cultural relations at the Foreign Ministry, of his desire to escape the demoralising state of affairs on the Left Bank, Seydoux proposed another trip: a lecture tour in South America. Camus welcomed the idea, but not without reservations. Brazil, Argentina and Chile all had repressive anti-communist governments that had driven the left-wing opposition into prison, hiding or exile; on the eve of his departure, the authorities in Buenos Aires banned a production of his play Le Malentendu as a work of atheistic subversion. Camus, already plagued by thoughts of suicide, experienced unsettling premonitions; according to his biographer Olivier Todd, he felt that ‘evil was floating in the air.’
An aura of disquiet, both political and psychological, runs through the South America diaries. But so does a sense of engagement and connection. They’re more personal, richer in detail and concrete observation than the notes from the United States, and less quick to offer ponderous, oracular pronouncements. In the hot, semi-feudal, underdeveloped countries of South America, Camus, a man from the colonies, felt more at home. Although his Spanish was no better than his English, the sound of it felt pleasingly familiar to him. He had recently discovered that his maternal grandmother had been born in a village on Menorca, and he was writing a play set in Spain. His attachment to Hispanic culture, and to the cause of democracy in Spain, had also been rekindled by the renewal of his relationship with Casares. They had met by chance in June 1948, on the boulevard Saint-Germain, and would remain together until his death. (Francine Camus was distraught about the relationship but resigned herself to it after her sister told her that she couldn’t expect her husband to ‘fight against tuberculosis and his passions’.) Camus wrote to Casares twice a day, and desperately awaited her replies. He doesn’t mention her by name in the diaries, but she’s a spectral presence: the cause of his mounting anxiety, the inspiration behind his diligent note-taking. As he told her, everything he wrote in his journals was ‘for you, directed to you and coloured by you’.
Camus left from Marseille on 30 June 1949, in a first-class cabin on La Campana. ‘Twice, the thought of suicide. The second time, still gazing at the sea, a frightful burning rises in my temples. Now I think I understand how a person kills himself.’ A few days later, his mood had improved: ‘Tanned, rested, with a full stomach and dressed in light-coloured clothes, I have all the air of life in me. I could please someone, it seems – but whom?’ On 6 July, the boat docked in Dakar. One evening, observing a group of ‘tall black men admirable in dignity and elegance in their long white boubous, black women in traditional, brightly coloured dresses, the scent of peanuts and dung, dust and heat’, Camus found himself intoxicated by ‘the scent of my Africa, the scent of poverty and dereliction, a virgin yet strong scent whose seduction I know’.
By ‘my Africa’, a phrase at once evocative of home and colonial possession, he meant Algeria. In Brazil, Camus would often reach for Algerian analogies. The shops without storefronts in Madureira, a working-class neighbourhood of Rio, strike him as having an ‘Arab feel’. When he sees a group of women loading ‘their provisions into scrap metal containers that they carry on their heads’, he’s reminded of Kabyle women. In the majority-Black, north-eastern state of Bahia, he feels as if he’s entered ‘an immense and bustling casbah’, while São Paulo resembles ‘an outsized Oran’. Of the colonial town of Iguape, south of São Paulo, he writes: ‘You breathe a very particular melancholy there, the melancholy of the far ends of the world.’ It’s hard not to be reminded of Janine, the heroine of Camus’s story ‘The Adulterous Woman’, who, observing a group of North African nomads, ‘free lords of a strange kingdom’, is beset by ‘such a sweet, vast melancholy that it closed her eyes’. But unlike Janine, Camus fails to merge with his surroundings. In North America, he looked for Europe and failed to find it; in South America, he looked for Algeria, and although he didn’t exactly find it, he discovered something both familiar and strange: a version of the chasm between self and environment that he defined as ‘the absurd’.
In the speech he gave in Rio and other South American cities, ‘The Time of the Murderers’, Camus reprised the themes, and some of the language, of ‘The Crisis of Man’. He evoked the bureaucratised horror of the concentration camps, where death was reduced to ‘a matter of statistics and administration’, and bemoaned the rise to power, in postwar governments, of ‘executioners’ – former collaborationists and Stalinists – who have ‘replaced the axe with the rubber stamp’. A speech full of noble sentiments, ‘The Time of the Murderers’ has aged less well than Camus’s thickly described accounts of South American life – and, not least, of his own reactions. Camus styled himself as a combatant in the war for freedom in the West. But his writing is often more interesting today as a symptom of the crisis of the West in an age of decolonisation.
Camus’s stay in Brazil began with an ‘ordeal’: a meeting with an overbearing, obsequious local writer. ‘Huge, indolent, squinty-eyed, mouth hanging open’, the poet and publisher Augusto Frederico Schmidt ‘talks about Bernanos, Mauriac, Brisson, Halévy’ and complains that in Brazil ‘they honour all of France’s enemies, but not him.’ At a restaurant ‘so brutally lit with neon we look like pale fish gliding through irreal waters,’ Schmidt exhausts him with praise – his visit is ‘the most important thing that’s happened here for a long time’ – and begs for his patience. (‘Patience, well, that’s what Brazil requires,’ Camus thinks.) Directing Camus’s attention to a small, slender man in a fedora, who is ‘carrying a revolver in a beautiful holster’, he announces: ‘I’ll show you a character for one of your novels … Now this is a man. A minister of the interior. But a man.’ The minister, he says, has ‘killed some forty men’, in one case using the body of his victim as a shield while shooting another. ‘Is he not the perfect character for you?’ he asks Camus. ‘“Yes,”’ I say. But he’s wrong – he’s the one who’s the character.’
Camus met many other writers in Brazil, among them the cultural critic Oswald de Andrade, author of the ‘Manifesto Antropófago’, which celebrated the cultural ‘cannibalism’ practised by Brazilians as an act of emancipation from repressive European traditions. Andrade came to hear Camus speak, and told him afterwards that in a model penitentiary, prisoners would kill themselves by ‘smashing their heads against the walls or by closing a drawer on their throat until they suffocate’. But Camus seems to have been less interested in debating ideas, or in wrestling with the ‘crisis of man’, than in soaking up South American life, especially the religious ceremonies and rituals of Afro-Brazilians. (He also endeared himself to his hosts by asking to be taken to football matches.)
Among his guides was Abdias do Nascimento, a Black actor and director who was staging Camus’s play Caligula with the Teatro Experimental do Negro. On 16 July, Nascimento took him to Caxias, outside Rio, for a macumba ceremony. They arrived in the fog, late at night, and were greeted by a young man of mixed race who offered Camus a bottle of aguardiente and cheekily asked him if he’d come with Tarrou, one of the heroes in La Peste. When they reached the ceremony, held in a hut with a clay floor, they found a group of forty dancers, tightly packed together yet scarcely breaking a sweat, in a ‘calm trance: hands on their lower back, standing straight, eyes blank and staring’. The young Black women, it seemed to Camus, ‘enter the deepest trances, their feet glued to the ground, their entire body twitching with convulsions that grow more and more violent as they rise towards the shoulders. Their heads jerked back and forth, completely decapitated. Everyone whoops and screams.’ At two o’clock in the morning, Camus writes, ‘I stagger outside, delighted to finally be breathing fresh air. I like the night and sky more than the gods of man.’
He was seized by similar feelings of fascination and estrangement at a working-class dance hall: ‘Surprised by how slow they dance, with a sloshy sort of rhythm. But then I consider the climate. The manic dancers in Harlem would be duller here, too.’ He finds himself having to ‘fight a sort of reverse prejudice. I like Black people a priori and I’m tempted to find qualities in them that they don’t have. 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 and dyspeptic employees.’ He tried to dance a samba with a woman, only to realise ‘I’m not into it. Taxi. I returned to the room.’
What seems to unsettle Camus even more than the visual banality of these ‘dyspeptic employees’ is the claim they have on the world’s future. On a drive through the mountains around Rio with the historian Lucien Febvre, he marvels at Brazil’s vastness. ‘The faster the plane flies, the less importance France, Spain and Italy hold. They were nations, are provinces, and tomorrow will be the world’s villages. The future’s not on our side, and there’s nothing we can do about this irresistible trend.’
Camus hoped that South America might find a way to mitigate the ‘mechanistic foolishness’ of European societies. But he was mostly appalled, and frightened, by what he saw. On 18 July, he writes of seeing a man hit by a bus while crossing the street, and ‘sent ten metres into the air, tossed like a tennis ball’. The bus flees the scene, and no one comes to help the victim. ‘Later, I learn a white sheet will be put over him, and it will grow soaked with blood, and candles will be lit around it, and the traffic will continue around him, bypassing him until the authorities arrive to reconstruct the scene.’ Overpopulated, brutal and pitiless, Brazil is portrayed as a place where ‘luxury and misery’ have never been ‘so insolently thrown together’. The street life prompts a Malthusian fever dream: ‘You can’t help but think of these ceaselessly increasing crowds that’ll end up covering the world’s surface and suffocating.’ Life in Brazil ‘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.’ With its ‘thin framework of modernity laid over this immense continent teeming with natural and primitive forces’, Brazil reminded him of ‘a building slowly chewed, bite by bite, by invisible termites. One day this 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.’
For all his anxieties, Camus was received with the warmest of welcomes, even in the most remote corners of the country. In Recife, at a Bumba meu-boi, a carnivalesque play featuring masked figures and totems, culminating in the killing of an ox, the performers broke into a chant: ‘Long live Mr Camus and the Holy King of the East!’ Camus, who went back to his room ‘dazed by the flu’, seems to have been guiltily aware of his ingratitude. ‘Haunted,’ he wrote on 2 August, ‘by the thought of the harm we do to others the moment we look at them. Causing suffering has long been a thing of indifference to me, I have to admit … Now, I can no longer bear it. In a way, it’s better to kill than to cause suffering.’ Then: ‘What finally seemed clear to me yesterday is that I wish to die.’
A few days later, Camus left São Paolo for Iguape, with Oswald de Andrade and the French cultural attaché, a 180-mile journey that took ten hours. Their bus broke down after thirty miles on the road, and they had to wait in the sun until a truck driver passed by with a monkey wrench. After an ‘interminable Brazilian meal’ at a local inn, they drove through thick forest along the Ribeira river, accompanied by the chatter of birds and cane toads. Arriving in Iguape at midnight, Camus was confronted by a ‘tall beanpole of a man’ who turned out to be a policeman, and who ordered him to show his identification papers. Iguape’s leaders were so furious at the policeman’s impertinence that they detained him, and asked Camus which charges he’d like to press. (He implored them to set the man free, but they were ‘determined to do me this honour’.)
In Iguape, Camus was impressed by the ‘exquisite politeness’ of his Brazilian hosts, ‘so much better than the Europeans’ boorishness’, but ‘the crowd lining the narrow street’ was unsettling: ‘really the strangest gathering you could find. Ages, races, clothing colour, classes, disabilities, all mixed together in a swaying and colourful mass.’ It was as far as possible from the clearly demarcated boundaries of French life – or the racial and religious hierarchies of colonial Algeria – and Camus’s sense of vertigo only intensified on the drive back: ‘I again gaze, for hours, at the monotonous nature and immense spaces … A country where the vegetation is so tangled as to become shapeless, where blood is mixed to the point that the soul has lost its limits.’ He took consolation in the fact that ‘the skyscraper hasn’t yet conquered the forest’s spirit’ – it could have been worse, it could have been New York – but by the time he arrived in Montevideo, on 9 August, he was ‘forced to admit to myself that, for the first time in my life, I’m in the midst of a psychological meltdown’.
Camus’s crisis had a more intimate cause: Casares hadn’t been in touch. ‘It’s been fourteen days since I heard from you,’ he wrote to her, ‘and I don’t know if you can imagine what that means to me. I want to believe with all my strength that my mail’s been held up in Rio for reasons I don’t understand, but I can’t help imagining, sometimes, that maybe you haven’t written to me, and then I sink into a state it would be better not to tell you about.’ The countries that Camus passed through after Brazil distracted him somewhat from Casares’s silence, though he was shadowed by political unrest, Cold War anxieties and his fevers. His host in Buenos Aires, Victoria Ocampo, the editor of Sur, an anti-Stalinist left-wing journal, played him Britten’s Rape of Lucretia and recordings of Baudelaire poems. But he was troubled by a visit from Ocampo’s friend Rafael Alberti Merello, an exiled Surrealist poet from Spain: ‘I know he’s a communist. I end up explaining my point of view to him. He agrees with me. But some slander will eventually come to separate me from this man who is and should remain a comrade. What’s to be done? We’re in the age of separation.’
On 14 August, at sunset, Camus flew to Chile: ‘Intense colours (marigolds the colour of rust), the blossoming plum and almond trees etched against a white background of snowy peaks – an admirable country.’ Two days later he ate dinner in a ‘flood of boredom’ at the French embassy in Santiago, only to wake up the next morning to violent protests, sparked by a rise in bus fares, and the declaration of a state of emergency.
On 19 August he passed through Montevideo again. He admired its palm trees, its ‘necklace of beaches’, and he was glad to meet the writer José Bergamín, ‘a refined man with the worn, deeply lined face of a Spanish intellectual’, who refused to choose between Catholicism and communism: ‘my kind of guy’. But by the time he returned to Rio a few days later, still with no news from Casares, he was exhausted: ‘dragging about with my flu, to different places with different people, 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’. He flew back in what he described as ‘a metal coffin, between a mad doctor and a diplomat, headed for Paris’.
Camus’s escape from the bile of Parisian intellectual life – and his isolation from Casares – left him afflicted with depression, eczema and insomnia, and fearful for his life. A doctor in Paris ordered him to rest for several months. According to Olivier Todd, Camus reflected on his grinding South American séjour during his recovery, and thought of something Herman Melville had written at the age of 35: ‘I have consented to annihilation.’ Yet Camus survived, and out of his Brazil experience emerged the story ‘The Growing Stone’, about a French engineer, D’Arrast, who travels to Iguape, where a drunken police chief hassles him about his papers. By the end of the story, D’Arrast is standing in the darkly lit home of a ‘mulatto’ cook he’s befriended, as the ‘murmur of the river’ fills him with ‘a tumultuous happiness’. It’s a glimpse, or a fantasy, of the reconciliation between Old and New Worlds, between European and non-European, that would for ever elude the story’s author.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.