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The Dry Heart of Modesty

ISSUE:  Autumn 1963

Notebooks: Volume I. By Albert Camus. Translated by Philip Thody. Alfred A. Knopf. $5.00.

Albert Camus began to keep his notebooks in 1935 when he was twenty-two years old. He continued until he died in 1900. The notes, written by hand in cheap copybooks, were not at first intended for publication; but in 1954 Camus gave the first seven notebooks to a typist, and then, with care, revised the typewritten copy. The first three of these revised notebooks were published in France last year, and have now been translated into English by Philip Thody. The remaining four, according to the French editors, will be published in France in two separate volumes during the course of the next few years, and thereafter will be available for Mr. Thody’s translation; but the literary trustees of the Camus estate are undecided at this point about the advisability of publishing the notebooks for the period 1954 to 1960, which Camus left unrevised at his death.

We are told that the revisions undertaken by Camus in preparing his cahiers for the press were chiefly deletions of personal references to his own feelings and experiences, and that in any case the original copybooks were remarkably free from such motifs. The copybooks never contained, for instance, any mention of his work as a journalist, of his political activities within or without the Communist Party, or of his family life. In other words, the notebooks served almost entirely as literary workbooks, which means that those who are interested in learning about the life of the writer will be disappointed: the notebooks have virtually no direct biographical value.

On the other hand, we are not told precisely what it was that Camus did delete. One hopes very earnestly that eventually we shall be able to see not only the unrevised notebooks of the last six years but all the notebooks in their original, unrevised state. The comparison of the unrevised and revised texts would be at least instructive, and possibly much more.

Meanwhile, we may legitimately guess the motives which led to the revisions. By 1954 Camus was an exceedingly successful author. In a corner of his study, let us say, was a little stack of seven notebooks. The question was, why not destroy them? The temptation must have been great; to preserve the personal enigma is almost every writer’s desire. But although he was not an academician, Camus was a scholar, a good one, and he knew and respected scholarly technique. He could not have been unaware of the value his literary workbooks would have for students and critics.

Could they be revised? Not rewritten, not polished—that would be dishonest; but edited so as to remove materials which applied solely to the man and not to the author? This, one imagines, is what Camus decided to do.

He was not only modest, you see, but systematically modest. The evidence is here, and also variously elsewhere. But what inferences one may prudently draw from it are still unknown.

At any rate, Camus succeeded marvelously in being his own editor. He did not cut too much. The man is in these pages as he is in all his pages, given wholly but impersonally, the craftsman fashioning his own life for our use and leaving the work unsigned. The notebook entries for the seven years given in this first volume are short, mostly a few lines or a paragraph, and generally speaking comprise three categories.

First, passages written out and then transferred, virtually unchanged, to one of the works in progress. Many such entries ended up in “La Mort Heureuse,” a first novel which Camus withheld from publication, and others are in “L’Etranger,” “Caligula,” “L’Envers et l’Endroit,” and other essays, stories, and plays from the early years. Mr. Thody claims to have tracked down all these entries to their final appearances, and to have given the proper cross-references in his notes. He hasn’t quite done that much, as a matter of fact; but his failure is not important, especially since his translation seems excellent. What is important is the proof these literary entries offer of an extraordinary ability to extemporize in prose of an assured, lean, classical purity. Camus could do this when he was twenty-two years old, and his talent merely sharpened as he grew older. Camus the stylist has been eclipsed, for some readers, by Camus the theorist or Camus the analyst, but these notebooks make the balance clear. Beyond this, one sees from the notebooks that the novels and essays were neither written nor plotted with the concentration of methodical effort which one might suppose from reading the finished works. Instead they grew by fragments, whole episodes emerging from a chance sentence struck off without premeditation. That these fragments ultimately fell together so exactly is another evidence, if any were needed, of the spontaneous synthetic power of the creative imagination.

Secondly, a good many entries are philosophical, psychological, political; in other words, thoughtful. Camus was a natural aphorist; he was wise enough not to attempt publicly a mode which had been so perfectly consumed by previous authors, especially in France, but one can see that the novels and essays are built from sentences and paragraphs which, in isolation, take on a distinct epigrammatic quality. In the notebooks these sentences and paragraphs stand alone, and readers who delight in books that provoke reflection&—writers, for instance, in search of ideas for poems and stories&— will find no one better than Camus for their purpose. Possibly someday an enterprising editor will abstract from these notebooks and the novels and essays sentences which may be collected and published separately. In general, of course, one despises this sort of literary jobbery, yet if any author can justify the attempt it is Camus.

Thirdly, many entries are brief notations of places seen, conversations overheard (often in the streetcars of Algiers), people and animals observed. Some of these are frankly sentimental—in his notebooks Camus gave way to the impulse, well regulated in his finished work, to idealize natural objects—but most are to the point. He gives us an imagination which is explicitly visual; even the essays are blocked out as pictures in a gallery. Scenes, or rather fragments of scenes, meant much to Camus.

Scholars will find less in these notebooks than they had hoped to find, but we knew all along that in his stories, novels, plays, and essays Camus is complete. In one entry he speaks of the “dry heart of the creator.” It is true; everything has been transferred to the page. The notebooks are scraps and leavings. But the general reader, in the presence of one of the great founders of the age, will be grateful for such remnants.


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