Travels in the Americas, Albert Camus

Albert Camus’ Struggles with Earthly Existence in ‘Travels in the Americas’

The Albert Camus of Travels in the Americas diaries is a passionate, despairing reckoner with the struggles of earthly existence, both personal and societal.

Travels in the Americas
Albert Camus
University of Chicago Press
March 2023

There are a couple of minor misdirections to work around when starting into Travels in the Americas: Notes and Impressions of a New World, a collection and retranslation of Albert Camus’ journal entries from his visits to the US in 1946 and South America in 1949. Travels in the Americas is a slightly misleading title: the great majority of Camus’ time over these two trips was spent, respectively, in New York City and Brazil, and his notes are best read as impressions predominantly of those two places, whose powerfully distinct cultures have always marked them out from their surrounding territories.

The other misdirection is to be found in Alice Kaplan’s illuminating introduction, which encourages the reader to approach Travels in the Americas as “observational writing”: what the French call “chose vues (things seen)”, writes Kaplan, who is one of America’s most accomplished scholars of 20th-century French literature and edited these journals for the new University of Chicago edition. (The limpid translation is by Ryan Bloom.) “The travel logs are not confessional diaries,” Kaplan advises, “yet their gaze outward opens a large window onto the writer’s aspirations and values.”

Kaplan is almost certainly correct about Camus’ non-confessional intentions in keeping these logs (except insofar as journals are always at least partly confessions made to oneself). However, they have far more introspective regard than other books they might seem to resemble, such as Baudrillard’s America or, going back to early America, De Tocqueville’s landmark Democracy in America. In any case, Camus’ intentions for the journals don’t matter at this point, many decades after he wrote them.

Most modern readers of Travels in the Americas will likely be more interested in Camus himself than in his general impressions of the Americas just after World War II, evocative or trenchant though many of them are. We may be looking for insight into how his private thoughts informed his published work; there are, for example, a few diary entries about The Plague, which Camus was working on while he was in the US, and one of them suggests a surprising key to understanding both the novel and Camus’ priorities: “Plague: it’s a world without women and so a stifling one.”

Readers may be even more keenly interested in the part of Camus that ran deeper than his “aspirations and values”. When we’re reading the innermost thoughts of writers and artists, we want to see their souls. Travels in the Americas gives us many glimpses into Camus, and the person we see begins to change over the course of the diaries. The Camus, who came to New York in 1946, was just 32 years old and not yet an international eminence. His groundbreaking debut novel The Stranger was not published in English until his trip to New York when its American release was celebrated on the roof of the Astor Hotel.

Camus was probably better known for his editorship of the French Resistance newspaper Combat during World War II. As an official cultural representative of France less than a year after the war in Europe had ended, he was in the US to help “erase the scourge of Vichy”, Kaplan writes. One of his keynote activities during his weeks in New York—throughout which he was surveilled by Hoover’s FBI—included giving a powerful political lecture, “The Crisis of Man”, at Columbia University to an audience full of the cosmopolitan intelligentsia. Camus was a central intellectual force in helping to speed the recovering world away from the plague of fascism.

Despite the seriousness of his mission to the US, Camus had plenty of time for leisure in New York. His diaries record walkabouts and drinks, easy social hours with his hosts and other people he met, and some spells of time spent alone. In New York, his headspace was airy enough to allow him to take note of plenty of choses vues, many of which seem to have been raindrops. Indeed, the journals contain frequent allusions to weather, a reminder that Camus had an acutely sensory and physical constitution, gifted with an attunement that made him a natural novelist and playwright.

His awareness of New York’s rain and other observations and feelings he recorded in his diaries would provide the basis for his impassioned lyrical essay “Rains of New York”, first published in the review Formes et Couleurs in 1947. In the essay, he captured America’s “national scotch and soda and its relationship to romance… the stupefying neckties… the anti-Semitism”—midcentury America’s immoderate consumerism, colorful vulgarity, and deep racism.

Yet Camus also appreciated “American generosity… hospitality and cordiality”, which were “immediate and without affectation. This is what’s best about [Americans],” Another cultured and erudite European writer in America, Vladimir Nabokov, would pick up on these contradictory traits and use them to drive Lolita less than a decade later. What’s poignant about reading Camus’ choses vues in these diaries nearly four score years after he observed them is that America’s generosity, hospitality, and cordiality seem to have barely survived, and only in a much more sluggish and affected, not to say damaged, form. Its vulgarity and racism, on the other hand, are as immediate and sincere as ever.

Also in “Rains of New York”, and especially in his journals from which the essay was drawn, Camus goes far deeper than his observations of American life and the citizens’ national character. New York evoked in him “powerful and fleeting emotions, a nostalgia that grows impatient, and moments of anguish” that come from the darkest part of Camus’ spirit and are expressed in hopeless and even nihilistic ways. “I know there are many things I could accomplish,” he writes, emphasizing the general pointlessness of mere “accomplishments” with his italics, “but this world no longer holds any meaning for me.”

The 32-year-old already despairs of never being able to write what is really in his heart, and only a few entries later, just before he leaves the US to return home to France, he is worrying over how little time he has left to say it. Only a few entries later, just before he leaves the US to return home to France, he worries over how little time he has left to say it. “In 25 years, I’ll be 57. 25 years, then to do my work and find what I’m looking for. Then, old age and death […] And I still find a way of giving in to those little temptations, of wasting time on pointless conversations or fruitless dawdling.” That passage is hard to read without feeling a flush of pity and sadness because Camus had only about half of those 25 years left to live. He died in an automobile accident in 1960 when he was just 46.

Camus’ self-portrait is even darker in the 1949 South American diaries, which are more than twice as long as the American section that precedes them in Travels in the Americas. In her introduction, Kaplan notes that in South America, “Camus speak[s] in a more vulnerable, intimate voice.” She astutely points to the two major circumstantial reasons for this vulnerability and intimacy. One was that Camus was afflicted by especially bad bouts of tuberculosis from which he had long suffered. He required medical treatment in Brazil more than once, yet even in his private diaries, he refers to the disease only as “flu”, a suppression that contributes to the sense of vulnerability Kaplan descries: just as Camus wouldn’t or couldn’t identify what it was that he really wanted to say in his writing, so he refuses to name the ailment in his body, which sometimes gave him symptoms so severe that one of his companions in New York in 1946 remembered his having to cancel plans and spend time recovering alone.

The companion with that recollection offers a clue to the other reason for Camus’ “vulnerable, intimate voice” in the South American diaries. It was Patricia Blake, a Vogue intern he had met in New York—she typed a section of the manuscript of The Plague—and who would become his lover. Camus, who with his wife Francine had two children, conducted numerous extramarital affairs, both serially and simultaneously, living out the Don Juanism he had philosophically justified (and perhaps autobiographically encoded) in The Myth of Sisyphus. We’re reminded of his entry in the New York journal regarding The Plague: “a world without women and so a stifling one”.

During his time in South America, the woman who commanded Camus’ attention was the actress Maria Casarès. He had originally taken up with her in 1944. After a five-year hiatus, a chance encounter rekindled their affair, which persisted on and off, intensely, until Camus’ death a decade later, and caused his wife to suffer deep grief. Casarès did not accompany Camus to South America, but his shadow “journals”, of a sort, were the love letters he was writing to her (and she to him) while he was there. The diary entries make no mention of Casarès, but “everything I’ve written is for you, directed by you, and colored by you,” he confided to her.

No surprise, then, that the character of a forlorn romantic escapist emerges in the South American section. Camus longs for “permanent exile” and “withdraw[al] from the world” in much the same way that lovers long to shed their old lives and run off together to a refuge where no one will find them. His desire for exile and withdrawal conflicts with the consuming and unrelenting demands on his time throughout his travels in South America, where he was wrapped up in constant meetings, events, and conversations with countless VIPs, from ambassadors to famous poets, whisked from one crowded, newsmaking event to the next (the celebrity visit of Camus himself was what made each of them news). The travel was often rough, the weather as febrile as his body—as were, in some cases, the experiences. Camus writes vividly of the Brazilian performances and ceremonies he attended, which often reached a trancelike intensity, confirming Kaplan’s suggestion that choses vues are indeed an essential part of Travels in the Americas.

Meanwhile, Camus’ mood grows increasingly dark, and a fresh attack of tubercular fever lays him low with the “unbearable feeling of walking step by step toward an unknown catastrophe that will destroy everything around and inside of me.” By the time six weeks have passed in South America, he admits that “for the first time in my life, I’m in the midst of a psychological meltdown […] Murky waters inside me, hazy shapes passing in them, sapping all my energy. This depression is hell.” He confesses, “What finally seemed clear to me yesterday is that I wish to die.”

Camus always rejected the Existentialist label often imposed on him after his breakthrough 1942 book, The Myth of Sisyphus. He was instead, arguably, a lowercase “existentialist”: a reckoner of such eloquence and passion with the essential paradoxes of earthly existence, both personal and societal, that he became the second-youngest literary Nobelist in history in 1957 when he was just 44. If Don Juan was the natural archetypal analog to Camus’ libido (and perhaps even his heart), then his soul and mind belonged to Sisyphus, especially if we think of the giant stone Sisyphus must roll up the mountain as a sort of second Earth: a duplicate, in human-scaled dimension, of the very world up out of which he strives. Like Camus, Sisyphus seems to be trying simultaneously to save the world and escape from it; perhaps the reason “we must imagine Sisyphus happy”, as Camus famously concluded, is that, while he is pushing his sphere up the mountain, he manages to achieve both of his desired conditions at once—he is temporarily up and out of the fray of the world even as he is in the (futile) process of trying to raise it to a higher level.

In “The Crisis of Man”, lecture in 1946, he was already deeply involved in working out the problem of the self versus society: “Inside every nation, and the world at large, mistrust, resentment, greed, and the race for power are manufacturing a dark, desperate universe in which each [of u]s is condemned to live within the limit of the present,” he told the audience. “The very notion of the future fills [us] with anguish, for [we are] captive to abstract powers, starved and confused by harried living, and estranged from nature’s truth, from sensible leisure, and simple happiness.” In his works, his days, and in Travels in the Americas, Camus showed us how hard it was to secure these elemental necessities of a fulfilled life.

RATING 8 / 10