Travel books. Memoirs and memories of two French writers

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American Journals, by Albert Camus. Translated by Hugh Levick. New York: Paragon House. 157 pp. $15.95. The Way to the Labyrinth: Memories of East and West, by Alain Danielou. Translated by Marie-Claire Cournand. New York: New Directions. 338 pp. $23.95.

LIKE other autobiographical writing, memoirs and journals hold out the promise of insight through the author's own perspective on events. This dimension is certainly provided by Albert Camus's notebooks, which he kept from 1935 on. He used them to develop ideas, record emotions and events, collect images, plan future work. Because he drew heavily on these journals for his novels and essays, they show us how he ``transfigured'' his experience and have proved an invaluable guide to the sources and process of his art.

When the second volume of Camus's ``Notebooks'' was published, covering the years 1942 to 1951, two journals from the period were omitted. One, which Camus called ``Voyage to South America,'' was an account of a two-month lecture tour he undertook in the summer of 1949. Since he had filed the journal separately from his other notebooks and left his intentions for it unclear, his editor, Roger Quilliot, who compiled the Pleiade edition of his works, excluded it from the regular sequence of his notebooks. Instead, joining it with Camus's account of a North American trip in 1946 - also a lecture tour - he published the two in 1978 as a travel book, ``Journaux de Voyage.'' This now appears in its first English translation as ``American Journals.''

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The United States journal is brief and eclectic, a somewhat loose collection of impressions of the US, a country, says Camus, ``where everything is done to prove that life isn't tragic,'' and especially of New York, where ``everyone looks like they've stepped out of a B-film.''

It is the South American journal that dominates the book. In itself, the trip was stressful, but from the outset, Camus was anxious and melancholy: ``I have the impression that this sea is made of all the tears in the world,'' he wrote on June 30, the first day of the voyage.

Camus's negative feelings would intensify under the strain of public speaking and social obligations, which he loathed, and the illness that plagued him throughout his stay. Increasingly, he was overwhelmed by a sense of crisis, collapse, and exile. On his return, Camus spent a year in convalescence, and as Quilliot says, this was the last such tour he would undertake, resigning himself only to the Nobel Prize celebrations in 1957.

American journals though these are, their value for readers is less their view of the Americas - which, despite some striking observations, seem something of a backdrop - than the insight they offer on Camus and his work. As with all his notebooks, he tapped these for other writing. In the US journal, one finds references to ``The Plague,'' which was published the following year, as well as ideas, images, and whole sentences later used in the essay ``The Rains of New York.'' From the South American journal came sections of another essay, ``The Sea Close By,'' and of ``The Growing Stone,'' a myth recorded in the notebook.

As Quilliot remarks, these two notebooks ``show us how Camus passed from rough notes to a finished work.'' Still more, perhaps, they show us how Camus passed from anguish to creativity, willing his pain into art.

If in Camus's ``American Journals,'' the external world recedes before the intensity of the author's inner being, the reverse is the case in ``The Way to the Labyrinth.'' A memoir, says Danielou, ``cannot trace the evolution of our inner being....'' In life, as in a journey, ``we can do little more than describe its exterior and anecdotal side - the incidents, the places where we have stopped, the people we have met.''

Intentionally, then, Danielou gives us his remarkable life largely in exterior terms, almost as a catalog of achievements, and much of the book has a flattish tone.

Danielou was born in France in the early part of the century. His mother, a member of the aristocratic Clamorgan clan, founded a religious order. Despite the boy's evident talents, in music and art, for example, his mother seems to have viewed him as something of a black sheep - a point he records with bitterness - and fairly early he went his own way: to America, to college; to North Africa, to study Arab music; to Paris, where he became acquainted with the avante-garde; and, in 1937, to India where he found his calling.

Settling in a palace in Benares, Danielou remained in India for 15 years. Turning to Hinduism, he studied Hindi and Sanskrit, became a Hindu scholar, an expert on Indian music, a musician, a linguist, and a translator. Forced to leave India after independence, he established the Institute of Comparative Music Studies in Berlin and Venice. The author of numerous publications, such as ``Hindu Polytheism,'' he has continued to organize concerts of traditional music from around the world.

A host of international figures enter Danielou's memoir, from Cocteau to Yehudi Menuhin. About all, he expresses forthright opinions. Often generous, he can also be acerbic, as in his fierce criticism of Gandhi and Nehru.

It is hard to imagine a fuller life than Danielou's, but in this memoir that life is only partially revealed. In just one chapter, for example, ``A Hindu's View of the Western World,'' does he try to explain fully the spiritual views so central to his life. Danielou's reticence is inevitable, given his belief that ``the invisible, indefinable thread which ... guides our destiny'' is ``too subtle to be described.'' Yet in the end one agrees with his own conclusion that in these memoirs he says too little of what was most important in his life. One wishes he had struggled more against the unquestionable limitation of words to give a better sense of ``that other journey, the journey of the inner man.''

Gail Pool reviews travel books for the Monitor.

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