Sad to hear that Deirdre Bair, who wrote the first major biography of Samuel Beckett, has died at the age of 84. Her work continues to exert an influence on contemporary Beckett scholarship, to say nothing of its inspiration to modern practitioners and performers of his writing. She also wrote a biographies of Simone deBeauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Carl Jung, Saul Steinberg and Al Capone. Most recently, she was the author of Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me – a Memoir. She will be sorely missed.
In a series of posts for The Guardian, Clare Carlisle introduces the key ideas and concerns of the nineteenth century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard
“We may as well begin with a question that is at the heart of Kierkegaard’s philosophy: what does it mean to exist? In his 1846 book Concluding Unscientific Postscript – which, at over 600 pages, is surely one of the lengthiest postscripts ever written – he suggests that “people in our time, because of so much knowledge, have forgotten what it means to exist”. Even though all sorts of things exist, for Kierkegaard the word “existence” has a special meaning when applied to human life. This meaning arises from the fact that we always have a relationship to ourselves. For example, we can be more or less self-aware; we can wish to be other than how we are; we can trust or mistrust, like or dislike ourselves. Perhaps we can even make decisions about who we will become.”
“If Kierkegaard is your benchmark, then you judge any philosophy not just on the basis of how cogent its arguments are, but on whether it speaks to the fundamental needs of human beings trying to make sense of the world. Philosophy prides itself on challenging all assumptions but, oddly enough, in the 20th century it forgot to question why it asked the questions it did. Problems were simply inherited from previous generations and treated as puzzles to be solved. Kierkegaard is inoculation against such empty scholasticism. […] [P]erhaps Kierkegaard’s most provocative message is that both work on the self and on understanding the world requires your whole being and cannot be just a compartmentalised, academic pursuit.”
“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
Alice Kaplan shares how Albert Camus wrote one of the twentieth century’s most iconic novels
What inspired you to write Looking for The Stranger?
The Stranger is the first novel I ever read in French, and the first novel I ever taught. I’ve always been struck by the fact that during all the years I spent studying it, word by word and scene by scene, I learned almost nothing at all about its Algerian setting. My trips to Algeria, my visits to the places Camus lived when he worked on the book were deeply inspiring. Twenty years ago, there was no way to travel to Algeria and I feel very lucky to have been able to explore Camus’s life there.
Your titledraws attention to the elusiveness of Camus’ novel. What kinds of challenges did you face during your research?
That’s a question every researcher loves to answer! Whatever papers Camus used to write the novel are lost. One theory has it that he left all his stuff in the Madison Hotel on the Boulevard Saint Germain when he evacuated to Clermont-Ferrand during the German invasion. The Germans eventually requisitioned the hotel, and by the time he went to collect his belongings there was nothing left. So I had to imagine what inspired him, through hints in his letters, his diaries, and in the novel itself: James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice; the Fernandel comedy, Le Schpountz; trials he covered for the newspaper Alger-Républicain. Then there are the manuscripts. If you set out to write the life story of a novel, the various manuscript versions are bound to tell a compelling story about how the writing evolved. In the case of The Stranger, there is only one available manuscript, which seems to be cobbled together from several versions. Part of it is hand written and part typed. The most interesting thing about that manuscript is that “Meursault” is spelled without an e, “Mersault.” When did he add that “u”, which put death (meur) right in his narrator’s name? (more…)
“Kaufmann saw Nietzsche as something of an early existentialist, which brings us to these vintage lectures recorded in 1960 (right around the time that Kaufmann, a German-born convert to Judaism, also became a naturalized American citizen). The three lectures offer a short primer on existentialism and the modern crises philosophers grappled with.”
Robert Zaretsky writes about the existentialist philosopher and writer’s one and only trip to the United States
Seventy years ago this month, Albert Camus arrived in New York City. It was the first, and last, visit the author of The Stranger made to the United States. Camus spent most of his time in New York — a city, he confessed, that defeated his understanding. His experience was, in a word, absurd. To mark the visit’s anniversary, the literary estate of Albert Camus has organized a series of readings, performances, and discussions across the city. The actor Viggo Mortensen, singer and songwriter Patti Smith, folk singer Eric Andersen, and scholars Morris Dickstein and Alice Kaplan are among the artists and writers who will participate. One of the events will be at the Midtown branch of the New York City Library, where at 6:30 p.m., April 14, LARB’s history editor, Robert Zaretsky, will join New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik for a public conversation on the place of Camus’s life and work in the 21st century.
From Ted Gioia’s article on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel, Nausea
In general, Sartre is more committed to philosophy than to fiction, even here in the pages of his greatest novel. But when the story lags, the intensity of the intellectual debate flares up to compensate—so much so, that Nausea is essential reading not just for students of literature, but also for anyone interested in the evolution of Sartre’s views on a range of philosophical issues.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is Sartre’s decision to supply a happy ending. His horror story ends with a way out of the nausea. I am less than convinced by this turnabout in our suffering Mr. Roquentin, but as a longtime jazz lover, I am secretly pleased at the cure for the existential nausea. A jazz record featuring a singer and saxophonist does the trick—to be specific an old recording of “Some of These Days.” I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date (he doesn’t identify any of them). I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst. (more…)