Camel cigarettes billboard in Times Square, 1943. Photograph by John Vachon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.
March 1946. Albert Camus has just spent two weeks at sea on the SS Oregon, a cargo ship transporting passengers from Le Havre to New York City. He’s made several friends during this transatlantic passage.
Sunday. They announce we’ll arrive in the evening. The week passed in a whirlwind. Tuesday evening, the twenty-first, our table decides to celebrate the arrival of spring. Alcohol until four in the morning. The next day, too. Forty-eight hours of pleasant euphoria, during which all our relationships quickly deepen. Mme D. is rebelling against her class. L. confesses to me the marriage she’s headed for is one of convenience. On Saturday, we exit the Gulf Stream, and the temperature turns awfully chilly. Nevertheless, the time passes very quickly, and ultimately, I’m not in such a rush to arrive. I’ve finished preparing my talk. In the remaining time, I gaze out at the sea and chat, mostly with R., who’s really quite smart—and with Mme D. and L., of course. At twelve in the afternoon, we catch sight of land. Seagulls have been flying alongside the boat since morning, hanging above the decks as if suspended and motionless. Coney Island, which looks like the Porte d’Orléans, is the first thing we see. “It’s Saint-Denis or Gennevilliers,” L. says. It’s absolutely true. In the cold, with the gray wind and flat sky, it’s all rather gloomy. We’ll anchor in the mouth of the Hudson but won’t disembark until tomorrow morning. In the distance, Manhattan’s skyscrapers stand against a backdrop of mist. My heart is still and cold, as it is when faced with sights that don’t move me.
Monday. Went to bed very late last night. Got up very early. We sail through New York Harbor. A tremendous sight despite, or because of, the fog. Order, power, economic strength, they’re all here. The heart trembles before so much remarkable inhumanity.
I don’t disembark until eleven o’clock, after a long series of formalities where, out of all the passengers, I’m the one treated as suspect. The immigration officer ends up apologizing for having kept me. “I was required to do so, but I can’t tell you why.” A mystery—but after five years of occupation …
Welcomed by C., E., and an envoy from the consulate. C. hasn’t changed. E. either. With the whole circus over at immigration, the goodbyes with L., Mme D., and R. are quick and cold.
Tired. My flu is coming back. I catch my first glimpse of New York on shaky legs. At first sight, a hideous, inhuman city. But I know people can change their mind. Here are the details that strike me: the garbage collectors wear gloves, the traffic is orderly, without the need for officers at the intersections, et cetera, no one ever has any change in this country, and everyone looks as if they’ve just stepped off a low-budget film set. In the evening, crossing Broadway in a taxi, tired and feverish, I’m literally staggered by the circus of bright lights. I’ve come from five years of night, and this intense and violent illumination is the first thing that gives me the impression of being on a new continent (a huge fifteen-meter billboard advertising Camels: a GI, his mouth wide open, lets out huge puffs of real smoke. All of it yellow and red). I go to bed as sick at heart as in body but knowing perfectly well that I’ll have changed my mind in two days.
Tuesday. Get up with a fever. Unable to leave the room before noon. When E. arrives, I’m a little better, and I go with him and D., an adman originally from Hungary, for lunch at a French restaurant. I notice that I haven’t noticed the skyscrapers, that they’ve seemed only natural. It’s a question of overall scale. And in any case, you can’t always walk around with your head turned up. A person can keep only so many floors in sight at once. Magnificent food shops. Enough to make all of Europe burst. I admire the women in the streets, the hues of their dresses, and the color of the taxis, which look like insects dressed in their Sunday best, red and yellow and green. As for the tie shops, you have to see them to believe them. So much bad taste hardly seems imaginable. D. assures me Americans don’t like ideas. That’s what they say. I don’t really trust “they.”
At three o’clock, I go see Régine Junier. Admirable spinster who sends me everything she can afford because her father died of tuberculosis when he was twenty-seven, and so … She lives in two rooms, amid a mountain of homemade hats that are exceptionally ugly. But nothing could overshadow the generous and attentive heart that shines through in everything she says. I leave her, devoured by fever and unable to do anything but go back to bed. Too bad for the scheduled meetings. New York’s smell—a perfume of iron and cement—the iron dominates.
In the evening, dinner at Rubens [sic] with L. M. He tells me the very “American tragedy” story of his secretary. Married to a man with whom she’s had two children, she and her mother come to find out the husband’s a homosexual. Separation. The mother, a puritanical Protestant, works on the daughter for months, instilling the idea in her that her children are going to become degenerates. The idiot ends up suffocating one and strangling the other. Declared not guilty by reason of insanity, she’s set free. L. M. tells me his personal theory about Americans. It’s the fifteenth one I’ve heard.
On the corner of East First Street, a small bistro where a screaming mechanical phonograph drowns out all conversation. To get five minutes of silence, you have to put in five cents.
Wednesday. A little better this morning. Liebling, from The New Yorker, visits. Charming man. Chiaramonte then Rubé. These last two and I have lunch at a French restaurant. Ch. speaks of America as no one else does, in my opinion. I point out a funeral home to him. He tells me how it works. One of the ways to understand a country is to know how people die there. Here, everything is planned. “You die and we do the rest,” the promotional flyers say. Cemeteries are private property: “Hurry up and secure your spot.” It’s all bought and sold, the transport, the ceremony, et cetera. A dead man is a man who has lived a full life. At Gilson’s place, radio. Then at my place with Vercors, Thimerais, and O’Brien. We discuss tomorrow’s talk. At six o’clock, a drink with Gral at the Saint Regis. I walk back to the hotel along Broadway, lost in the crowd and the enormous illuminated signs. Yes, there’s an American tragedy. It’s what’s oppressed me since I arrived here, though I don’t know what it’s made of yet.
On Bowery Street, a street where the bridal shops stretch for more than five hundred meters. I eat alone in the restaurant from this afternoon. And I come back to write.
The Negro question. We sent a man from Martinique on assignment here. We put him up in Harlem. Vis-à-vis his French colleagues, he saw, for the first time, he wasn’t of the same race. 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.
Impression of overflowing wealth. Inflation is on the way, an American tells me.
Thursday. Spent the day dictating my talk. A few jitters in the evening, but I head straight out, and the audience is “glued.” But then, while I’m speaking, someone filches the cashbox, the proceeds of which were to go to French children. At the end of the talk, O’Brien announces what’s happened, and someone in the audience stands up to suggest everyone give the same amount on the way out that they gave on the way in. On the way out, everyone gives much more and the proceeds are considerable. Typical of American generosity. Their hospitality and cordiality are also like this, immediate and without affectation. This is what’s best about them.
Their fondness for animals. A multistory pet shop: canaries on the second floor, great apes at the top. A couple of years ago, a man was arrested on Fifth Avenue for driving a giraffe around in his truck. He explained that his giraffe didn’t get enough air out in the suburbs where he kept it and that he’d found this to be a good way to get it some air. In Central Park, a lady brought a gazelle to graze. To the court, she explained that the gazelle was a person. “Yet it doesn’t speak,” the judge said. “Oh, yes, it speaks the language of lovingkindness.” Five-dollar fine. There’s also the three-kilometer tunnel under the Hudson and the impressive bridge to New Jersey.
After the talk, a drink with Schiffrin and Dolorès Vanetti— who speaks the purest slang I’ve ever heard—and with others, too. Madame Schiffrin asks if I was ever an actor.
Friday. Knopf. Eleven o’clock. Cream of the crop. Broadcasting. Gilson’s a nice guy. We’ll go see the Bowery together. I have lunch with Rubé and J. de Lannux [sic], who drives us around New York afterward. Beautiful blue sky that reminds me we’re at the same latitude as Lisbon, which is hard to imagine. In tune with the flow of traffic, the gold-lit skyscrapers turn and spin in the blue above our heads. A moment of pleasure.
We go to [Fort] Tryon Park above Harlem, where we tower over the Bronx on one side and the Hudson on the other. Magnolias blooming pretty much everywhere. I try a new type of these ice cream that I enjoy so much. Another moment of pleasure.
At four o’clock Bromley is waiting for me at the hotel. We’re off to New Jersey. Immense landscape of factories, bridges, and railroads. Then, all of a sudden, East Orange, the most postcard-perfect countryside there could be, with thousands of cottages, neat and tidy, set down like toys amid the tall poplars and magnolias. They take me to see the small public library, bright and cheery and used by the whole neighborhood—with its giant children’s reading room. (Finally a country that really takes care of its children.) I look up philosophy in the card catalogue: W. James and that’s it.
At Bromley’s, American hospitality (though his father is from Germany). We work on the translation of Caligula, which he’s finished. He explains to me that I don’t know how to handle my own publicity, that I have a “standing” I should be taking advantage of and that Caligula’s success here will allow me—my children and me—to be free from want. According to his calculations, I’ll earn $1.5 million. I laugh, and he shakes his head. “Oh, you have no sense.” He’s the best of fellows, and he wants us to go to Mexico together. (Nota: he’s an American who doesn’t drink!)
Saturday. Régine. I take over the gifts I brought for her, and she sheds tears of happiness.
A drink at Dolorès’s, then Régine takes me to see some American department stores. I think of France. In the evening, dinner with L. M. From the top of the Plaza, I admire the island, covered in its stone monsters. At night, with its millions of illuminated windows and tall black building faces blinking and flashing halfway up to heaven, it makes me think of a gigantic blaze burning itself out, leaving thousands of immense, black carcasses along the horizon, studded with smoldering embers. The charming countess.
Sunday. A stroll to Staten Island with Chiaramonte and Abel. On the way back, in Lower Manhattan, immense geological excavations between tightly packed skyscrapers. As we walk past, the feeling of something prehistoric overtakes us. We have dinner in China Town [sic]. For the first time, I’m able to breathe easy, finding real life there, teeming and steady, just as I like it.
Monday morning. Stroll with Georgette Pope, who came all the way to my hotel, God knows why. She’s from New Caledonia. “What is your husband’s job?”
From the top of the Empire State Building, in a glacial wind, we admire New York, its ancient waters and flood of stone.
At lunch, Saint-Ex’s wife—an exuberant person—tells us that back in San Salvador her father had had, alongside seventeen legitimate children, forty bastards, each of whom received a hectare of land.
Evening, interview at the École Libre des Hautes Études. Tired, I go to Broadway with J. S.
Rolley skating [sic] on West Fifty-Second Street. A huge velodrome covered in red velvet and dust. In a rectangular box perched close beneath the ceiling, an old woman plays a most eclectic mix of tunes on a pipe organ. Hundreds of sailors, of girls dressed for the occasion in jumpsuits, pass from arm to arm in an infernal racket of metal wheels and pipe organ. This description could be pushed further.
Then Eddy et Léon [Leon & Eddie’s], a charmless club. To make up for it, J. S. and I have ourselves photographed as Adam and Eve, like one of those photographs you find at fairs, where there are two completely naked cardboard cutouts with openings at the head where you can put your face through.
These diaries are adapted from Travels in the Americas: Notes and Impressions of a New World by Albert Camus, edited by Alice Kaplan and translated by Ryan Bloom and with annotations by Alice Kaplan and Ryan Bloom, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in April. First published in the French as Journaux de voyage by Éditions Gallimard.
Alice Kaplan is the Sterling Professor of French and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. She is coauthor of States of Plague, with Laura Marris, and author of French Lessons, Looking for “The Stranger,”and Dreaming in French, all also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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