Summer reading

Midway through his catastrophic second term in office, George W. Bush left Washington for his annual summer retreat in Crawford, Texas. It was August 3, 2006. Air Force One was presumably carrying the books on the president’s summer reading list, which, his press secretary helpfully noted, included two biographies of Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln volumes were an understandable choice, given Bush’s concern for his legacy and the parallels between the two controversial wartime presidents. More perplexing was the news that leaked out later: Bush had taken time during his vacation to read Albert Camus’ L’Étranger.

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Meursault’s alibi

The irony was staggering. Bush, after all, was known as a man of unrivaled verbal infelicity and pinpoint parochialism, openly contemptuous of Europe in general and France in especial. When an American reporter once flaunted his grasp of the French language in Bush’s presence, the commander-in-chief mocked him for being “intercontinental,” a term usually attached to nuclear armaments. How to explain the Texan’s interest in the philosophically-inclined Camus, the existentialist era, and avant-garde narrative? Did the president identify on some level with Camus’ anomic, alienated anti-hero? Did the novel’s plot — “killing an Arab,” in the Cure’s neat synopsis — speak to the president in a special way?

Theories abounded. Whatever the case, Camus’ novel seemed diminished as a result. Singled out by the president, it parted company with its literary peers, even those lumped into the “absurdist” camp, books less amenable to summer entertainment, less of a “quick read.”

A comparison may be instructive. In the following quotes, the first is from Camus’ 1942 novel (in Matthew Ward’s translation); the second is from Beckett’s 1955 Molloy (as translated by Beckett and Patrick Bowles). These are the texts’ opening lines.

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got there thanks to him. He says not.

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Eclipse

The parallels are striking, but so are the differences. George W. Bush may have been willing to entertain the ambiguities of the Camus, in which the telegram suggests alternative meanings (today? yesterday? — a confusion soon cleared up, moreover), but he would not have been patient for long with the interpretive conundrums raised by Beckett’s novel. Unlike Camus’ Meursault, Molloy is a character who often can’t establish basic facts or fundamental distinctions, such as between male and female, for instance, even when he’s involved in the sexual act itself (stupid? brilliant? — we’ll be forever in the dark). “Don’t be tormenting yourself, Molloy, man or woman, what does it matter?” Throughout Beckett’s story, self-reflection and interpretation veer quite reliably into aporia and undecidability. For all its merits, then, Camus’ novel is “recuperable,” as the nouveaux romanciers used to say, by conventional frames of judgment and understanding. George W. Bush, the “decider,” can stand as the ultimate figure of the leveling force of ideological recuperation. Happily, no US president is ever likely to get through Beckett’s trilogy. This unreadability is a dependable measure of its value.

To be fair, though, Camus’ later novel The Fall is more nuanced, the narrator more deeply complex, and the man’s merciless atheistic self-condemnation would have been far beyond Bush’s powers of apprehension. Tellingly, in its closing pages the French author’s final novel touched a Beckettian chord: “I haven’t finished; I must go on. Continuing is what is hard” (p. 111); “in certain cases, carrying on, merely continuing, is superhuman” (p.114, Justin O’Brien, trans.).

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