Despite the fact that I have a ginormous and ever-growing TBR, there are some books which arrive and don’t even get put onto it, so keen am I to read them – and today’s title is a case in point! With my rubbish memory, I can’t recall where I stumbled across this one, but it was probably on Twitter, and my anxiousness to read it was most likely because I recently read and loved a particular essay… The book is “Travels in the Americas” by Albert Camus, and having adored his essay, “The Rains of New York” I sent off for this shiny new collection as soon as I saw it.

Subtitled “Notes and Impressions of a New World”, the collection is translated by Ryan Bloom and edited (with an introduction) by Alice Kaplan. The book draws together journals kept by Camus during two trips to the American continent: to the United States in 1946 (with a sneaky visit to Quebec) and South America in 1949. The journals were first published in French in 1978, and I presume there is a previous English version as the cover of this University of Chicago Press edition states that it’s a new translation. Me, I’m just very happy to have it!!

The last image of France is one of destroyed buildings hanging on the very edge of that wounded earth.

Camus’s visit to the USA in 1946 must have been a real culture shock; coming from a scarred France with its post-war privations to a modern, capitalist nation, full of plenty, is a real exercise in contrasts and it’s clear from the journals that Camus often found the USA quite overwhelming. At the time, he was known outside of France more for his political commitment and his involvement with the Resistance than as a novelist; and in fact he was at work on “The Plague”, which would be published in 1947. So he was interviewed, feted, gave lectures and observed the new world into which he’d been plunged. Camus was a curious traveller, and he was also critical of the USA and its treatment of other races. As Kaplan points out in her introduction, this is a complex issue, as France was still occupying Algiers, and as a Frenchman born in Algeria Camus was anxious to keep the country as part of France whilst doing away with the iniquities of occupation. However, it’s easier for us to look back and perhaps find fault in his judgements – despite some of his forward-looking attitudes, he was inevitably a man of his times.

The second section of the journals are from a trip to South America where Camus, now a famous author, was shuttled from pillar to post, being interviewed and giving lectures, meeting luminaries such as Victoria Ocampo, and once again observing completely different cultures from those in his native Europe. These travels are more of a struggle, with Camus suffering endless drives on bad roads to witness local ceremonies, enduring bores with reasonable grace, and seeing the inequalities of colonialism at first hand. He was also at the time missing terribly his lover, the great actress Maria Casares, and this no doubt contributed to the sense of ennui that seeps into the journal entries!

“Travels…” makes fascinating reading on so many levels. For a start, the immediacy of the writing gives you a real sense of what it was like to travel from Europe to America at the time, and you see the continent through fresh eyes. Nowadays we’re so familiar with the USA and its culture, but then the divide between the two continents was dramatic, particularly after the devastation of WW2. So the Camus-eye view is a real revelation. Similarly, his views on South America and the various countries he travelled through is fascinating. He was a traveller making a real effort to understand the new cultures he was encountering and this gives the narrative a freshness.

Then of course there’s what the journals reveal about Camus the man. He comes across as a person who doesn’t take easily to travel, uncomfortable at being shuttled around all over the place without much of a rest; but despite the frustrations he experiences, he always seems to try to extend courtesy to those he meets. During the South American travels, in particular, he struggled with his health, experiencing constant fevers and ‘flu’ – presumably related to his TB? These were obviously wearing him down by the end of the trip and you can sense his need to get home to France.

In the sky, a sliver of moon casts a dullish light that reflects evenly on the turbulent waters. I gaze once again, as I have for years, at the drawings etched on the surface by the foam and wake, that lace made and unmade, that liquid marble… and once again I search for a comparison exact enough to capture that marvellous blossoming of sea, of water and light, a comparison that has for so long escaped me. Still in vain. For me, it’s a symbol that persists.

What shines though is his wonderful writing; these are journals, and therefore sometimes simply a record of events, but there are so many moments of great beauty in the prose when he records the world around him. These often occur in relation to the sea, with which Camus had a great affinity, and in fact the most enjoyable part of his travels often seems to be the sections aboard ship – he’s much less enamoured of flying, even though the destination is reached more quickly, and his love of the ocean is unmistakable.

I’ve read a good number of Camus books over the decades, but his journals are something I’ve only come to recently (and I do have three volumes of his working notebooks to explore). However, these travel journals were a real revelation, and the book is beautifully presented; as well as excellent supporting material and notation, there are some wonderful photographic illustrations. These range from Camus’s travel documents to photographs taken of him on his travels and they’re a marvellous addition to the book. To round things off, two contemporary articles about the visits are reproduced at the end of the book, which is a lovely touch.

“Travels…” was a treat from start to finish, and I absolutely loved experiencing Camus’s journeys alongside him, whether he was exploring the New York streets or enduring deluges of South American rain. The book gives a wonderful insight into the man and his thoughts, as well as letting the reader see the Americas through a European’s eyes. A marvellous book and I’m very glad I let it bypass Mount TBR!