336: The Camus complex at The New Yorker

In the 1950s death lost its sting in The New Yorker. As in the opening line of Albert Camus’s novel L’Etranger, mothers – and others – keep dying without anyone shedding a tear over them.

Albert Camus could have begun his novel L’Etranger (1942) like this: “Although the telegram came out of the blue, I had a premonition as I began to open it. I hid the content of the message and looked only at the signature. It came from the director of my mother’s nursing home. I folded it up, put it in my pocket and broke down in tears.” Instead, he wrote “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : « Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.” The appearance of a new translation by Sandra Smith of L’Etranger (not as The stranger but The outsider) has jolted me into writing something about those lines that struck me 45 years ago.

At NYU in the 1950s, L’Etranger was taught as a model of existential alienation. The narrator of the novel, Meursault, was said to be so detached from his own emotions that he was indifferent even to the death of his mother. Another phrase related to alienation was “lack of affect.” Meursault did not display and perhaps did not feel emotions in a way that others would consider normal. In psychological studies of L’Etranger this is considered a pathological defect, an attendant cause of the casual murder that he comes to commit. Whatever psychologists may have thought, writers and editors came to regard affectless references to death as a good thing. This realization dawned on me in the years of my subscription to The New Yorker, starting in 1968. Now that I have taken out a digital subscription that gives me access to the entire New Yorker archive, I have been able to confirm this impression. Here are six excerpts from the opening paragraphs of stories (the magazine always contains one or, more usually, two short stories) in the first six issues of 1968.

6 January, André Dubus, “Andromache” “They found Joe’s body, but she never saw it, and the funeral was with closed caskets.”
13 January, Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The letter writer” “Herman (or Hayim David, as he was called in Kalomin) had lost his family to the Nazis.” Toward the end of the story comes the quintessential Camus thought: “’Am I dying? Is this death?’ he asked himself. He felt only curiosity.”
27 January, Gilbert Rogin, “Cheering up “Charley has fallen asleep and is dreaming about his end – in fact, that of mankind as well.”
3 February, Penelope Gilliatt, “Known for her frankness” “I predict that the car will crash. Then I drive it at a brick wall…. The wages of sin is death.”
10 February, Mavis Gallant, “April fish” “Last night, in one harrowing dream, one of my adopted children drowned, there, outside the window, in the Lake of Geneva.”
10 February, H.L. Mountzoures, “A day in the country” “Jeff remembered as he was putting a pot of coffee on the stove: Grammie was picking out her coffin today.”

Fascinated by the phenomenon, I went through the fiction in the first three issues of all the years from 1941 to 1974. Throughout the war years, perhaps because death was considered the business of daily papers rather than of high-tone weeklies but yet to my astonishment, I found nothing at all. The first sign of things to come dates from the year after L’Etranger was published in English, 1946, and after, on 20 April 1946, The New Yorker published a brief report on Camus’ doings in New York on a publicity tour for the translation. Sally Benson’s “Lady with a lamp” I would call a pseudo-Camus story. The nurse Miss Robbins “glanced at the woman who lay on the couch…. The couch stood with its back to the two windows of the apartment living room, so the woman’s body lay in shadow.” The flirt with death continues through several pages until we learn at the end that Miss Robbins’s charge is not dead at all.

A further step came in the issue of 10 January 1948 from the pen of John O’Hara, in “Nil nisi”: “In the morning, people stayed out of the ocean, partly through fear, but mostly out of decent respect for the woman whose body had not been found.” After three morbid pages, the body had still not been found. Tiptoeing toward Camus, Victoria Lincoln’s “Death in the house” has the early line, “’Poor old Ben,’ we would say, stroking his head. ‘When are you going to die, poor old Ben?’” Ben is a dog.

By 10 January 1953, things had gotten no further than “The magistrate had come to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the villagers three months before” (Christine Weston, “A man has no choice”). Sylvia Townsend Warner makes an essential Camusian move by opening her story “Uncle Blaire” (2 January 1954) with the sentence “There was a distinct, if non-contractual, understanding between Miss Iris Foale and her fellow-citizens that something commemorative would go up after her death.” Further feints follow, in about one-third of the consulted issues from 1955 (Richard H. Rovere, “See Naples and drop dead”); 1956 (Jean Stafford:  “…in her silvery coffin she was a goddess”, Nancy Hale: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum… and Elizabeth is dead” and John Collier: “… discuss the more interesting of the murders they have happened upon”); 1957 – the year Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Richard T. Gill: “It was around the time of my brother’s death”); and 1959 (Frank O’Connor: “I suppose you’d like to see poor Jeffrey before the undertaker comes. ‘I might as well…’”), before in 1960 a breakthrough moment occurred. Fittingly, it was the death of Camus himself that brought The New Yorker, in “Talk of the town” of 16 January 1960, to put into so many words what was at stake. “In 1946, he was already bored with Existentialism… What Camus deplored was the necessity of ceasing to exist. For him, that constituted the absurdity of man’s relation to the universe. He believed, however, that the acceptance of the relation was the mark of a man.”

It took another few years for absurdity to carry the day. In 1961 the absurdist Peter De Vries wrote in the first sentence of “Reuben, Reuben” that “filial devotion [is] the wish to do one’s parents in,” but then things reverted to the status of hints, as in Rhys Davies’s story of 4 January 1964, “I will keep her company,” portraying the understated effect of the death of a woman on her husband, and M.F.K. Fisher’s “The second time around,” beginning: “In most college towns of America, there are widows of professors….” Sylvia Warner Townsend becomes more explicit, giving a narrator a childhood memory of “a coffin being lowered into a grave.” However, the honor of putting an affectless death into the opening sentence of an early January New Yorker story belongs to the intrepid Calder Willingham. The date is 16 January 1965; the story titled “What star so humble” begins: “Six weeks before the death of Bonnie, Mrs. Hillyer declared that the girl could not possibly live for another day or two.”

From then on, things pick up speed as they cool off. Natacha Stewart on 9 January 1965: “Three months later, Easton was dead.” H.L. Mountzoures tipped his hand on 8 January 1966: “Staring at [my brother], I could see Mama, but I said nothing, to avoid being maudlin.” Meursault of course did not have to avoid being maudlin. He did not have maudlinity in him. If American writers had a harder time than Camus in accepting the absurdity of life, they were helped along decisively on 7 January 1967 by no one less than the Argentinian grandmaster Jorge Luis Borges, in “Three stories” with a passage in the first telling that “…the man perished in a ditch, his skull sliced open by a sabre”; the second entitled “The dead man’; and the third doing Camus one better, with the opening sentence “On the incandescent February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after a death agony so imperious it did not for a moment descend into sentimentality or fear, I noticed that the iron billboards in the Plaza Constitución bore new advertisements for one brand or another of Virginia tobacco.”

That is what did it. By January 1968 things reached the climax described above, with an affectless death, free of maudlinity and sentimentality, in nearly every issue of the magazine. Thereafter the pace slowed, but the phenomenon has survived until today. Click on the Fiction tab of The New Yorker website and you will find the leader: “Savage breast” by Elizabeth McKenzie: “’Mama?’ I called, even though of course she was no longer living.” In 2014 The New Yorker is still advertising its superior quality with a literary device that achieved iconic status after being employed by a French writer in 1942.

Does this mean anything more than that some writers and editors of The New Yorker think that affectless death – the acceptance of man’s absurd relation to the universe – is the ultra-cool mark of a real writer? Was the habit related to French nouvelle vague cinema? What does it owe to the upward cultural mobility of pulp fiction? If indebted to Evelyn Waugh’s The loved one (1948) or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), why are all but one or two of these stories so devoid of humor? Do they reflect developments in the world outside literature? Is cool literature related to cool jazz? Did confusion over the war in Vietnam play a role? Was mankind drained unnoticed of empathy by war and genocide? Or, on the contrary, did people feel a greater need to take account of death in their lives after Auschwitz? What difference between 1941-1946 and 1968 – literary, cultural, historical, existential – can account for this uncomfortable need to show off an ability to take death itself in one’s stride? Why should crying over the death of a mother be considered an inferior, because maudlin or sentimental, subject for a writer? All I have are questions.

© Gary Schwartz 2014. Published on the Schwartzlist on 12 December 2014.

The above is related to my work earlier this year on the exhibition Emotions: pain and pleasure in Dutch painting of the Golden Age at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. Why, I asked myself and was asked by others, has no museum ever devoted an exhibition to a subject that was of such obvious and far going importance to artists and writers on art? Part of my answer is a quotation from the catalogue of Rembrandt paintings by Horst Gerson in the very year of 1968, for which I served as Gerson’s editorial assistant. In his entry on the world-famous David playing the harp before Saul in the Mauritshuis, showing Saul wiping a tear from his eyes, Gerson rejected – he was the first to do so – Rembrandt’s authorship of the painting. One of his reasons is “the superficial handling and the somewhat ‘larmoyant’ interpretation” of the subject. A great artist like Rembrandt, Gerson felt, had no need of outward signs to convey feelings. This I believe was the same modernist sentiment – pardon the word – that moved Borges in 1967 to equate the news of a death to noticing a new billboard ad for tobacco.

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