Writer Susan Sontag shown Jan. 11, 1964. (AP Photo)
Great writers are either husbands or lovers. Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gift of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than moral goodness.
Notoriously, women tolerate qualities of a lover – moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality – that would never be countenanced in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling. In the same way, readers put up with intelligibility, obsessiveness, painful truths, lies, bad grammar – if, in compensation, the writer allows them to savour rare emotions and dangerous sensations. And, as in life, so in art, both are necessary, husbands and lovers. It’s a great pity when one is forced to choose between them.
Again, as in life, so in art: the lover usually has to take second place. In the great periods of literature, husbands have been more numerous than lovers; in all the great periods of literature, that is, except our own. Perversity is the muse of modern literature. Today the house of fiction is full of mad lovers, gleeful rapists, castrated sons – but very few husbands. The husbands have a bad conscience, they would all like to be lovers. Even so husbandly and solid a writer as Thomas Mann was tormented by an ambivalence towards virtue, and was forever carrying on about it in the guise of a conflict between the bourgeois and the artist. But most modern writers don’t even acknowledge Mann’s problem. Each writer, each literary movement vies with its predecessor in a great display of temperament, obsession, singularity. Modern literature is oversupplied with madmen of genius. No wonder, then, that when an immensely gifted writer, whose talents certainly fall short of genius, arises who boldly assumes the responsibilities of sanity, he should be acclaimed beyond his purely literary merits.
I mean, of course, Albert Camus, the ideal husband of contemporary letters. Being a contemporary, he had to traffic in the madmen’s themes: suicide, affectlessness, guilt, absolute terror. But he does so with such an air of reasonableness, measure, effortlessness, gracious impersonality, as to place him apart from the others. Starting from the premises of a popular nihilism, he moves the reader – solely by the power of his tranquil voice and tone – to humanist and humanitarian conclusions in no way entailed by his premises.
Being a contemporary, he had to traffic in the madmen’s themes: suicide, affectlessness, guilt, absolute terror.
This illogical leaping of the abyss of nihilism is the gift for which readers are grateful to Camus. This is why he evoked feelings of real affection on the part of his readers. Kafka arouses pity and terror, Joyce admiration, Proust and Gide respect, but no modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love. His death in 1960 was felt as a personal loss by the whole literate world.