Sunday, January 25, 2015

Camus and Sartre / The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It

An excerpt from
Camus and Sartre

The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It

by Ronald Aronson

Chapter 1: First Encounters
Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus first met in June 1943, at the opening of Sartre's play The Flies. When Sartre was standing in the lobby, according to Simone de Beauvoir, "a dark-skinned young man came up and introduced himself: it was Albert Camus." His novel The Stranger, published a year earlier, was a literary sensation, and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus had appeared six months previously. The young man from Algiers was marooned in France by the war. While convalescing from an exacerbation of his chronic tuberculosis in Le Panelier, near Chambon, Camus had been cut off from his wife by the Allied conquest of French North Africa and the resulting German invasion of unoccupied France in November 1942. He wanted to meet the increasingly well-known novelist and philosopher—and now playwright—whose fiction he had reviewed years earlier and who had just published a long article on Camus's own books. It was a brief encounter. "I'm Camus," he said. Sartre immediately "found him a most likeable personality."
In November, Camus moved to Paris to start working as a reader for his (and Sartre's) publisher, Gallimard, and their friendship began in earnest. At their first get-together at the Café Flore—where Sartre and Beauvoir worked, kept warm, ate, and socialized—the three started off awkwardly. Then they started talking shop, Camus and Sartre sharing their regard for the surrealist poet Francis Ponge's Le Parti pris des choses. What "led to the ice being broken" between them, according to Beauvoir, was Camus's passion for the theater. Camus had led an amateur political theater troupe in Algiers. "Sartre talked of his new play [No Exit] and the conditions that would govern its production. Then he suggested that Camus should play the lead and stage it. Camus hesitated at first, but when Sartre pressed the point he agreed." They held a few rehearsals in Beauvoir's hotel room for what was to be a low-budget touring production. "The readiness with which Camus flung himself into this venture endeared him to us; it also hinted that he had plentiful time at his disposal. He had only recently come to Paris; he was married, but his wife had stayed behind in North Africa." Sartre was pleased with Camus's work in the role of Garcin, but his financial backer withdrew; this man's wife, who was to be showcased in No Exit, was arrested for suspected Resistance activity. Sartre was then offered the chance to present the play in a professional production on the Paris stage, and Camus obligingly backed out. But the friendship was cemented. "His youth and independence created bonds between us: we were all solitaries, who had developed without the aid of any 'school'; we belonged to no group or clique."
If the friendship seemed so easy at the beginning, one reason was that Sartre and Camus had already gotten to know each other in ways more important than a handshake. Avid readers, each absorbed in shaping his own ideas and styles, the young writers had read each other's books well before they met. Their reviews of each other's early writings are still among the most interesting and enthusiastic commentaries. Although not uncritical, Sartre's and Camus's first responses to each other express the literary and philosophical kinship that underlay their relationship. They also introduce us to one of the most important sites of their interaction for over twenty years—their sometimes direct, sometimes veiled, references to each other. From their first meeting to the last words they exchanged, we will find some of their most vital and charged encounters on paper.
Camus discovered Sartre in October 1938 when he read and reviewed Nausea. The young pied-noir (a Frenchman born in Algeria), was a fledgling reporter and author of a column entitled "The Reading Room" for an Algiers left-wing daily. He had published locally two small books of essays, The Wrong Side and the Right Side and Nuptials, and after abandoning a first novel had begun writing The Stranger. Though only in his mid-twenties, the would-be novelist wrote remarkably self-assured responses in his literary column to the new fiction being published in Paris, including Gide's The Counterfeiters, Nizan'sThe Conspiracy, Silone's Bread and Wine, Huxley's Those Barren Leaves, Amado's Bahia, and Sartre's Nausea and The Wall.
Camus's review of Nausea was demanding and appreciative. He was no dazzled provincial, light-years from Paris's sophistication, but a peer who deeply shared Sartre's purposes and cheered him on, only to be disappointed by what he saw at this early period as Sartre's ultimate failure. Nausea recounts the breakdown of the reassuring daily life of Antoine Roquentin, who is staying in a western port city and working on a biography of a Revolution-era marquis. Roquentin feels nauseated as he experiences the absurdity normally hidden by his routines, and the truth of that absurdity appears ever more sharply as his life slowly gives way around him. It is a dazzling thought-experiment, containing some marvelous characterizations and descriptions. As Camus had told a friend several months before he wrote the review, he had "thought a lot about" the book, and it was "very close to a part of me." He led off his review by asserting that "a novel is nothing but philosophy expressed in images." In a good novel, however, the philosophy becomes one with the images. Camus gave no indication of knowing that the novelist was also a philosopher who had already published a book on the imagination in 1936 and a long article entitled "The Transcendence of the Ego" the following year. He himself had earned the diplôme d'études supérieures (the equivalent of a master's degree) in philosophy with a thesis on Saint Augustine and Plotinus. Sartre, he insisted, broke the balance between his novel's theories and its life. As a result, its author's "remarkable fictional gifts and the play of the toughest and most lucid mind are at the same time both lavished and squandered." Lavished: each of the book's chapters, taken by itself, "reaches a kind of perfection in bitterness and truth." Daily life in Bouville "is depicted with a sureness of touch whose lucidity leaves no room for hope." And each of Sartre's reflections on time effectively illustrated the thinking of philosophers from Kierkegaard to Heidegger. Squandered: the descriptive and the philosophical aspects of the novel "don't add up to a work of art: the passage from one to the other is too rapid, too unmotivated, to evoke in the reader the deep conviction that makes art of the novel."
Camus went on to praise Sartre's descriptions of absurdity, the sense of anguish that arises as the ordinary structures imposed on existence collapse in Antoine Roquentin's life, and his resulting nausea. Sartre's deft handling of this strange and banal subject moves with a "vigor and certainty" reminiscent of Kafka. But—and here Sartre differs from Kafka—"some indefinable obstacle prevents the reader from participating and holds him back when he is on the very threshold of consent." By this, Camus meant not only the imbalance between ideas and images but also Sartre's negativity. Sartre dwells on the repugnant features of humankind "instead of basing his reasons for despair on certain of man's signs of greatness." And the reviewer was also bothered by the "comic" inadequacy of Roquentin's final attempt to find hope in art, considering how "trivial" art is when compared with some of life's redeeming moments.
Though strongly critical, Camus appreciated Sartre's ideas and enjoyed his honesty and his capacity to break new ground. The review's closing words stress his admiration:

This is the first novel from a writer from whom everything may be expected. So natural a suppleness in staying on the far boundaries of conscious thought, so painful a lucidity, are indications of limitless gifts. These are grounds for welcomingNausea as the first summons of an original and vigorous mind whose lessons and works to come we are impatient to see.

Was this merely a reviewer's posture, a way of balancing criticism with just enough praise so as to not sound peevish? The impatient critic did not have long to wait. Less than six months later, Sartre's next book fully satisfied him. In February 1939, in reviewing Sartre's collection of stories The Wall, Camus enthusiastically hailed Sartre's lucidity, his portrayal of the absurdity of existence, and his depiction of characters whose freedom was useless to them. Their negativity—if anything, stronger in The Wall than in Nausea—now troubled him less. Overwhelmed by their freedom, these people could not overcome absurdity as they bumped up against their own lives. They had "no attachments, no principles, no Ariadne's thread," because they were unable to act. "From this stems both the immense interest and the absolute mastery of Sartre's stories." The reader does not know what the characters will do from one moment to the next; their author's "art lies in the detail with which he depicts his absurd creatures, the way he observes their monotonous behavior."
Camus confessed to being unable to put these stories down. They gave their reader "that higher, absurd freedom which leads the characters to their own ends." It was a useless freedom, which "explains the often overwhelming emotional impact of these pages as well as their cruel pathos." Sartre described an absurd human condition, but he refused to flinch before it. The philosophy and the images were now in balance. Camus's conclusion indicated not only his enthusiasm for the author but his sense of common purpose with a writer who,

in his two books, has been able to get straight to the essential problem and bring it to life through his obsessive characters. A great writer always introduces his own world and its message. Sartre's brings us to nothingness, but also to lucidity. And the image he perpetuates through his characters, of a man seated amid the ruins of his life, is a good illustration of the greatness and truth of his work.

"Greatness and truth"—"la grandeur et la vérité." Might Sartre have seen this tribute? On his side, all we know for certain is a literary encounter that took place in fall 1942. Discovering Camus only weeks after sending off the completed manuscript ofBeing and Nothingness, he was moved to devote a generous, detailed, 6,000-word essay to The Stranger. In this striking article, Sartre reads that book alongside The Myth of Sisyphus, the fiction in relation to the philosophy. As he writes, let us listen to the different voices:

The absurd…resides neither in man nor in the world if you consider each separately. But since man's dominant characteristic is "being-in-the-world," the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition. Thus, the absurd is not, to begin with, the object of a mere idea; it is revealed to us in a doleful illumination. "Getting up, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, in the same routine…," and then, suddenly, "the seeing collapses," and we find ourselves in a state of hopeless lucidity.

Here Sartre is approvingly summarizing and quoting from a passage near the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus lays out his basic ideas. Surprisingly, the quoted passage sounds like Camus's paraphrase of none other than Roquentin's experience in Nausea. Sartre continues, in apparent agreement with Camus: "If we are able to refuse the misleading aid of religion or existential philosophies, we then possess certain basic, obvious facts: the world is chaos, a 'divine equivalence born of anarchy'; tomorrow does not exist, since we all die. 'In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.'"
Turning directly to the context in The Myth of Sisyphus where this sentence occurs, and reading from this point forward, we are reminded of Nausea: "At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike a man in the face." And on the next page ofThe Myth of Sisyphus is the Sartre-like passage about daily routine collapsing, which Sartre quotes in his review. As we turn the page, Sartre's novel is mentioned explicitly: "This nausea, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd." Whose voice, then, is heard in the original quotation above? In a stunning reflection of kinship, Sartre enthusiastically quoted Camus—whose analysis drew upon Sartre. It is both of their voices at one and the same time.
Beyond this kinship, Sartre compared Camus with Kafka and Hemingway, whom he admired, and praised The Stranger for its "skillful construction."

There is not a single unnecessary detail, nor one that is not returned to later on, and used in the argument. And when we close the book, we realize that it could not have had any other ending. In this world that has been stripped of its causality and presented as absurd, the smallest incident has weight. There is no single one which does not help to lead the hero to crime and capital punishment. The Stranger is a classical work, an orderly work, composed about the absurd and against the absurd.

The author of Nausea obviously admired the imaginative power of The Stranger. The stark simplicity of Camus's language, his ability to evoke the physical, the unforgettable descriptions of the funeral vigil, the next morning's procession, and Meursault's daily routines combine with more disturbing aspects—Meursault's lack of normal human emotion, his mindless murder of the Arab, the prosecutor's outrage at the young man's indifference toward his mother's death, his own defiance of the jury and its sense of propriety, as well the improbability of a death sentence for a white man who has killed an Arab in Algeria—to create the great novel of French Algeria. But how did the author of Being and Nothingness respond to The Myth of Sisyphus? Having just completed one of the most original and profound philosophical constructions of the twentieth century, Sartre showed respect for the philosophical essayist who, "by virtue of the cool style of The Myth of Sisyphus" as well as its subject, "takes his place in the great tradition of those French moralists" regarded as Nietzsche's forerunners. "The turn of his reasoning, the clarity of his ideas, the cut of his expository style and a certain kind of solar, ceremonious and sad sombreness, all indicate a classic temperament."
Just as Sartre must have noticed that The Stranger came alive as fiction in ways that his own Nausea did not—as Camus had astutely pointed out four years earlier—so also he must have seen that for all its appeal as popular philosophizing The Myth of Sisyphus was the work of a dabbler in philosophy and not a systematic builder of ideas. Camus briefly dismissed existentialists such as Jaspers, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard en route to insisting that nothing could overcome life's absurdity. Sartre, on the other hand, had spent years working through the phenomenology of Heidegger and Husserl until he synthesized them in Being and Nothingness into a work that sought to penetrate the very nature of being. Starting with Cartesian individual consciousness, Sartre carefully described basic structures of existence, fundamental human projects, and characteristic patterns of behavior such as bad faith. By the end of the book he was poised to follow his philosophy's implications, as he did over the next several years, into virtually every aspect of existence—from daily life and politics to ethics, artistic creation, and the nature of knowledge. In The Myth of Sisyphus, on the other hand, starting from the premise that "the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions," Camus stayed on the terrain of experience and its frustrations rather than pursuing "the learned and classical dialectic." Thus both The Myth of Sisyphus and Being and Nothingness began with the absurd and exuded the same zeitgeist; yet they were vastly different.
Just how different is conveyed joltingly in a single, nasty "by the way": "Camus shows off a bit by quoting passages from Jaspers, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard, whom, by the way, he does not always seem to have quite understood." The philosopher, agrégéfrom the Ecole Normale Supérieure, puts down the philosophizer, diplôme d'études supérieure from the University of Algiers.
Perhaps this is why Camus was not thrilled by Sartre's article. In a letter to his teacher Jean Grenier, who published his own review of The Stranger in the very same issue of Cahiers du Sud, Camus reacted to Sartre on Camus:

Sartre's article is a model of "taking apart." Of course, every creation has an instinctive element which [he] does not envision, and intelligence does not play such an important role. But in criticism this is the rule of the game, which is fine because on several points he enlightened me about what I wanted to do. I also see that most of his criticisms are fair, but why that acid tone?

Acid dissolves, after all, takes things apart. Perhaps the remark about tone means no more than Camus's discomfort at seeing his work being taken apart and explained. Clearly uneasy with being put under Sartre's microscope, Camus defends himself by opposing his instinctive creativity to Sartre's critical acuity, even while conceding that the latter requires more intelligence.
Sartre's put-down may well have been repayment for a slight the reader will have noticed in a passage from The Myth of Sisyphusquoted above: "this nausea, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd." Three years earlier Camus had referred to Sartre the author of novels and short stories as a great writer. Now, relying on the ideas of Nausea, and having mentioned Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Jaspers by name, Camus gives his peer only the most oblique mention. The anonymous "writer of today," thereby placed on a lower level than the named great thinkers, in turn demonstrates his own ability not only to analyze and even cuff a young upstart but also to take the opposite tack, devoting considerable space in his article to generously showing how Camus fits into the aristocracy of literature and ideas.
In addition to revealing a potential for prickliness toward each other, these remarks remind us that the two men's kinship was not sameness. In addition to their mutual praise and sense of discovery, these texts suggest many differences between Sartre and Camus. Sartre had a more negative and Camus a more positive view of both nature and human reality. Merely to openThe Stranger alongside Nausea is to be struck by the contrast between Meursault/Camus's dazzling physicality and Roquentin/Sartre's famous disgust for the physical. Camus reveled in the sensuous world of North Africa, as in Nuptials, and his reader can hardly ignore its intensity and its pleasures. Sartre's writing never embraced the physical world or the body in the direct, unquestioning, and often joyous way so natural to Camus. Indeed, one of the most striking contrasts in modern fiction, as Camus himself knew, is that between the gray, ugly Bouville—"Mudville"—of Nausea and The Stranger's bright, shimmering port city, its beach, and its surrounding countryside, Le Havre and Algiers.
Their reviews of each other point up another key difference. Although both wrote important works of philosophy and fiction and successfully tackled a number of other genres, by temperament the one was primarily a philosopher, absorbed with theories and general ideas, the other primarily a novelist, most comfortably capturing concrete situations—Camus's distinction between "intelligence" and the "instinctive element." The brilliant young philosopher took absurdity as his starting point and slowly, in the five years between Nausea and Being and Nothingness, explored how human activity constitutes a meaningful world from brute, meaningless existence. The philosophizing novelist built an entire worldview on the sense that absurdity is an unsurpassable given of human experience.
Despite these differences, the two writers' initial admiration for each other sprang from the closeness of their starting points and the similarity of their projects. Each was trying make his mark in fields kept quite distinct in French education and culture. Each one immediately noticed that the other was writing both philosophy and literature. And each immediately saw how much they shared. Their writing, with its unconventional plots and seemingly unmotivated characters, stressed that existence was absurd. They faced this absurdity honestly and lucidly, and they agreed that most people (including philosophers) did not do so. They prized living authentically.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 9-17 of Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

French literary anniversaries / Albert Camus

11 Octuber, 2013

French literary anniversaries, part 3: Camus

In this week’s TLSRobert Zaretsky reviews Albert Camus’s Algerian Chronicles, a collection of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s journalism, both early and late, in a “brilliant translation” by Arthur Goldhammer. Zaretsky writes that Algeria’s right to independence from France was complicated in Camus’s mind by the fact that he was himself one of a million French colonists – “the dilemma he could never resolve”. The book’s publication marks the centenary of Camus’s birth (November 7, 1913).
It’s probably safe to assume that it was mainly Camus’s work as a novelist and playwright that won him that Nobel Prize in 1957, “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times":L’ÉtrangerLa Peste and La Chute in particular. (Does anyone concern themselves much with the plays these days? The theatre doesn’t seem to have been his natural medium.)
In common with many readers, I have always found it easier to read (and admire) Camus than Sartre – the two will forever be indissolubly linked, thanks to their active presence on the post-war Left Bank. Camus was the humanist, Sartre the ideologue, Camus the sensualist, Sartre the intellectual and so on. Camus had the better look: the upturned coat collar and the fag stub (although my favourite photo of the author has him wearing improbably high shorts, below, with the poet René Char).
But what of Camus’s fiction now? I for one won’t be readingL’Étranger (The Outsider) again, brief though it is; the last time I read the book it left a rather unpleasant taste, right from its notorious opening two sentences: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas”. Reviewing a new translation of the book in theTLS last year, Shaun Whiteside mused: “. . . how strange this novel now seems. Camus’s Algiers of seventy years ago is a bizarre non-lieu, a European city peopled by Europeans, where shady anonymous ‘Arabs’ lurk menacingly in the background”. It did, however, inspire a good song by The Cure.
I have just reread La Peste (1947; The Plague). According to its author, “La Peste may be read in three different ways. It is at the same time a tale about an epidemic, a symbol of Nazi occupation . . . , and, thirdly, the concrete illustration of a metaphysical problem, that of evil . . . “. The symbolic interpretation doesn’t persuade me: the allegory is so vague – are we really to believe that the rats bringing the bubonic plague to the Algerian coastal town of Oran are in fact Nazis occupying France? I prefer to read it on a literal level, as an account of human suffering under terrible conditions, but also of the strength of the moral and physical courage of some, as well as the stoicism of others: the saintly doctor, Rieux, who doesn’t have time to worry about his sick wife who has been sent away on a health cure, and who visits an aged asthmatic at 10 at night, and his associate Tarrou who accepts his fate with dignity. It remains a powerful book, and almost painful to read in places: the description of the death from the plague of a young boy in particular. At times it’s as if Camus is presenting a world without the possibility of redemption, while the nature of evil could be said to be explored through the figure of Cottard, a petty crook profiting from the crisis and happy to see its continuation.
But again it’s hard not to be struck by the Europeanness of Camus’s Oran: a Jesuit priest delivers a sermon in which he places the blame for the plague on its victims; because of the plague, “everyone” in Oran has forgotten about Christmas this year. Arabs are conspicuous by their absence. This was the world Camus mainly knew.
Camus’s biographer Olivier Todd wrote that “La Peste’s calm and ample style was radically different from the terse and dry tone ofL’Étranger. It was similar to a lake after a torrent”. The book was favourably received, although not in Camus’s own publicationCombat, ironically, where Maurice Nadeau criticized the author’s notions of secular sainthood. Fifty-two thousand copies were sold within a few months (according to Todd, Sartre, on a lecture tour of the US, “publicly praised La Peste and its author’s talent, but privately he declared that Camus was no genius”!)
Against that, Sartre called La Chute (1956, The Fall) “the finest and least well understood of Camus’s works”. Its English translator Robin Buss said that “for many, it is the best and the most original thing [Camus] wrote”. A bleak autobiographical meditation set in Amsterdam, it remains worth reading.
As is the posthumously published Le Premier Homme (The First Man, 1994), a novel reconstructed by the novelist’s daughter Catherine Camus from manuscript pages found scattered across the road after the car crash that killed him on January 4, 1960). In fact, it’s hard not to see it as Camus’s best work, a moving reconstruction of the history of colonial Algeria from 1830, when the French first arrived, seen through the eyes of a poverty-stricken family of settlers (the author drew on his own family’s harsh experiences).    
An exhibition, Albert Camus, citoyen du monde, has just opened in Aix-en-Provence. Writing about it in Le Monde (October 8), Macha Séry explains how the original curator Benjamin Stora was thrown off the project last year because of his critical views about colonial Algeria, which didn’t chime with those of the Aixois old-timers who were nostalgic for French Algeria and happened to be close to the city’s mayor Maryse Joissains-Masini.
Séry writes: “. . . what’s astonishing is the extent to which Albert Camus, the best-selling French author outside France, remains unappreciated in the Hexagon [France]”. She reveals that, unlike his near-contemporaries Sartre, Boris Vian and Guy Debord, he has never been dignified with an exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale. Which is “incredible, a real mystery”, according to the leading French publisher Antoine Gallimard (another member of the Gallimard clan, Michel, was at the wheel of the fancy Facel Vega when he and Camus were killed).
Complex, combative, morally tormented, Camus, it seems, continues to divide opinion.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Albert Camus by Jeremhy Harding

Albert Camus

The Castaway

Jeremy Harding

December 1938 in a large provincial city. It’s the last chance for the council to agree the municipal budget; in the chamber a reporter from the local paper tries to wring a bit of fun from a drab occasion. As a dignitary ploughs through a lengthy preamble, restless councillors begin to doodle (one makes a paper windmill from the minutes of an earlier meeting). A few days later an inquiry opens into a gas explosion caused by a leak in the mains. The same reporter heads for the scene. Here he’s a stickler for detail: medium-sized pipe, weight forty to fifty kilograms, linking the mains to a pressure valve; width of fissure 323 mm. The gas company blames the burst on subsidence but he thinks they may be trying to swing the inquiry in their favour. In February he delivers a mind-numbing tract on grain and grape harvests the previous year. At the end he announces he’ll be back shortly with more of the same once the session on the citrus harvest opens.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Albert Camus / The Nobel Prize in Literature

Albert Camus
Albert Camus

French writer Albert Camus smokes a cigarette on the balcony outside his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard's office in Paris, 1955. Camus won the Nobel in 1957; in 1960, when he was 46 years old, he was killed in a car crash along with Gallimard, who was driving.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Get to know the killer badass Scarlett Johansson is playing next

It's unlikely that the forthcoming remake of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson will begin in the same way as its predecessor, Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime classic: with the sight of its cyborg heroine, Motoko Kusanagi, jumping off a skyscraper and shooting a target through a window as she falls, all while appearing nude*. Then again, considering that Johansson exhibited a willingness to disrobe for the cameras in last year's masterful sci-fi thriller Under the Skin, it remains possible that director Rupert Sanders's (Snow White and the Huntsman) Americanized redo will mimic even its source material's fondness for skin—an element that, titillation aside, is an integral part of the film's portrait of man's relationship to technology, which in its near-future has progressed to the point of becoming fundamental, and more than a little sensual. Either way, though, the announcement that Johansson has finally signed onto the project is extremely exciting, because in a host of ways, it appears to be an absolutely ideal project for the actress, even if there's a solid argument out there that the studio should've pursued an Asian actress.
Ghost in the Shell began with Masamune Shirow's seminal manga series, which in its native Japan spawned multiple films and a popular TV series (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex). A domestic adaptation has struggled to get off the ground for years, primarily because Oshii's original animated film remains, 20 years after its debut, a highly influential science-fiction gem, one that broke ground for its synthesis of traditional and computer-generated animation, and which marries action, sex, and philosophical concerns about the nature of self to enthralling ends. Equally excited by and fearful of ubiquitous technology, and rife with government-big-business conspiracies, it's a story steeped in topics still relevant today. And at its center is Kusanagi, a cutting-edge robotic agent in mid-21st-century Japan's Section 9 counterterrorism unit, whom Johansson will now almost certainly play in the update. 

Teamed with her gruff, foul-mouthed partner Batou, Kusanagi is tasked with unraveling a convoluted mystery involving a notorious hacker known as The Puppet Master who can break into not just computer networks but also into minds, since just about everyone in this future-Japan has, physically and mentally, been technologically upgraded. With rare exceptions, the population is now semi-automated, giving citizens enhanced superpowers, as well as the ability to plug into Internet-style databases through wire ports located in the backs of their necks. It's a dystopian future in which the boundary between man and machine has been hopelessly blurred, calling into question what it is that defines life: Flesh? Sentient thought? Reproduction? Something more intangible?
Buxom, unflappably cool, and possessed with a brutal physicality that's augmented by her mecha-brain, Kusanagi is like a brunette version of Johansson's Lucy protagonist, whose extraordinary capabilities are similarly the result of science. Kusanagi's swift, balletic acrobatic fighting skills also recall those of Johansson's Marvel spy Black Widow, whose ass-kickery has a sly self-assuredness that enhances her sex appeal. In other words, Ghost in the Shell affords the actress a chance to meld many of the attributes of her most recent characters, a promising prospect given that Johansson's 2014 output solidified her as an action heroine par excellence.
Even more than her face-kicking, limb-snapping credentials, though, it's Johansson's somewhat detached, inscrutable soulfulness that makes her ideal for Ghost in the Shell. Kusanagi's mechanical body houses an organic brain (i.e., the ghost in her proverbial shell), and much of Oshii's film is concerned with her quest to understand herself: Is she human or robot? Alive or merely operational? Alone or inherently interconnected? The backdrop of The Puppet Master only further shades her narrative with existential questions of identity and alienation. As such, the film requires a leading lady who's not only a formidable physical presence, but one who can convey a deeper, haunting internal confusion and crisis. Johansson brought those very qualities to Under the Skin, in which, as an extraterrestrial hunting for male prey in Scotland, the star wielded her eroticism-as-weapon and an ominous measure of fish-out-of-water solitude, as if her alluring alien was both fascinated by the people around her, and increasingly sorrowful over her inherent difference, and detachment, from them. 
As confirmed by her three high-profile 2014 films (Under the SkinCaptain America: The Winter SoldierLucy), Johansson is a compelling dramatic force dropped into a cacophonous field of CG fireworks. That may, in the end, prove to be her greatest asset when it comes to Ghost in the Shell, since its futuristic tale of cyber-espionage will undoubtedly require more than its fair share of digital wizardry, especially if it seeks to faithfully duplicate the original's stunning imagery of limbs severing, heads exploding, and bodies drifting through the air, water, and digital ether. However, if director Rupert Sanders is smart, he'll realize that his greatest special effect is ultimately his transfixing star, even if, ultimately, she keeps her clothes on.
*Correction: As a commenter points out, Motoko wears a skintight, flesh-colored body suit in the opening scene that makes her appear nude, though she technically is not.
Nick Schager is a New York City-area film critic and journalist who also contributes toThe Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vulture, The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, The Atlantic, SF Weekly, Film Journal International, and Slant Magazine. In his scant spare time, he sleeps.

Scarlett Johansson / Seeing Scarlett
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Monday, January 19, 2015

Michel Houellebecq / The Art of Fiction

Michel Houellebecq
Poster by T.A.
Michel Houellebecq 

The Art of Fiction 

No. 206

Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell

The Paris Review
Fall 2010
No. 194

“Do you like the Stooges?” Michel Houellebecq asked me on the second day of our interview. He put down his electric cigarette (it glowed red when he inhaled, producing steam instead of smoke) and rose slowly from his futon couch. “Iggy Pop wrote some songs based on my novel The Possibility of an Island,” he offered. “He told me it’s the only book he has liked in the last ten years.” France’s most famous living writer flipped open his MacBook and the gravelly voice of the punk legend filled the kitchenette, chanting: “It’s nice to be dead.”
Michel Houellebecq was born on the French island of La Réunion, near Madagascar, in 1958. As his official Web site states, his bohemian parents, an anesthesiologist and a mountain guide, “soon lost all interest in his existence.” He has no pictures of himself as a child. After a brief stay with his maternal grandparents in Algeria, he was raised from the age of six by his paternal grandmother in northern France. After a period of unemployment and depression, which led to several stays in psychiatric units, Houellebecq found a job working tech support at the French National Assembly. (The members of parliament were “very sweet,” he says.) 
A poet since his university days, he wrote a well-regarded study of the American science-fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft in 1991. At the age of thirty-six, he published his first novel, Whatever (1994), about the crushingly boring lives of two computer programmers. The novel attracted a cult following and inspired a group of fans to start Perpendiculaire, a magazine based on a movement they called “depressionism.” (Houellebecq, who accepted an honorary place on the masthead, says he “didn’t really understand their theory and, frankly, didn’t care.”) His next novel, The Elementary Particles (1998), a mixture of social commentary and blunt descriptions of sex, sold three hundred thousand copies in France and made him an international star. So began the still fierce debate over whether Houellebecq should be hailed as a brilliant realist in the great tradition of Balzac or dismissed as an irresponsible nihilist.(One flummoxed New York Times reviewer called the novel “a deeply repugnant read.” Another described it as “lurch[ing] unpleasantly between the salacious and the psychotic.”) The Perpendiculaire staff was offended by what they saw as his reactionary denunciation of the sexual-liberation movement and booted him from the magazine.
Several years later, his mother, who felt she had been unfairly presented in certain autobiographical passages of the novel, published a four-hundred-page memoir. For the first and last time in his public life, Houellebecq received widespread sympathy from the French press, who were forced to concede that even the harsh portrait of the hippie mother in The Elementary Particles didn’t do justice to the self-involved character that emerged from her autobiography. During her book tour, she famously asked, “Who hasn’t called their son a sorry little prick?”
In 2001, Houellebecq published Platform, about a travel agency that decides to aggressively promote sexual tourism in Thailand. In the novel this leads to a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists. Some views expressed  by his main character (“Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman, had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought of one less Muslim”) led to charges of misogyny and racism, which Houellebecq has yet to live down, to his evident dismay. “How do you have the nerve to write some of the things you do?” I asked him. “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend that I’m already dead.”
During an interview while promoting Platform, Houellebecq made his now notorious statement: “Et la religion la plus con, c’est quand même l’Islam.” (An unsatisfying mild translation is “Islam is the stupidest religion.”) He was sued by a civil-rights group for hate speech and won on the grounds of freedom of expression. “I didn’t think Muslims had become a group that took offense at everything,” he explains. “I knew that about the Jews, who are always ready to find a strain of anti-Semitism somewhere, but with the Muslims, honestly, I wasn’t up to speed.” In 2005, he published The Possibility of an Island, about a future race of clones.
Given Houellebecq’s reputation for getting drunk and making passes at his female interviewers, I was slightly apprehensive as I rang the doorbell of his modest short-term rental in Paris. But during the two days we spent together, he was scrupulously polite and rather shy. Wearing an old flannel shirt and slippers, he was clearly suffering from a bout of his chronic eczema. He spent most of the interview seated on the futon, smoking. (He is trying to cut down from four packs a day, hence the electric cigarette.) We spoke French and, very occasionally, English, a language Houellebecq understands quite well. Each of my questions met with a funereal silence, during which he blew smoke and closed his eyes. More than once I began to wonder whether he had fallen asleep. Eventually the answer would emerge, in an exhausted monotone which grew only slightly less weary the second day. His follow-up e-mails were whimsical and charming.
Houellebecq has won many major French literary prizes, though not the coveted Goncourt, which many in the French literary establishment feel has been unfairly withheld. He has also published several volumes of poetry and essays. Some of his poems have been set to music, and Houellebecq has performed them in Parisian nightclubs. France’s first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has also recorded a song based on his poetry. Most recently, Bernard-Henri Lévy, the other public intellectual the French love to hate, collaborated with him on Public Enemies, an exchange of letters between the two men, which is scheduled to appear in translation next winter. His latest novel, La Carte et le Territoire, appears in France this September.
Currently single, Houellebecq is twice divorced and has a son by his first marriage. Since 2000, he has lived on Ireland’s west coast and spends his summers at his condominium in Andalusia.

Michel Houellebecq
Poster by T.A.

Who are your literary precursors?
Recently I’ve wondered. My answer has always been that I was very struck by Baudelaire, by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, by Dostoyevsky and, a little later, by Balzac. All of which is true. These are people I admire. I also love the other Romantic poets, Hugo, Vigny, Musset, Nerval, Verlaine, and Mallarmé, both for the beauty of their work and for its terrifying emotional intensity. But I’ve started to wonder whether what I read as a child wasn’t more important.

Michel Houellebecq Triumphant

Michel Houellebecq
Poster by T.A.

Houellebecq Triumphant

November 9, 2010 | by Nelly Kaprielian

Photograph by Vincent Ferrané. To see more photographs of Houellebecq, click the picture above.
“I’ve become a cause,” declares Michel Houellebecq when asked how he really feels, a few hours after winning the Prix Goncourt. And it’s true: If he hadn’t won France’s biggest literary prize, it would have been more than a disappointment; it would have been a defeat. (And I don’t even want to think about the bloggers, his fiercest supporters. The bloggers would have exploded.)
Now it’s midnight: We’re at the Montana drinking vodka with some kind of blue mint thing in it—“we” being a small gang rounded up by Frédéric Beigbeder after dinner. No way is the novelist and former talk-show host (one of our more energetic littérateurs) going to let his friend Michel crawl into bed with his Goncourt. “Between Michel getting the Goncourt and Virginie Despentes winning le Renaudot,” Beigbeder exclaims, “a whole generation—our generation—has finally won!” There's a brief silence, and we must all think the same thing without saying it: If we’ve won and there's nothing to fight for, it’s probably downhill from here.
Of course, we can always wait for Houellebecq to get the Nobel. “After France, the world!” jokes Beigbeder, and everybody’s quick to raise a glass. A colleague from Les Inrocks joins us and immediately falls into a passionate discussion with Michel. When I ask Sylvain Bourmeau (an editor at France’s most important news site, Mediapart) what’s got them so worked up, he tells me “charcuterie.” And in fact, when we were all crammed into a car on the way to the Montana, Michel held forth with great precision on the subject of his car (sorry, don’t ask me the make); it occurred to me that this is what makes him so deeply charming and also, perhaps, part of what makes him such a powerful novelist: his capacity to be completely present, without any irony, whether the subject is literature, feelings, or cars. Later, a blond angel of Russian origin absconds with him, once he’s already half-asleep. This would be Maria, the young woman who served as a model for the character of Olga in La Carte et le térritoire. “All my characters are here,” Houellebecq joked during the dinner thrown in his honor at La Mediterranée. He then asked them to rise: Beigbeder, Maria, and his editor, Teresa Crimisi, who shares with Houellebecq a very sportsmanlike air of victory—all calm joy, no bragadoccio.
“Watch out,” Houellebecq tells his guests, “the rest of you are next.”
It’s true, the room holds plenty of characters you could easily see in a Houellebecq novel. There’s the ultra-chic Bernard-Henri Lévy (who collaborated with Houellebecq on the book Public Enemies); his wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle (who had the foresight to bring an e-cigarette); Yasmina Reza (in jeans and a little leopard-skin coat); the founder of Elle, longtime Vogue editor, and president of the Goncourt prize committee, Edmonde Charles-Roux (perfect in Chanel and Saint-Laurent); François Samuelson (the agent who represents all the prize winners nowadays); and the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut (who has found himself attacked by Bourmeau for his increasingly right-wing positions on Muslims in French society). Houellebecq tries to make peace between Finkielkraut and Bourmeau, but each turns awkwardly away; and when Michel insists, “Really, it means a lot to me,” they are saved by the smiling intervention of Crimisi: “Oh, Michel, you really ought to leave these two alone ... ”
That’s the sort of night it was, full of people from different sides, all of whom shared the same exhilaration at seeing Houellebecq finally receive his due. A night of warmth, happiness, and emotion. As for the cocktail party at the Odéon theater beforehand—I couldn’t see a thing, except for a horde of starving old women throwing themselves on a tray of petit fours. We suspected they might be retired critics, and we hoped that when our time comes, Michel Houellebecq might send us a box of ravioli, every now and then, as a souvenir of better times.

Nelly Kaprielian is a critic and editor in Paris, France.