Do authors read book reviews?

Would Camus have read a review of his book, L’Homme revolté (1951), written by his compatriot Paul Ricoeur in the 1952 edition of Christianisme Social (no.60, 229-239)? This intriguing question arose in my mind one Saturday morning, when shaken out of my usual lethargic Saturday morning daydreaming by a husbandly voice with the exciting news that I had mail in our snail mail letterbox from our university library.

Over breakfast, as I skimmed through the 11 paged photocopy of closely written prose in small-sized font – my excitement knew no bounds (fn. Seeing certain parallels in the lives of Camus and Ricoeur, my googling found a blog entry by Olivier Abel, professor of philosophy and ethics, who referred to this book review).

For the past 7 or 8 years, I have been ploughing my way through the translated works of Ricoeur, starting with Time and Narrative, History Memory and Forgetting, Oneself as Another, as well as the essays in Course of Recognition, The Just, and Reflections on the Just, these essays being easier to read and understand than the three monographs (and The Rule of Metaphor which I’m attempting now). Usually a half an hour a day on my bus ride to work.

Not having had any courses on philosophy or any talent for logical thought, especially in the early years of reading Ricoeur, it wasn’t a great deal I understood, but what little I understood intrigued me. With an interest in 20th-century history, from the interwar period onwards to the end of the century, I had often wondered how the great thinkers of the 20th century dealt with the Shoah and the Cold War. Although I had begun with Hannah Arendt, something, which I can’t quite remember now, made me turn to Ricoeur. Yet, the more I read Ricoeur, the more my thoughts turned to a novel we had to read as a set book for our French A’ levels in the sixth form, Camus’ La Chute (1956).

Seen from today’s sensitivities towards religious texts, it is interesting that, in those far off days, forty years ago in a convent school, our French teacher, a devout Catholic herself, could present and go through, word for word, idea for idea, a novel with a protagonist who declares that no one is innocent, not even the infant Jesus, the Mystical Lamb, whose very existence caused Herod to slaughter the innocents.

The foggy canals of Amsterdam, along which the Jean Baptiste Clamence, proclaims this good news is the Dantesque hell in which we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Shoah, on the threshold to nuclear annihilation with the incipient Cold War, and in Camus’ own case, also the unravelling of his beloved Algeria in the background. Clamence calling himself a judge pénitent forms the subject of another blog entry, when we come to consider a section in Ricouer’s History, Memory, Forgetting on moral guilt.

Here, in Ricoeur’s review of Camus’ L’Homme Revolté, what makes me wonder is that he, Ricouer, devotes the final section of the review to an examination of the issue of innocence and guilt, an issue that constitutes a central theme in Camus’s novel a few years later. So, the question remains: Do authors read reviews of their books? Might Camus have read Ricoeur’s review?

Admittedly, times were otherwise, and in a pre-digital world, one was most likely dependent on word of mouth or a sharp publisher or agent with their nose to the ground to find a review in what seems to me today, a somewhat obscure journal. (fn. Very soon after I wrote this post, a search online brought up an article by Guy Basset, philosophe, directeur des Hautes Études Camusiennes, who also wondered if Camus had seen this review in Bulletin of Etudes Camusiennes, 77, January 2006, pp 14-16.

Would the papers of Camus or Ricoeur contain evidence of any correspondence between them, I wonder.

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