I’ve been reading Camus’ preface to Jean Grenier’s The Islands, published in 1959. Like much of Camus’ later work–he died Jan. 4, 1960–the preface is nostalgic, yet mature.
Grenier’s book proved a major influence on Camus as a young man. In return, Camus dedicated his first collection of essays The Wrong Side and the Right Side and The Rebel to Grenier.
In the preface, Camus describes how he felt when he first started reading Grenier’s The Islands:
A garden of incomparable wealth was finally opening up to me; I had just discovered art. Something, someone was stirring dimly within me, longing to speak. Reading one book, hearing one conversation, can provoke this rebirth in a young person. One sentence stands out from the open book, one word still vibrates in the room [. . .] Already, at the same moment, in response to this perfect language, a timid, clumsier song rises from the darkness of our being.
Reading The Islands pushed Camus to be a writer. Other books aided the decision, but as Camus says in his preface, only The Islands lingered. It transformed his worldview, and he continued to quote it for the rest of his life, repeating the phrases as if they were his own.
There are moments, words, people that define who we are, that consume us like kindling in a violent flash. From there, we rebuild on a new foundation. But the fire never burns down. It continues to smolder.
At least once per week, I walk down a river trail that connects to campus. I tend to walk alone, although joggers and cyclists weave past sometimes, waving or nodding, until they dissolve behind a bend. Then, I’m alone again.
I’ve been on that path for four years. Like Grenier for Camus, it’s sculpted my worldview, inspired me, held me. It’s an emotive place. The memories pool. And I always feel their tug.
This past week, I scrambled down by the bank and sat beneath the remains of the “philosopher tree,” a bent oak taken downriver by a storm last year. Freshman year, I had no friends, so I would scramble down by the bank for hours, doing homework, reading Aldo Leopold, and watching the river roll by as I skipped rocks.
Sometimes clouds ruffled the sky and rain dappled the canopy, rattling the leaves around me. Or on clear, fall days, crows lined the trees across the river with prim, black creases. The hills would breath fog, thick and heavy, in the morning, or swallow the sun at evening and throw a rosy haze against the blue backdrop in front of me.
Last week, it all came back. I could almost see myself writing in a notebook and watching autumn leaves drift down the river as a freshman. I had my faded hiking boots and green plaid shirt, my back to the philosopher tree.
Whenever I walk down that path, I hear past walks echo: the snowy path where I first told my last girlfriend my feelings, our first date walking in the rain, the bench where we broke up. A craggy outcropping of concrete, strapped by vines and veined by cracks, caps a hill where a bridge once stood. I would watch the sunset from the top, sometimes with a friend, resting my eyes on a bald hill across a golden field.
My memories seem stuck on the trail, and stuck in me, someplace deeper than memory, someplace harder to dissect or approach, like an echo I try to catch and hold in my palm. It’s beautiful, but tragic, and dissolves with the air. And I walk on.
Like Camus, I’ve found a kinship–though not with a book or an author. It’s a place where my voice first gasped for air and whispered the words that later formed me. It’s where I first truly began to find myself.
I once thought identity was a monologue, a constant expression of who we are–our “thisness” to use the philosophical term. But I’ve come to see it as a dialogue, constant echoes from the people and places that formed us.
We take those echos and blend them into a voice, but at times, I wonder where the border is–where Grenier’s book stops and Camus’ work begins, where the misty hills end and my own breath starts. Is it in a sentence? A word? An action?
I don’t know. The moments pass and something lingers. We leave our mark on the world, but the world also marks us. As John Donne said,
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.”