Seventy years ago, fresh from the Brazilian rainforest that he would chronicle in Tristes Tropiques, the Belgian-born French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was called on to go down to immigration in New York and bail out an intransigent Albert Camus, fresh from fighting Nazis and fresh off the boat and spoiling for a fight with authority. He found it in the person of an inspector who demanded that he reveal the identities of anyone he knew who belonged to the Communist Party. As Robert Zaretsky recounts in a lively essay in the LA Review of Books, Camus kicked up a righteous fuss, providing a splendid footnote to the philosophical history so gracefully recounted by Sarah Bakewell in her new book At the Existentialist Café.
As Zaretsky notes, Jean-Paul Sartre, more inclined to communism than Camus in any event, had arrived in New York some months ago. In the crowded metropolis, he hit on the fruitful if perhaps antisocial notion that hell is other people. So conclude, it seems, smart people in general; according to a recently published study by psychologists from crowded China and Japan, the highly intelligent, with redolences of Garbo, just want to be left alone. “More intelligent individuals experience lower life satisfaction with more frequent socialization with friends,” the authors write in their abstract, which does not account for why Sartre spent so much time hanging out with his pals in crowded cafés, existentialist and otherwise.
Perhaps if you are an elver in a crowded river, hell is other eels. Though esteemed in literature, from Tolkien (an early glimpse of Gollum being an unfortunate critter “wriggling like an eel”) to Günter Grass, ably depicted in James Prosek’s book Eels, the writhing, spooky, snakelike fish doesn’t get much love—and certainly isn’t a popular fixture on the table, as it was only a generation or two ago across much of northern Europe. It’s for that reason, as Welsh writer and actor Griff Rhys Jones notes in an essay tucked away in the back pages of the Daily Mail, that England’s last professional eel fisherman has hung up his—well, creel, or whatever an eel fisherman might bring to bear on his slippery prey.
We note the passing of two very different writers, both of whom lived long and fulfilled lives. Aharon Megged, born Aharon Greenberg in Poland, arrived in the Palestine of the British Mandate as a six-year-old. His parents encouraged his literary talent, and in between working at a kibbutz and in various journalistic and cultural enterprises, he wrote 35 books, including the well-received novel Mandrakes from the Holy Land. He died on March 23 in Tel Aviv at the age of 95.
A day later, Earl Hamner passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 92. Like Megged, he wrote affectionately and affectingly of place: his native Virginia, the setting for his excellent 1961 novel Spencer’s Mountain. Set in the Great Depression, the novel had a much harder edge than the television series that grew from it, The Waltons. Goodnight, John-Boy. Goodnight, Earl.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.