By the time Albert Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 the nuanced position he took on the Algerian revolution had caused a scandal in orthodox progressive circles. Camus kept as quiet as he could because he feared terrorist reprisals against his mother, who was still living in Algiers. At the Nobel ceremony, however, he was harangued by an FLN enthusiast and forced into making a statement. ‘I must condemn a terrorism that works blindly in the streets of Algiers and one day might strike at my mother and my family,’ he said. ‘I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.’ This produced a further explosion. ‘I was totally sure,’ remarked Hubert Beuve-Méry, the editor of Le Monde, ‘that Camus would say some fucking fool thing.’ Sartre and Beauvoir’s response was very similar – they had long ceased to be on speaking terms with Camus because of his ‘reactionary’ tendencies.
The irony, as Olivier Todd points out, was that Camus had joined the Communist Party in 1935 because he felt it was a way of looking after the interests of his mother, an illiterate cleaning woman, and his uncle Etienne, a barrel-maker – his father, whom he’d never known, a labourer in Algiers, had been killed on the Marne in 1914. Camus’s background could hardly have been more proletarian. His mother was so shy as to be almost mute and was thought by many to be mentally retarded. The family slept two or three to a room; had no running water or electricity. They could shower only once a week and depended on a single, stinking shared Turkish toilet out on the landing. But it was only when Albert went to school, where he had to explain that his mother was unable to read or sign school forms, that he knew ‘shame, and the shame that comes from feeling ashamed’.
From the age of seven he was determined to be a writer, though he could hardly have chosen a less promising environment than colonial Algeria during the Depression. Long periods of work in jobs he loathed were interrupted only by unemployment, boredom and a feeling of pointlessness, which fomented his capacity for inward reflection and his sense of the absurd. ‘I want to get married, kill myself, or subscribe to L’Illustration magazine, do something desperate, you know what I mean?’ he explained on marrying Simone Hié in 1934. Writing, he felt, was a gamble: the result was either a success or a complete absurdity. ‘I haven’t that many pure things in my life, and writing is one of them ... The only thing to decide is which is the most aesthetic form of suicide, marriage and a 40-hour-a-week job, or a revolver.’ Marriage to Simone was certainly hard – she became a drug addict and, although they divorced, she was to dog him long after his second marriage to Francine Faure. Writing he loved, but never found easy. Later on, garlanded in success, he would warn student audiences that writing was ‘a man’s trade – to create, you must necessarily have a slightly hard heart’. He spurned notions of genius, ‘but talent is another matter, it can be acquired by work.’
Eventually he settled into a career as a journalist with the liberal Alger Républicain, while at the same time producing plays at the Algiers Cultural Centre. He campaigned passionately for the Spanish Republic (his tubercular condition prevented him from going to Spain), and for the social and political equality of Algeria’s Arabs – one of the best things he ever wrote was a series of articles on ‘Poverty in Kabylia’. Journalism, he decided, was ‘the finest profession’. Olivier Todd remarks that Camus’s best journalism was done for Alger Républicain and one is not inclined to quarrel, not only because Todd himself is among the leading journalists of his generation, but because his biography exudes such unobtrusive authority.
Camus was too free a spirit to remain a Communist for long. His great passions were for Malraux (who had arrived in Algiers, god-like, by hydroplane in 1935, a herald of revolution) and for Gide. When Gide first broached his disillusionment with Communism in Return from the USSR (1936), Camus, greatly troubled, scheduled a debate on the book at the Cultural Centre, but the (Communist-controlled) Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals intervened from Paris to declare the occasion ‘inopportune’. He loyally observed the boycott, but went on to stage plays of which the Party did not approve. He also supported the radical Muslim nationalist, Messali Hadj, who was deported from Algeria with Communist connivance in 1937. Summoned before a special Party tribunal to justify his support for Arab civil and social rights, he pointed out that this had been the Party’s line, too, until it became jealous of Messali Hadj’s popularity. It wasn’t long before the Party expelled him as a ‘Trotskyite agitator’.
Vol. 19 No. 21 · 30 October 1997
R.W. Johnson asserts that Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins contains a ‘barely disguised and hostile portrait’ of Camus (LRB, 16 October). Beauvoir herself invariably denied that the character of Henri Perron was intended to resemble Camus. She claimed that Perron, along with the novel’s other main protagonist, a woman, represented particular aspects of her own personality and that superficial resemblances such as his appearance and profession could apply equally easily to some of her other acquaintances in the arts and media. As Beauvoir was quite capable of being disingenuous, her denial doesn’t have to be accepted at face value. Nevertheless, the background and attitudes she gives Perron are very different from those of Camus, particuarly Perron’s critical sympathy for the Communists and the fact that at the close of the novel he returns to a political alliance with them. On these grounds her denial is probably to be taken seriously. If, on the other hand, her model was Camus then the assertion that it is a ‘hostile portrait’ is nonsense. The novel is written partially from Perron’s point of view and presents him as a principled journalist and writer trying, though with difficulty, to come to terms with the politics of post-Liberation France – which does indeed make it unlikely that Beauvoir, given the hostility with which she came to view Camus, was thinking of him when she created the character.
Vol. 19 No. 24 · 11 December 1997
The history of Africa and of its relation to the European colonising powers is depressing enough without the night being further darkened by R.W. Johnson’s recriminations against state and society in Algeria (LRB, 16 October). The picture of Camus constructed by Olivier Todd, and overwhelmingly endorsed by Johnson in his review of Todd’s biography, has all the antique charm of a text of the Cold War period – of, say, an article in Encounter c.1956. It was surpassed thirty years ago by Conor Cruise O’Brien’s little book on Camus – written before O’Brien’s own vertiginous swerve to the right – which so skilfully punctured the afflatus of clichés and sterile paradoxes that were to constitute Camus’s contribution to political thought. It was Sartre who pointed out, when Camus made his famous statement about putting the life of his mother before the operations of justice, that it was difficult to see why these should demand the head of the blameless Mme Camus. More generally, O’Brien made Camus responsible for the mistaken notion that a crime committed in the name of a philosophy of history is more heinous than one committed at random.
Johnson suggests that Camus’s separation from other writers was a consequence of his social origins – a view inflected by the conditions of English snobbery rather than of French intellectual life. For one thing Camus’s rise through the republican-aristocratic educational system of inter-war France is one of the least contentious elements of his biography; for another, intellectuals of ‘humble’ origins (though a minority) have never been scarce to the point of being real curiosities in France. Among direct contemporaries of Camus must be counted Genet and Fanon; in earlier generations Michelet, Zola, Vallès, Barbusse. Two who, like Camus, submitted to their own myth of the absolute authority of the intellectual caste – Péguy and Céline – ended up, in 1914 and 1944 respectively, on the extreme and the ultra right, a shift which maybe tells its own story.
Camus’s politics of grudge and insult was notoriously idiosyncratic and unstable (’obsessed’ to the point of supporting Suez; almost ‘forced’ into the OAS – how can one judge this rationally?). It was the devious, cunning, dishonest Sartre whose flat was bombed by the OAS after he had incited military rebellion in an attempt to end the war: the man who judged him ‘too little to be hit’ was careful to restrict himself to a call for an oxymoronic ‘civilian truce’. Camus owed much of his career in political prominence (one can hardly call it a political career) to a reputation gained earlier on the left, while performing for the Right as the rebel who repented. In this he was neither the first nor the last – but in his ability to deceive Johnson’s small and, it would appear, heroic South African group he would seem to have been among the most plausible.
All this is of small account beside your reviewer’s total denigration of the Algeria which existed for 30 years, from Liberation to the present barbarism. Anyone visiting the country in those years will have had ample evidence, in virtually unparalleled hospitality and intellectual generosity, of the ‘precious Mediterranean synthesis’ – which Camus allegedly yearned for and which the FLN allegedly ‘destroyed … utterly’. ‘Corrupt’ the FLN regime certainly was/is; though in terms of pots and kettles it is distressing to see the new hypocrisy of South Africa taking over with such faultless ease from the old hypocrisy of the Mother Country. What ‘social regression’ might mean in the country with the highest literacy rate in the area and a social security system based on the French is anybody’s guess. The suspension of free elections has had the most appalling consequences: yet supposing in January 1933 the SPD and the Reichswehr had agreed to suspend the German elections and ban the Nazi Party, might not even such determined liberal individualists as Camus have been tempted to approve? And ‘authoritarianism’ in the People’s Republic? Camus (unlike Sartre – Les Temps modernes, 1945, passim) took little interest in the oppression of Algerians whether in Algeria or in liberal democratic France; comparison of the FLN regime with its regional neighbours would doubtless be unsatisfactory to a thoroughgoing liberal-moralist, but might, I suspect, yield some revealing parallels with effective liberty in France at the time of the First Empire and in the crumbling feudal states ranged against it.
The grossest suggestion is that ‘women were forced back into the veil.’ One of the most attractive sights in an Algerian town before the present crisis – now, sadly, only to be seen in Algerian society in Paris – was a family group out on a Saturday night: grandma in her veil, mum and dad in formal dress and suit, granddaughter in a miniskirt. Many of these teenage girls have had their throats cut for refusing to be intimidated by Islamist fanatics into giving up their miniskirts. Their heroism is as great, it seems to me, as that of any woman in this century.