Mediterranean Man

R.W. Johnson

  • Albert Camus: A Life by Olivier Todd, translated by Benjamin Ivry
    Chatto, 420 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 7011 6062 4

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’.

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