Bound to be in the wrong

Jonathan Rée

  • Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson
    Chicago, 291 pp, £23.00, February 2005, ISBN 0 226 02796 1

The heroes of Albert Camus’s books can be quite annoying: surly, self-dramatising Hamlets who like to think of themselves as strong, silent loners, wise to human folly. But although they are often arrogant, self-absorbed and predictable, they are also susceptible to the weather, and happy to be upstaged by unseasonable storms, torpid nights, fierce sunlight, or the chance of a swim in the limpid sea.

This persona first appeared in a collection of experimental stories called L’Envers et l’endroit, published in Algiers in 1937. Camus was 24, and already a virtuoso, his prose at once spare and musical. It was a style with a definite purpose: to track down the ‘irony’ that stalks the world, often unnoticed but always plain to see. He discovers it in a hotel in Prague when somebody dies in a neighbouring room, or facing the inhuman beauty of Italy, or observing a dying grandmother and her inattentive family in Algeria. He is always alert to ‘absurdity’, as he calls it; but then something will bring him up short. ‘Just look,’ he says, ‘just look at the smile of the sky.’

When the book was reissued twenty years later, Camus added a preface recalling his childhood. He was born in 1913, to an illiterate, fatherless family on a working-class estate in eastern Algeria. ‘I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,’ he wrote, and it wasn’t until he saw what it was like to live in a cold climate that he understood social injustice. Poverty was proof that history is unfair: the sun was a reminder that ‘history is not everything.’

He won a scholarship to a lycée in Algiers, and at the local university wrote a thesis on Plotinus and Augustine – both of them, for Camus, essentially philosophers of the southern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, he earned his living with an agitprop theatre company, and for two years was an active member of the Algerian branch of the French Communist Party. He was offered a career in teaching, but chose to work as a reporter and columnist for a leftist daily, Alger républicain.

By 1938 Camus was in charge of the paper’s literary pages, and one of the books he reviewed was Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel, La Nausée. He immediately recognised that Sartre shared his own concern with the ‘absurdity of life’, but he was also impressed by Sartre’s suggestion that we are by nature ‘tellers of tales’, constantly transmuting our lives into anticipatory biographies or obituaries, rather than living them first-hand. He liked the idea that we are willing dupes of our compulsion to narrate, concealing the real openness of our futures behind the specious closures of our stories – ‘as if there could be any such thing as a true story,’ as Sartre wrote, ‘when events happen in one direction and we narrate them in reverse.’ And he admired the ingenuity with which La Nausée – presented as the day-to-day diary of a frustrated biographer – deployed its narrative techniques to ambush the delusive pleasures of storytelling.

He was less impressed by Sartre’s notion of freedom. Sartre might have journeyed to the outermost edge of anguish, but he seemed to have brought nothing back but Cartesian puritanism and a belief in the saving power of experimental literature (‘J’écris, donc je suis,’ as Camus put it). Sartre had been dazzled by the idea that there are no compelling reasons for living, and seemed to think that ‘life is tragic because it is miserable.’ Quite the contrary, according to Camus: ‘If there were no beauty, love or danger in the world, then the living would almost be easy.’ The ‘tragedy of life’, for him, was not that it is grim, but ‘that it can be so glorious, so astonishing’.

Despite his reservations, Camus saw in Sartre not only ‘a writer of unbounded promise’, but also a potential intellectual ally. Sartre was ten years older than him, from a bourgeois family and with a prestigious Parisian education behind him, but he offered Camus an image of what he himself might become, or what might happen if his stories were set in dull northern towns where everything can be foreseen, down to the plaintive truth that concludes La Nausée: ‘Tomorrow it will be raining in Bouville.’ Before long, Camus was working on a kind of riposte to Sartre: another fictional account of the delusions of narrative understanding, but sharper, brighter and more authentically tragic than anything Sartre could have imagined.

The first half of L’Etranger is an uncannily dispassionate first-person record of a few incidents under the Algerian sun: a funeral, a sociable swim, a walk on the beach at noon, and a fatal shooting. In the second half the narrator goes over the same events, and is bemused when other people – notably the state prosecutor – weave them into a story in which he figures as a ruthless murderer about to face the guillotine. He can’t see how the two narratives fit together, and has learned nothing from his experience except that prison is incompatible with freedom, especially the freedom of ‘being on a beach and walking down to the sea’.

When L’Etranger came out in 1942, Sartre repaid Camus’s earlier compliment with interest. He treated it (together with its companion volume, the essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe) as a serious analysis of the difficulty, indeed ‘absurdity’, of all attempts to make sense of a life. He praised Camus for producing not novelised philosophy but a philosophical novel: a work that analyses experience by literary means, presenting each of its moments as if it were self-contained. (Sartre dwelt on Camus’s use of the passé composé, which, he argued, treats experience as a congeries of isolated impressions, of the kind once proposed by David Hume.) The praise was sincere, and generous too: a leader of Parisian opinion was offering a leg-up to a young provincial who might easily become his rival. And Camus needed all the help he could get: his paper had folded in 1940, forcing him to seek work in France, before going back to Algeria, where he suffered a severe bout of TB, and returning to France in time for the publication of L’Etranger.

It was not till June 1943, at the opening night of Sartre’s play Les Mouches, that the two writers met, and a passionate friendship began. They made an odd couple. Sartre found it easy to write, but he was physically unprepossessing, and put a lot of effort into his various projects of sexual conquest; Camus agonised over every sentence, but his physical presence was effortlessly and unwittingly magnetic. Their affection for each other was always tinged with rivalry, and after nine years their relationship was to break down spectacularly. Ronald Aronson’s admirable new book is, surprisingly, the first to present a thorough and even-handed account of it.

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