- 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’.
Camus gauged the summer of 1939 well. It reminded him, he said, of T.E. Lawrence’s statement about the world waiting ‘for a great movement of generosity or a great wave of death’. His journalism continued to strike a bravely independent note, disdaining both Communist orthodoxy and reactionary defeatism. Alger Républicain was the only paper to point out that six thousand foreign Jews living in France had volunteered for the French Army, to condemn both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as imperialist powers and to keep insisting that French revanchism, as reflected in the Treaty of Versailles, had much to answer for. The paper attacked Stalin, but was the only one in Algiers to protest when local Communist leaders were rounded up. By this time, as editor in chief, Camus was writing most of the paper under various pseudonyms, but the censors kept clamping down on him, whichever identity he used. Openly reviled as a ‘bad Frenchman’, he responded with quotations from The Economic Consequences of the Peace and The Good Soldier Schweik, but even citing others could not save him. When he quoted Voltaire, they cut Voltaire and when he reprinted the Treaty of Versailles, they cut sections of that. Finally, in January 1940, the authorities simply shut the paper down and a court pronounced Camus’s articles ‘insane’.
This left him in a quandary. His repeated attempts to enlist were frustrated by his TB; despite innumerable conquests and affairs, he was married; he was unemployed; and he was wrestling with L‘Etranger, his chief preoccupation. In the words he was to put in Don Juan’s mouth, ‘Woman, outside of love, is boring, although she doesn’t know it. One must live with her and shut up, or sleep with them all and do what one wants. The most important thing is elsewhere.’ In his case that ‘most important thing’ was always writing. He decided to look for a job in Paris – reluctantly, for he had long since decided that he was a Mediterranean man and didn’t like much of Europe (‘what bores me most about the Tyrol,’ he wrote from Switzerland, ‘is its Tyrolean aspect’). He loved Algiers: ‘what other city offers as many riches all year long, the sea, sun, hot sand, geraniums, and olive and eucalyptus trees ... I could never live anywhere but Algiers, anywhere else I’d always feel in exile.’ On the North African littoral, a fusion had been achieved between Arabs, French, Italians, Spaniards and Jews; as Camus saw it, a real kinship had been created between them, and he often turned to that other great North African, St Augustine, who disliked buttoned-up Northerners and, as Todd points out, felt like a Greek in a Christian universe.
Camus had a peculiar war – to a large extent he simply ignored it. He went to Paris in March 1940, worked on – though never wrote for – the reactionary Paris-Soir, and as the Germans occupied Paris laboured frantically to finish The Myth of Sisyphus and L’Erranger. ‘What we are going to experience now is unbearable to think of,’ he wrote, but he stayed in Paris until he lost his job and then took ship for Algiers in January 1941, as if oblivious of the war raging from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Unemployed, he spent much time at beach parties while waiting for Gallimard to publish his two books – which they did, to great acclaim, in May 1942. As his health deteriorated he was treated by a Jewish doctor – the Pétain regime had not extended its Jewish round-ups to Algeria – and, though his previous Communist career caused him to be more careful than he had been, he was never very careful. ‘There are many reasons for the official hostility towards England,’ he wrote, ‘but one of the worst motives goes unmentioned: rage and a base desire to see crushed someone who dares resist the power which has already crushed you.’
The doctor advised him to spend the winter in the French mountains, so in August 1942 he cruised along the Spanish coast to reach Marseille, and stayed there, working away at La Peste while the Allied landings in North Africa cut him off from his family left behind in Algiers. Meanwhile, Sartre had discovered L’Etranger and devoted a 20-page review to it; the two men were soon engaged in an intense intellectual relationship, with Simone de Beauvoir an invariable third. Like almost all the other women who ever met Camus, the Beaver fell for him, but Camus, unusually, decided to stay well clear. ‘Imagine what Simone might say on the pillow afterwards,’ he told Koestler later. ‘It’s horrible – with such a chatterbox, a total bluestocking, unbearable!’ This didn’t discourage Koestler from having an affair with the Beaver. Camus instead began a relationship with the Spanish actress Maria Casarès.
He had begun to work at Gallimard, embarking on a friendship with the Gallimards that was to last the rest of his life. He and Sartre both sided with the Resistance but at first this merely took the form of staying away from the sort of literary salon which welcomed collaborators. In late 1943 Camus became editor of the Resistance paper Combat, taking a courageous and independent line which led the Communists to issue a tract in May 1944 denouncing him and Sartre – an open invitation to the Nazis to arrest them. Luckily, D-Day followed almost immediately.
By the time of the Liberation Camus was an immense celebrity in Paris – a bestselling novelist, a philosopher and the editor of a major paper. Those who had shunned him now rushed to his side, but he wasn’t interested and turned down the Legion of Honour and membership of the Académie Française – ‘the life and death of the French Academy seems to me a futile thing.’ Such attitudes earned him the lively distrust of Edgar Hoover and a fat FBI file. For all that, he embarked on an exploration of America in 1946. He loved the country but, as Todd points out, he had a sort of mythical hierarchy in which Algerian Arabs and Frenchmen came top, followed by the other peoples of the Mediterranean basin, then the Slavs and, grudgingly, ‘les Anglo-Saxons’.
The war’s end freed Francine to join Albert in Paris at last, an arrival which alarmed Maria Casarès and Camus’s other mistresses. They should not worry, he insisted: Francine was ‘like my sister’. She was soon pregnant, however, and Maria indignantly departed, though Camus continued to have a string of affairs. There was an undeniable and unattractive egoism in his relationships with women and his children. When Francine had twins, Albert picked her up at the clinic, packed her luggage into the car and called out a joyful ‘Let’s go!’ Francine had to point out that he had forgotten the twins. He wandered round their apartment envying Sartre his freedom and wondering how on earth he was supposed to write with women and babies about. But always and under all conditions there were more women. One friend described him as ‘genetically programmed for love – he loved to love the way other people loved to eat, hike or swim.’ In his play Caligula Camus says: ‘To love someone is to accept to grow old with them. I am not capable of that kind of love.’ But he expected women to love him that way – and generally they did.
In 1948 Camus ran into Maria Casarès on the boulevard Saint-Germain. Camus asked her where she was going: ‘To the theatre – and you?’ ‘I was going to Gide’s.’ From then on Francine simply had to tolerate Maria (and many others), while Maria observed that she ‘didn’t take anything from anyone, because in this domain one can only take what is already available or made available’. Francine, like Albert, suffered badly from depression and once tried to commit suicide by throwing herself out of a window. He worried about her greatly but there was always a strict limit to what could be asked of him. ‘Francine is much better and I hope that by autumn it will be over, and it had better be, as I am tired and can’t help her anymore.’ Of pick-ups who hoped to prolong a brief liaison he was given to saying: ‘I made her understand that she really wasn’t up to the class of the establishment.’
Plunged into the political maelstrom of postwar Paris, Camus was annoyed continually to be described as both an Existentialist and a number two to Sartre when, in fact, his distance from the Communists had soon separated him from Sartre, who at the time saw fellow-travelling as a virtue. ‘So you will be a murderer,’ Camus said to a friend from the Resistance who had become a Communist. ‘I’ve already been one,’ his friend replied. ‘Me too,’ Camus answered, ‘but I don’t want to be one any more. Here’s the real problem: whatever happens, I would defend you against the firing squad, but you’d be obliged to approve if I was shot. Think about it.’ The endless debates about ‘commitment’ he found rather tedious. ‘I prefer committed men to committed literature. Courage in one’s life and talent in one’s work is already not so bad.’ He continued to loathe the Right (‘the holy-water sprinklers who blessed Franco’s firing squads’) as well as the Communists, and adrift from the hegemonic blocs, he was forced to make up his own mind. He knew that this caused him to make mistakes but, as he said, ‘it is better to be wrong while killing no one than to be right with mass graves.’
Much of the intellectual posturing of the time was absurd. In 1948 Camus supported the Citizens of the World movement launched by Garry Davis, an American war pilot who had torn up his passport and sought refuge with the UN. Davis, who had started out as a hero, soon turned the whole thing into a farce by selling ‘World Citizen passports’ for an income. After that Camus retreated from active politics and was no longer available for demonstrations – ‘I don’t believe in the real usefulness of large crowd actions.’ And he hated having to conform to stereotype: ‘North African literature is starting to bore me about as much as the absurd does,’ he told one of his friends.
Sometimes the pettiness was unbelievable. In 1948 Merleau-Ponty wrote a critical article about Malraux in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps modernes. Malraux was furious, blamed Sartre and demanded that Gallimard stop publishing the journal: if they didn’t, he whispered, certain files would be found that cast light on Gallimard’s activities during the Occupation. This produced an anguished Gallimard family conclave with Camus: it was decided to keep Malraux on board, drop Les Temps modernes but continue publishing Sartre’s books. Malraux had a point. Camus had testified in court that Gaston Gallimard had sheltered and protected him during the war even though he knew he was in the Resistance, but the truth was that Gallimard had hobnobbed with Lt Heller of the Nazi Propagandastaffel and put the notorious pro-Nazi Drieu La Rochelle onto the Gallimard editorial committee. In effect, Camus used his own Resistance career and literary fame to get Gallimard off.
The final break with Sartre came with the publication of The Rebel in 1952. Sartre didn’t like the book and commissioned a hostile review, thus bringing to a head the tensions which had existed between the two men for several years. Sartre was cheerful about the quarrel but Camus was devastated. He had no need of instruction, he said, from someone who ‘never placed anything but his armchair in the direction of history’ – a reference to the fact that Sartre, charged with the ‘liberation’ of the Comédie Française in 1944, had been discovered by Camus fast asleep in the orchestra stalls. But he decided not to reply to Sartre’s vitriolic rejoinder, saying: ‘What do you want me to do about it, punch him in the kisser? He’s too little.’ He adopted a similarly disdainful air when The Mandarins, Beauvoir’s novel, appeared with its barely disguised and hostile portrait of him. ‘You don’t discuss things with a sewer’ was all he would say.
Camus stood apart from other French intellectuals not only because of his social origins but because, in much the same way as Orwell, he distrusted the absolutism of the intellectual caste. He scandalised most of the intelligentsia by following his critique of Leninism through to its origins, rejecting the moral world of Saint-Just, Robespierre and the Jacobins and questioning whether it had been right to execute such a decent, kindly man as Louis XVI. ‘The proletariat fought and died,’ he says in The Rebel, ‘to give power to intellectuals, who as soldiers of the future, enslaved them in turn.’ He was greatly pained when the Left attacked him on the grounds that The Rebel had been praised by the right-wing press. What if someone on the right were to say the world was round, was he supposed to disagree? Nonetheless, when the right-wing press put itself at his disposal to reply to his critics, he always refused: ‘I support the left wing in spite of myself and in spite of itself.’
All this was mere shadow-boxing, compared to the real nightmare of the Algerian war. What was at stake was that precious Mediterranean synthesis which lay at the heart of his identity. At all costs this must not be destroyed – ‘Arabs and Frenchmen must find a way to live together,’ as he endlessly repeated. The Left’s simple-minded support for the FLN and ‘Algerian nationalism’ infuriated him. There had never been an Algerian nation, he pointed out, and the FLN divided Algerians as much as it united them. In practice the politics of the FLN put Muslims on one side and all the other ‘Mediterranean men’ on the other, including many non-Muslim North Africans. And although not all FLN supporters were Muslim puritans, the weight and influence of that group within the FLN meant that its victory would be a triumph for a narrow, exclusive sectarianism, not for a broad inclusive nationalism.
Camus was seen as a traitor by the pieds noirs because he would not join the calls for L’Algérie Française and by the Left because he refused to accept the idea of an Algerian independence which would make working-class whites like his own family into foreigners in their own country. Above all, he was horrified by the torture and murder visited on civilians on both sides and campaigned passionately for a ‘civilian truce’. It was quite hopeless: both sides were driven by a zeal which brooked no compromise. Far better than any of his opponents, Camus knew what the victory of either form of absolutism would mean and quailed at the thought. It was almost lucky that he died in a car crash in January 1960 before the final dénouement of the Algerian war – he could not have borne the mass killing that accompanied it, the destruction of his Mediterranean world or what came afterwards. Given his certainty that an FLN victory would be very dangerous for people like his mother, it’s possible – however grim the thought – that he would have felt obliged to support the other side, whatever that implied – he might even have been forced into the arms of the OAS. (He was so obsessed with the situation in Algeria that he supported the Suez expedition because Egypt had assisted the FLN.)
Yet Camus remains contemporary in a way that Sartre does not. In my own corner of Africa in the early Sixties, I was part of a Communist group which dreamed of armed guerrilla action to avenge the Sharpeville massacre. We were children of the Fifties and Camus was one of our icons. Although we read The Rebel and L’Etranger, we were more gripped by the fact that, at the other end of the continent, a similar revolt against white minority rule was taking place but at a stage far more advanced than our own. We supported the FLN unconditionally – taking its socialism seriously and disregarding its authoritarianism when we should have done the opposite. I could say now that we were simply unaware of the brutal measures it took to enforce its hegemony, but had we known, we would certainly have rationalised them as necessary. We were, however, bitterly aware of the measures taken against the FLN. (One of my best friends named her daughter Jameela, after a little Arab girl who had been raped with bottles by the French.) We could not understand why Camus, too, did not support them and automatically took Sartre’s side in their great quarrel. But Camus was right; or more right than wrong. His cause was never that of the racist pieds noirs – he had campaigned all his life for universal suffrage and Arab emancipation. That blending of peoples and civilisations on the North African littoral was, despite the cruelties and deformations of colonialism, a precious thing and the victory of the FLN destroyed it utterly. The messianic promises of socialism, revolutionary democracy and all the rest were simply false. Women were forced back into the veil; there was corruption, authoritarianism, social regression and, for 30 years, no free elections were held. The present civil war – the aftermath – has already cost at least 60,000 lives.
Now, in my corner of Africa, no one notices what goes on in Algeria or imagines that it has any lessons for them. Already, though, South Africa is being buffeted by the waves of a new cultural nationalism which says that everything that can be labelled ‘Eurocentric’ is bad and has to undergo ‘transformation’. Many of those who don’t like this are leaving, just as many left Algeria. We have advantages Algeria lacked – a more inclusive nationalism, a friendlier historical context – but it’s impossible to read about Camus and not to wonder whether we will in the end achieve the sort of synthesis of which he dreamt.