A definitive account of Albert Camus and tries to disentangle his fiction from his lifeby Douglas Johnson / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
It has all been said before. Camus wrote the same novel under different titles. He was fascinated by himself, but there wasn’t much to be fascinated by. He was a philosopher whose philosophy hadn’t proceeded beyond the school leaving grade; a communist with the prejudices of the lower middle class; a liberal who backed French colonisation in Algeria; a moralist who was relentlessly selfish in his many affairs with women.
Periodically, a biographer or a critic would say that Camus had fallen into neglect. Whether or not this was true, the result was a new book on the author. Scholars regularly gather to discuss Camus’ work, and the French government provides money for the publication of Les Cahiers d’Albert Camus. His novel L’Etranger, first published in 1942 and now translated into 55 languages, is the most successful book Gallimard ever published, with 6m copies sold in France and 4m in English translations. La Chute (The Fall) sold nearly 180,000 copies in its first six months of publication in 1957. In opinion polls of favourite French authors, Camus tops the list, with Sartre well behind. Supporters of Camus are certainly well placed to ask who, today, reads Sartre’s novels or shows any interest in his plays. Sartre was primarily a biographer; Michael Scriven estimates that in 1946-80 he devoted some 2m words to biographical projects. That on Baudelaire is slim, that on Mallarmé mislaid, while those on Genet and Flaubert are unreadable.
But the real admirers of Camus do not proceed by denigrating Sartre. They compare him to Kafka and Dostoevsky; they place him together with Orwell and Solzhenitsyn; they mention his refinement, wisdom and insight. In his novels in particular the sense of the tragic is insistent and exceptional.
In his new biography, Albert Camus: A Life, Olivier Todd explains that he has set out to tell Camus’ life, without forgetting that he was also a writer. Moving easily in French literary circles, and knowing a great many people, Todd has relied largely upon their comments and recollections. Many had been reluctant to speak before the death of Francine Camus, his widow, in 1979. Todd also draws on unpublished notes from a journal.
He follows Camus in the belief that the French critics were wrong to interpret him in terms of his ideas. Todd gives Camus various voices in a book that is bristling with information and becomes more compulsive as it proceeds.
There is a great deal that needs to be asked about the life of Camus. In particular, how his imaginative work and the speculative philosophy co-existed with his range of commitments. There were his efforts on behalf of Republican Spain, his contacts with various Muslim nationalist groups, his membership and expulsion from the Communist party, his investigations into living conditions in Kabylia, his activities as a journalist. The young communist warned against being attached to a credo simply because it was a credo. He also warned against abandoning errors, because the very act of abandoning would always lead to the accusation of cowardice. He was a communist who never read Das Kapital. He promised that he would fight for the cause of communism; it would receive all his vitality, intelligence, talent and perhaps even his soul, but not his heart. His heart was held in reserve for literature. It is clear that there was much more to the political activity of the young Camus than Sartre was willing to admit in the famous attack on Camus that he launched in Les Temps Modernes in 1952.
The biographer faces a problem if his subject has written an autobiography. This was the case with Sartre, who wrote Les Mots in the 1950s. He was sufficiently curious about his origins to travel to Perigueux and call on his father’s sister, only to find that she had died three months before. He did not search the trunk full of letters and family souvenirs which were still in his aunt’s flat; this was left for his biographer. But the presentation of himself in Les Mots, which stops when he is 11 years old, has created a host of problems for his biographers.
It could have been similar with Camus. The manuscript of Le Premier Homme was found in the car in which he was killed in 1960; at the time of his fatal road accident, Camus, 46, had completed some 144 pages of it. These were published 34 years later by his twin children. In Le Premier Homme, Camus goes back to his childhood and seeks to understand himself by studying his origins, his father, his mother and grandmother, Algeria. But the book does not seem to pose a problem for Todd. The first part of Le Premier Homme is entitled “Search for the Father.” It tells the story of his father’s arrival in the region of Bône just before the 1914 war. He was killed early in the war, dying of wounds at Saint-Brieuc. Abruptly, we are taken to the military cemetery at Saint-Brieuc, where the son, who is called Jacques Cormery, stands before the tomb. Cormery finds it hard to feel any grief for a man he did not know, until he realises that he, standing there, is older than his father. Then he feels like an adult standing before a murdered child. As he returns to Algeria from Saint-Brieuc he feels that he is one of those unfortunates who had been driven from Europe by persecution to “a land of oblivion where everybody is the first man.”
This is an important incident in Camus’ autobiographical novel. But Todd dismisses it in a few lines. In the summer of 1947, Camus is at a loose end. He is having a difficult time with his wife who is staying at Le Panelier in the Massif Central and who has been joined there by her mother, “la colonelle,” which does not improve the situation. In July, he writes that it is only by travelling that he can change his existence. He goes to Brittany to meet the novelist Louis Gilloux. We are told that Camus travelled in a new Citroen, lent to him by his old friend and mentor, Jean Grenier. In two days he visits Combourg, Saint- Malo and Saint-Brieuc. There he visits his father’s grave, and has the realisation that the father is younger than the son. Typically, Todd corrects Camus. Jacques Cormery is 40, but at the time, Camus was only 34.
Thus Todd is not too influenced by Le Premier Homme. He has his own bustling way of recounting the life. But in a footnote, he describes Le Premier Homme as being the most clearly autobiographical work of Camus. It has often been said that Meursault in L’Etranger is Camus, too. The name was one that Camus himself had used as a pen name; Meursault meets a neighbour who is called Raymond Sintès, the surname of Camus’ mother; the book begins with the death of the mother; we know that Camus had a deep uncertainty about his feelings for his mother; the novel is dominated by the colours, the lights, the blinding sun, the idea of life and its ending; all featured in the consciousness of Camus himself. In one of his Carnets, Camus says that he himself is one of the three characters who went into the creation of Meursault; just as Meursault is scrupulous about his own feelings and indifferent to the society around him, so Camus is careful when he presents the psychology of Meursault and apparently uninterested in the society that surrounds him and condemns him to death.
But Todd has his own arguments. When Camus was in Oran, one of his favourite companions was Pierre Galindo. Through him Camus learned of an incident on the beach at Bouisseville which took place in August 1939, when members of “la bande Galindo” found themselves jostled by two Arabs and one of them was attacked with a knife. The Arabs were sought in the afternoon, but they fled before they could be threatened with a revolver. Later, the police arrested the Arabs but they were not convicted for the knife attack. Todd has interviewed the survivors of this scene and he knows that Camus was not present. But he knows that he knew about it, and had heard the story many times.
At the time when Meursault is explaining to Marie that her suggestion of marriage is a matter of no importance to him, Camus was writing in several letters that he did not know whether he loved either Francine or Yvonne. Here Camus is Meursault, but Todd tells us about the other friends of Camus who are also Meursault.
Another character who is supposed to be Camus is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator of La Chute. He is the penitent judge who recounts his life as a lawyer in Paris, specialising in noble causes; he confesses to his excesses, his cowardice, his guilt, his nightmares. Is this not Camus himself? The clue is supposedly given at the beginning, when Clamence apologises for his use of the imperfect subjunctive and confesses to a weakness for fine language. Camus had been annoyed that his style was criticised for being excessively elegant. What could be more natural than to defend himself on this charge through a character?
Todd does not believe this. He seems to take pleasure in suggesting that Clamence, or at least part of Clamence, is none other than Sartre. Todd says he heard Sartre on four occasions praise this as the finest of Camus’ books. But Camus is not totally absent from the portrait of Clamence. The judge had heard a cry for help from an unknown woman who had fallen into the river, and he had paid no attention. Camus once told a friend that he could not have lunch with him that day because his wife had tried to kill herself. Was Francine the voice from the river?
Todd has so much evidence that it might threaten to overwhelm the portrait. But with his documentation there goes a critical elegance and an ability to appraise with sympathetic subtlety. Camus has never seemed so important and so distinguished; he has never been presented so completely.