by Alain Vircondelet
Fayard, 2010, 382 pp., €19.90
Albert Camus: Elements of a Life
by Robert Zaretsky
Cornell University Press, 2010, 200 pp., $24.95
by Virgil Tanase
Gallimard, 2010, 416 pp., €8.10
Camus: A Romance
by Elizabeth Hawes
Grove Press, 2009, 304 pp., $25
Albert Camus: La tragédie du bonheur
A film by Jean Daniel and Joël Calmettes
Chiloé productions, 2010, 55 minutes
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Albert Camus. The French novelist, essayist and journalist was killed in a car crash on January 4, 1960, along with his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, at the sleepy little town of Villeblevin in northern Burgundy. He was 46. Three years earlier, he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in recognition of “his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”
Camus’s early death made him a symbolic figure of near-universal appeal. But that appeal was diverse and multifaceted; readers from all points of the political and intellectual spectrum were liable to cite him with approval, or at least respectful interest. That tendency now stretches into decades. L’Étranger, the short 1942 novel that remains his best-known work, acquired a talismanic significance amid the student unrest of 1968; in 2006 it also featured (famously or infamously, depending on one’s point of view), on the holiday reading list of President George W. Bush.1
In this wild plasticity of invocation, Camus’s posthumous fate seems to mirror that of another author who died at the same age, George Orwell. Born a decade before Camus, Orwell had followed in life a similar intellectual and political trajectory. His idealistic engagement with revolutionary socialism turned with experience, as a commitment to communism turned for Camus, into profound disillusion with the oppressive inhumanity of the totalitarian Left. Orwell’s premature death from lung disease (from which Camus, coincidentally, had also suffered), transformed him into a literary and ideological equivalent of a bestselling if ambiguous global brand. The essentially rightward shift in both men’s politics, though hardly undeviating or uncomplicated in either case, was clear enough while they were alive. With both writers cut off in their prime, however, such developments were left tantalizingly incomplete. That very incompleteness has enabled virtual historians, and their political counterparts from the Right and the Left, to have a field day imagining what Orwell or Camus might have said about contemporary events.
Orwell has perhaps fared better in this process than Camus. His eloquent critique of British imperialism and class politics, his unremitting opposition to exploitation and social injustice in all forms, and his (just about) enduring belief in the possibility of a humanist, non-totalitarian socialism have continued to inspire many on the Left, even as his plain-spoken anti-communism and robust denunciations of leftist decadence and abuse are treasured by thinkers far more conservative than he was. A remarkable and unexpected potential for humility has arisen from this competitive adulation, as all of Orwell’s admirers, in wanting to claim him as their own, have had to concede that their political opponents might also have a case.
Camus, by contrast, has been the focus of a rather more acrimonious and intractable set of disputes. This was evident even in his lifetime, particularly his very public quarrel (primarily about communism) with his literary associate and fellow writer Jean-Paul Sartre. This argument became one of the defining events of French postwar intellectual life, as did the furor prompted by, or manufactured around, the much-reported (and misreported) observation he made to students in Stockholm after accepting the Nobel Prize: “I believe in justice, but I’ll defend my mother before justice.”
The anniversary of Camus’s death has revived those arguments with new force. No less a figure than President Nicolas Sarkozy recently caused consternation among Camus’s more liberal devotees when he suggested removing the author’s remains from a modest grave and installing them with those of other national heroes in the Pantheon in Paris. Camus’s daughter Catherine, in turn, complained that the President’s critics were trying to use her late father as an “anti-Sarkozy missile.”
As with many such rows in France, there was something rote, even theatrical, about the whole business. All the participants to some extent have been rehearsing formulaic positions, and a certain amount of grandstanding has been apparent all round. But there has nonetheless been something almost accidentally serious going on here. The arguments over a conservative French President’s desire to claim Camus for the nation went to the heart of a more substantive debate over Camus’s allegiances. After the curtain closed on the fracas the real question quietly emerged: To which nation did he—does he—belong?
Camus was born in Mondovi (now Dréan), a small coastal town in Algeria. His family were pieds noirs, working-class French settlers who had arrived as colonists in North Africa in the early 19th century. By that accident of birth, Camus was to find himself at the heart of perhaps the darkest and certainly most divisive episode in modern French history—even more so than the wartime Occupation, in which Camus distinguished himself as a member of the Resistance. As the renewed arguments over his reputation this year have shown, those divisions are far from healed. France, not least in its dealings with a large immigrant population, remains troubled by the legacy of its colonial past.
Orwell, too, had been born to a colonial family, in British India, and went on to serve as a colonial policeman in Burma. He and Camus both seem to have grown up with a sense of detachment from the society around them, something which Alain Vircondelet, author of one of the many biographies and studies to appear around the anniversary of Camus’s death, goes so far as to describe as “le sentiment profond de l’exil interieur.” In Orwell’s case, however, any sense of internal exile related more to the English upper-middle-class society from which his family came, and which he was to view with often visceral disapproval, first during his school years at Eton and then after his eventual adult return to England.
Orwell’s detachment from the native society of colonial India and Burma was of a different order from Camus’s sense of living between, and trying to reconcile, two different worlds. As a representative of the imperial ruling class, the English writer’s isolation from the life around him was less reflective; it was to some extent inevitable. As much of his most vivid polemical journalism makes clear, the inequities of imperialism, and the often-miserable conditions under which subject peoples had to live, appalled him. But his outrage sprang from an affronted sense of abstract justice rather than from some intimate emotional identification with the native population over whose lives he and his compatriots held sway. Orwell was acutely aware of the ambiguities in his own position, and of his guilty sense of complicity in maintaining the conditions he deplored. But as a policeman in Burma he admitted that his solidarity with the oppressed was largely “theoretical”; he found them very hard to like.
Camus’s situation was more precarious. As Vircondelet makes clear in his readable biography, Albert Camus, fils d’Alger, Camus’s Algerian childhood was one of extreme poverty. After his father’s death in the World War, he grew up in a cramped three-room apartment with no kitchen, plumbing or electricity. He and his brother shared what little space there was with a mother who was illiterate and partially deaf, an almost mute maternal uncle and an embittered and sometimes violent grandmother. Vircondolet draws heavily (perhaps too heavily) on the unfinished, posthumously published autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme, the manuscript Camus was carrying when he died, to show that the material conditions of poor colonists such as Camus’s family differed little from those of the many Arabs and Berbers whose residential districts abutted theirs.
Vircondelet may be accused of sentimentalizing a squalid reality in his colorful depiction of Camus’s childhood world. He undoubtedly understates the degree to which colonists and colonized, despite their proximity and shared poverty, led separate lives. In this, however, he is following not only some earlier biographers, but Camus himself. Robert Zaretsky’s thoughtful and well-judged new study Albert Camus: Elements of a Life acknowledges, shrewdly but not unsympathetically, how Camus’s fascination with the theater led him from an early age to, as it were, stage his own life. The young Camus presented himself as a character in an unfolding drama, with Algeria his exotic backdrop. Zaretsky notes that Camus occasionally let lyricism “get the better of him”, allowing his view of political facts to be tinted by his passionate celebration of the richly sensuous pleasures of Algeria’s sea and sand, its blazing sunny days and starlit, silent black nights.
Camus’s sympathy for the Arab and Berber populations was heartfelt, however. In the reports he compiled in 1939 as a young journalist in the arid, impoverished mountain region of Kabylia (collected later in his Chroniques algériennes), he was at pains to cut through the exotic stereotypes of travel writing. Finding a region in the grip of famine, he describes a misery that is in no way picturesque or merely staged for effect. But Zaretsky also shows how Camus regarded Kabylia’s plight as essentially a problem for France. The French colonial model, far more than its British counterpart, saw the country’s overseas territories as distant outposts of France itself. Camus, steeped in such thinking by background and education, sees the solution to Kabylia’s crisis in the gradual extension to its inhabitants of the rights and duties enjoyed by the pieds noirs. “Artificial barriers”, above all in the realm of education, should be removed in pursuit of greater liberté, égalité and fraternité. Camus, like Orwell, could also become intoxicated by abstractions.
Camus’s particular position, however, is one that we can hardly imagine the clear-sighted Orwell taking up even theoretically. To Camus the idea that a form of social engineering could overcome the passions of ethnic and sectarian division, all annealed by violence and feud, seemed eminently practical. Indeed, he was still espousing similar views almost two decades later, long after their limitations had been violently demonstrated by events in Algeria. Even with the Algerian War at its bloodiest, Camus still sought a “third way” between the complete independence demanded by the nationalist rebels of the Front de Libération Nationale and the immutable colonial status quo demanded by the pieds noirs. It was a way of thinking that lost him friends throughout his life. As a would-be peacemaker, he was disparaged by FLN militants as a defender of colonialism and despised by the pieds noirs as a traitor to his own kind.
Half a decade earlier, on the ideological battlefield of mainland France in the years following the liberation, he had found himself similarly isolated, attacked from all sides as unrealistic and naive. Virgil Tanase, a Romanian-born dramaturge, novelist and author of another Camus anniversary biography, gives a clear if not always unbiased account of his subject’s doomed efforts in postwar Paris to find that familiar third way, this time between Left and Right, even as the Cold War was gathering pace. Camus himself eventually acknowledged that the effort merely left him exposed to insults from both sides: the Left accused him of serving American imperialism (and the dollar), while the Gaullists of the French Right saw him as a Soviet stooge.
In some ways, the ambiguities and frustrations of Camus’s political interventions are a natural product of his resolute humanism and profound sense of the absurdity of human existence, a distinctive combination that underpins the wide and enduring appeal of his imaginative writing and thought. The opposite may be true of Orwell. No less repelled by extremes than Camus, he nonetheless retained in his political thinking a clarity and purpose that has perhaps led to his being underestimated as a creative writer. If Orwell can be accused of leaving the reader of his fiction with too little imaginative and emotional work to do, the tendency to exaggerate the universality of Camus’s concerns over the specifics of his engagement with the world has conversely risked reducing his work to a screen for his readers’ own projections. It is a fate that has rendered him a less complex and interesting figure than he actually was in the full context of his time.
In a way, Camus was too charming for the good of his own reputation. That kind of projection, usually unacknowledged, is explicit in one of the odder anniversary offerings to have appeared, Elizabeth Hawes’s Camus: A Romance. With a candor likely to strike the reader as either refreshing or alarming, according to taste, Hawes charts her adult pursuit of the dead author who had been her teenage crush. Here is Camus the dashing intellectual poster-boy, Gauloise on lip, trenchcoat tightly belted, looking a bit like Bogart (and knowing he did). This is also the driven, divided Camus evoked in a stimulating new French documentary film by Jean Daniel and Joël Calmettes, now released on DVD. It is the Camus familiar to school and university classes around the world, at least outside North Africa, the anguished champion of universal freedoms and truths, the stylish poet of existential doubt. No less diligent than the filmmakers Daniel and Calmettes in her biographical researches, Hawes ends up telling us more about herself than she does about Camus. In doing so, however, she reveals much about the seductive workings of his cinematic charm.
The notion that his undeniable charm, however unwittingly, obscures in his writing the realities of the Algerian conflict has been a commonplace of Camus criticism for some time now. As long ago as 1970, the Irish historian, journalist and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien published an incisive little study, Albert Camus, that subtly explored the often unwitting ways Camus brought to his fiction the colonial attitudes of his youth. Edward Said’s Cultural Imperialism, as incisively if rather less subtly, did much the same thing, portraying Camus as a colon malgré lui, a sort of accidental pied noir who, for all his avowed benign intent, could not but view native Algerians with innate suspicion, much as Orwell the colonial policeman had regarded the Burmese.
Said’s overdone hostility finds even more overblown expression in the work of the so-called tiers-mondiste critics, mostly Marxists or Islamists, who, not least in post-independence Algeria, have scoured Camus’s work for evidence of concealed colonialist sympathies. The same prefixed hostility lay behind the heated arguments that surrounded the plan this year to organize a “Camus caravan” in Algeria, a touring celebration of the writer’s achievements to mark the anniversary of his death. To an older generation of Algerian writers who were beneficiaries, however unwilling, in the years before independence of a French education not so very different from that enjoyed by Camus himself, the uniquely North African inspiration of his work makes it possible to see Camus as above all an Algerian author. He may even be seen as perhaps the supreme literary chronicler of the stark beauty and strange intensity of the country’s challenging landscape and climate. Younger, more militant Algerian writers seemed unwilling, even unable, to consider a pied noir as any sort of Algerian at all. Those younger still, brought up in an independent school system in which Camus is seldom mentioned, let alone taught, wondered what all the fuss was about.
To read Camus through the eyes of such critics should not be to dismiss him. Looking back through his own work, Orwell felt that “it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” To look for the unacknowledged traces of political purpose in the rather different work of Camus, no less a foe of humbug than Orwell and no less careful a prose stylist, need not be as reductive an exercise as Said and his clumsier epigones have made it seem. Perhaps the unresolved tensions of Camus’s work and life can shed some oblique but useful light onto the challenges still posed to Western nations (even those that never had empires) by the colonial legacy.
It may also throw light on the more general relationship between literature and politics. To speak of Algeria as France’s Vietnam may seem flippant, not least because the French had their Vietnam in Vietnam before the Americans did. But while the loss of Indochina (and particularly the devastating shock of military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954) began the disintegration of France’s empire, and initiated the country’s emotional and intellectual disengagement from its imperial ideal, it was the painful, murderously drawn-out loss of Algeria that defined the bitter end. Events in Algeria set European against Arab, Christian against Muslim and, like nothing that happened in or because of Vietnam, the Algerian War also turned Frenchman against Frenchman and military force against civil authority, bringing down one French regime and threatening another with an armed coup.
The betrayals and terrors of the Algerian War scarred Camus deeply, almost inescapably, just as French colonial aspirations had marked him more than he knew when he was a boy. Reading his novels, plays and essays, even sixty years on from his death, we are marked in return. To consider the contradictions of Camus’s life and his contested reputation is to grasp something of how France itself bears the indelible impression of those same grim events, and how similarly seminal events can scar other countries in other times.
It is to grasp something important, too, about the place of the writer in the public square. Orwell throughout his life maintained a belief that the writer could somehow choose to be open to the political and social currents around him, or not. He could engage the contradictions of life as a colonial cipher, for example, and do so at a remove if he chose. Camus’s life and work make that aspiration, that act of will, seem a little more difficult, and a lot less interesting, a choice.
1See Michael McDonald, “The Stranger in Crawford”, The American Interest (November/December 2006).