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.
The friendship lived by politics, and died by politics too. And politics was the one field where Sartre had been obliged, from the beginning, to acknowledge his young friend’s superiority. In the mid-1930s he was studying philosophy in Berlin, oblivious to the interesting times he was living in, while Camus was an active Communist in Algiers. Later, as Europe prepared for war, Sartre was in Paris elaborating a theory of consciousness, while Camus was writing political commentaries for his newspaper – always fresh, though never very far from the Party line.
In September 1939, appalled by the prospect of war, Camus had written that ‘activists have never had so much reason for despair.’ A couple of months later he denounced the folly of pursuing ‘the politics of nations’ in the epoch of a ‘developing international economy’, and called on the French people to acknowledge Hitler’s ‘legitimate claims’ and sue for peace with Germany. Before his paper was closed down in 1940, he signed up to a ‘profession of faith’ based on hostility to Islam and opposition to ‘totalitarian regimes’. Like the Communists, he acquiesced in the Occupation, and indeed benefited from the desire of the authorities to prove that young French writers could flourish under their care. He was also well served by Gallimard, the publishing house that brought out not only L’Etranger but also Le Mythe de Sisyphe, though he had to cut out a chapter on Kafka to get it past the censors. Gallimard also gave him regular editorial work, which sustained him throughout the Occupation and beyond.
Sartre’s contribution to the literature of Occupation was his treatise on Being and Nothingness, published by Gallimard in 1943. On its own terms – as an attempt to show that experience is essentially temporal, always framed by a remembered past and an imagined future, and hence always involved with history – it is a magnificent performance. But if it was engaged with historical existence in theory, it was in practice eerily detached. It gave a central role to the notion of freedom, but not the kind of freedom that figures in politics or law: the freedom that prisoners or wage-slaves yearn for, or the freedom to go down to the beach whenever you like. As Sartre understood it, freedom was compatible with total subjection to political power, or indeed to the nexus of physical causation. It was an attribute not of actions and circumstances, but of the invariant structure of consciousness itself. You might lose your freedom by evading it or burying it in bad faith, but it would still stick to you like a shadow – the shadow cast by your own existence as a locus of memories, fantasies, perceptions, hopes and fears. The freedom of consciousness arises from the fact that you cannot be aware of anything – a rockpool in the evening, for instance – without thinking of it in terms of past and future and pleasure and pain, in terms of day and night and winter and summer, of wind and waves and ice and sand. To experience the presence of the rockpool, in other words, you have to be aware not only of what it is but also of what it is not. And since there is no limit to the range of things that your rockpool is not, there can never be any complete and absolute truth about it, no last word confided to you by reality itself. It follows that there is no experience without an element of arbitrariness; you might not be able to change the world, but you can at least change how you perceive it.
Sartre believed his notion of freedom had political implications: in opposition to a certain conservative naturalism, it suggested that every form of human existence is contingent. But – at least until 1949, when Simone de Beauvoir used it in The Second Sex to demolish ideological notions about women and femininity – the politics of Being and Nothingness added up to little more than a lofty leftist contempt for common sense: more a device for pumping up your self-esteem than a tool for intervening in the historical process. Sartre was aware of the problem, and during the Occupation compensated for the abstractness of his philosophical work with the directness of his writing for the stage. Les Mouches eluded the censor because it was an adaptation of Aeschylus, though no one could fail to notice the contemporary relevance of its depiction of Orestes deciding to fight the tyrant who was oppressing Thebes. But the production was staged in the elegant Théâtre de la Cité (previously called the Sarah Bernhardt, but now purged of Jewish affiliations): it was hardly an insurrectional act. By contrast, a month later, in July 1943, Camus entered the world of underground publishing with his ‘Letter to a German Friend’, explaining that the French people had run out of patience, and despite their innate love of peace, were now prepared to fight and kill to save their country.
In January 1944, the Resistance supplied Camus with a false identity, and he began to edit the clandestine journal Combat by night, while continuing to work for Gallimard by day. Eight months later, Paris was liberated, and Combat and its editor came out into the open. He was barely into his thirties, old-fashioned and provincial in his manner (he never lost his Algerian accent), quiet, attentive and courteous; and to many he was a great hero, not only of the Resistance but also of the ‘existentialist’ attempt to formulate an ‘ethic without God’. On top of that he had (though he seems to have been unaware of them) his looks. ‘He struck me as extraordinarily beautiful,’ his fellow journalist Jean Daniel would recall: ‘a young Humphrey Bogart, with something Japanese about his expression, but a more expansive appetite for life’. Daniel remembered an evening with Combat colleagues when a young man downed a bottle of whisky or more, then got up on a table and delivered a speech.
I’m going to speak to you about an injustice far more terrible than those we denounce at length every day in our paper for the benefit of an intellectual elite. It is a living injustice. And it is seated here among us now. I refer of course to Camus. He has everything. He is alluring, and happy, and famous; and to top it all he has the nerve to be possessed of all the virtues. Confronted with this injustice, however, there is absolutely nothing we can do.
Sartre had to work hard to keep ahead of the game. The crowds who mobbed him at his famous but slapdash lecture ‘Existentialism Is a Humanism’ in October 1945 must have helped. He claimed nonchalantly that he was associated with Camus and ‘became a member of his Resistance group shortly before the Liberation’ and that was useful too, although, as Aronson points out, not quite true. He may have contributed a few ‘stories about dogs run over in the street’ but he was never a ‘member’ of Combat or any other clandestine organisation. He conceded that he was more ‘a writer who resisted’ than a ‘resister who wrote’, but as Aronson shows, he did not demur when others hailed him as a Resistance hero, or when an American booklet described him as ‘fearless and active in the underground’ while Camus, though quoted extensively, didn’t get a name-check at all.
From a military point of view, the Resistance in Paris had no great importance anyway, and Sartre was able to describe it as ‘an individual solution’, with a purely ‘symbolic value’. But it offered a convenient illustration of his theory of the freedom of consciousness.
Never were we more free than under the Germans. We had lost all our rights, starting with freedom of speech; we suffered insults every day and had to keep quiet; as workers, or Jews, or political prisoners we suffered mass deportations … But for all those reasons we were free. The Nazi poison seeped into us, even into our thoughts, and as a consequence every accurate thought was a triumph; an all powerful police sought to silence us, so every word had the value of a declaration of principle; we were constantly followed, so every deed had the weight of a commitment. The circumstances of our struggle were often appalling, but they enabled us finally to live the unbearable, lacerated situation that is known as the human condition, and to do so without evasion or pretence.
That analysis was one from which Camus could dissent with some authority. He did so in the rather laborious novel La Peste, which appeared in 1947. The protagonist is an impassive young man who resembles the terse hero of L’Etranger except that, as chance would have it, circumstances make him a ‘secular saint’ instead of an unrepentant murderer. He is a doctor faced with an outbreak of plague in Algeria’s second city, Oran, some time in the 1940s. Almost overpowered by his caseload, he makes no attempt at ‘accurate thought’. He has to act as if the epidemic might last for ever. His life crumbles into ‘a succession of instants’, each bringing a fresh consignment of evil and a new imperative to ‘start all over again’. And if there is tragedy in the quarantined city, it is not because of the painful, pointless deaths, but because there is no room in it for love. When he hears that his wife has died, the doctor finds himself unmoved. ‘Let’s face it, the plague has taken away our capacity for love, even friendship,’ he says. ‘For love requires a future.’
If La Peste is a parable about the Occupation of Paris, it is at best a puzzling one. Why choose the unambiguous malignity of bubonic plague in Algeria to represent the all too human world of politics, war and military occupation in France? In the story, the plague is likened to a biblical scourge, mysterious and implacable; it does not use the human methods of insult, oppression or cruelty, but those of an inscrutable bureaucracy, divinely ordained. Its main characteristic, as far as the doctor is concerned, is its ‘abstraction’ and ‘irreality’; the only time he escapes it is when he breaks through the security cordon and takes a swim in the sea.
Even in a parable some things can be taken literally, and when Camus spoke of ‘abstraction’ he may have meant exactly what he said. Perhaps the evils he was talking about were not so much the injustices of the Occupation as the menace of exorbitant theory. Nearly a decade before, in his review of La Nausée, he had complained that, in Sartre’s work, ‘life is wronged by theory.’ It was a facile remark and – since ‘life’ is itself a theoretical artefact – self-contradictory. But he had a point, and in La Peste he returned to it, though with a little more circumspection. He realised that you can’t criticise a theory without engaging with it, or in the words of his doctor-hero: ‘In order to fight an abstraction, you must somehow be prepared to mimic it.’ The abstraction he confronted was that of philosophy as well as Nazism; in particular, the philosophy of his rival, who had redefined freedom so that it found its highest manifestation in imprisonment and defeat.
In 1944, Camus turned down an invitation to join the board of Sartre’s new journal, Temps modernes, citing his commitments at Combat. But he must also have had doubts about Sartre’s idea of using the journal to ‘reawaken literature’ in the name of freedom. His own political positions were developing more pragmatically. He is said to have been the only French journalist who denounced the bombing of Hiroshima. Then, following a series of savage battles in Algeria, he came to the conclusion that the French state must intervene to restore order and protect both the Arab population and the French settlers. And when Koestler’s Darkness at Noon came out in French translation in 1946, it turned him immediately and irrevocably into a fierce opponent of the Soviet Union.
France’s political prospects at that time were, as Aronson shows, very hard to make out. The euphoria of Liberation had soon turned to disappointment: for more than two years, standards of living fell, and by 1947 bread rations were smaller than they had been under the Nazis. The Truman Doctrine looked provocative, too, and Sartre and Camus united against it: they thought that, for France and the rest of Europe, America’s Cold War would mean a new round of ‘occupation or devastation’. But it was not clear where the greater threat lay. The Communists commanded a third of the French vote and organised a general strike in Marseille, together with a rash of smaller actions throughout the country, one involving an act of sabotage that killed 21 people. Koestler was not the only one who was convinced they were fomenting civil war to make way for a Soviet invasion. In the meantime the US was fighting back with the Marshall Plan and a network of military bases. In 1951, Simone de Beauvoir saw a US army contingent in France and said she felt she was ‘back in the Occupation’. Camus was stupefied: ‘You wait,’ he said. ‘You could be seeing a real occupation soon – a different sort altogether.’ De Beauvoir concluded that he had ‘gone over to the American side’.
At the end of 1951, Camus published a long philosophical essay called L’Homme révolté. The idea of ‘revolt’ had already been invoked in La Peste, when the doctor-saint says that his only reaction to seeing a child die from plague is one of revolt against the world. Camus now analysed this sentiment of revolt, arguing that it was peculiar to Western culture since the end of the 18th century, and that it provided a unique bridge from individual resistance to social solidarity: ‘Je me révolte, donc nous sommes.’ However, revolt had changed over time. In its youth, it had seemed candid and welcoming, but after the French Revolution it got mixed up in the machinery of the state and flipped over into violence and terror. After that there was Marx, who believed, against all the evidence, that ‘extreme industrial poverty would lead to political maturity,’ and went on to replace the ‘irrational terror’ of Revolutionary France with something deadlier by far: the ‘rational terror’ of the revolutionary Communist movement. The appalling transition from brotherly love to brotherly murder was perfectly logical: every act of rebellion is carried out in the name of universal humanity, so it is bound to regard its opponents as other than human, and to end up ‘consecrating the difference in blood’.
Much of the argument of L’Homme révolté pointed towards a despondent, unpolitical conservatism; but Camus preferred to champion a buried leftist tradition of ‘syndicalist’ revolt. The tragedy of 19th-century socialism, he argued, was that a ‘German ideology’ had been allowed to triumph over the ‘Mediterranean spirit’ of Spain, Italy and all the other countries where ‘intelligence is the sister of the harsh light of the sun.’ The inference was striking but bizarre: that the left needed to go south for a while and bask in the restorative rays of ‘solar thought’. (Camus’s English translator was so astonished by the concept that he replaced it with the rather more plausible notion of ‘solitary thought’.)
L’Homme révolté is a sluggish piece of work, and it offered an easy target for the born-again hardliners at Temps modernes, who seem to have felt increasingly obliged to defend the Soviet Union as its conduct became more appalling. Sartre assigned the review of the book to his colleague Francis Jeanson, who denounced Camus as a self-hating liberal humanist who wanted to substitute a lachrymose ‘Red Cross morality’ for tough political analysis. Camus was shown the proofs of Jeanson’s review, and wrote a response which appeared in Temps modernes in June 1952, a couple of months after Jeanson’s piece. But his concession that Marxism contained a ‘highly valuable critical method’ alongside a ‘highly debatable utopian messianism’ was too hackneyed to do him any good, and at the last minute Sartre himself weighed in with an astonishingly efficient act of literary assassination. His old friend was guilty of a monstrous form of racism, Sartre wrote: ‘the racism of moral beauty’. If Temps modernes now supported Soviet Communism, it was with open eyes. The journal had reported with proper gravity on the horror of Soviet concentration camps, whereas Camus and the bourgeois press had seized on the subect with repulsive glee, simply in order to ‘give themselves a good conscience’. The existence of these camps was a ‘challenge for us all’, Sartre said, ‘for you as well as for me’.
What is disconcerting about your letter is that it is too well written. I do not reproach you for its pomposity, which comes naturally to you, but rather for the ease with which you handle your indignation … Is it my fault if these procedures remind me of criminal court? … Perhaps the Republic of Beautiful Souls should have appointed you as its Chief Prosecutor.
In 1944, Camus had represented the future; but now he was stuck in the past: the proper place for him was not France, or even the United States, but the Galapagos Islands.
L’Homme révolté was a book with a strong flavour of depression, and the attack on it wounded Camus so deeply that he could not do any serious work for some years. (He continued the interminable game of political snap, however, with a diatribe claiming that France’s pro-Soviet intellectuals were ‘the same’ as the pro-Nazi collaborators of 1940, bewitched by a foreign country they saw as championing their ideals.) The insurrection in Algeria in November 1954, carried out in the name of an independent Algerian state based on ‘the principles of Islam’, depressed him still further. It provided Sartre with a cause he could make his own, however, and in 1956 he jumped from one galloping horse to another, abandoning Communism for anti-colonialism, while Camus looked on in silent perplexity.
He was slowly recovering his confidence as a writer, however. In 1955, he became a regular columnist for the centrist journal L’Express, and the discipline of deadlines and breaking news seems to have bucked him up. After a year he felt well enough to undertake something that might stand comparison with L’Etranger. La Chute, it turned out, would be a summation of Camus’s work as a writer and moralist, and a reckoning with the cynical old goat at Temps modernes. In the first sentence, the reader is cornered by a drinker in a gloomy bar on a dank night in Amsterdam. The setting is unusual for Camus, and so is this central character: a modern Ancient Mariner, forcing people to listen as he goes over his life-story in elegant but archaic measures. Both grammatically and morally, he is a master of the subjunctive mood. He has become a penniless drifter on the edge of the Zuydersee, and a passive accomplice in occasional crimes; but in an earlier existence he was a fashionable Parisian lawyer. With inverted pride he describes himself as a juge-pénitent, a reformed or repentant judge, but strictly speaking he was never a judge, only an advocate, specialising in the defence of noble causes: widows and orphans – anyone with the intoxicating odour of victimhood. Throughout his career he enjoyed the incomparable satisfaction of being always in the right, his conscience peaceful as the grave.
He had been offered public honours, but turned them all down ‘with a quiet dignity in which I found my true reward’. He would begin his day by giving generously to a beggar or two; then he would earn the gratitude of another victim by making a heart-stopping speech in court; and afterwards he would entertain his elegant literary friends by denouncing, with searing vehemence, ‘the heartlessness of the ruling class and the hypocrisy of our politicians’.
Gradually, though, he had learned to be disgusted by his own good conscience. (‘Just think how many crimes have been committed because their author could not bear to be wrong!’) His apprehension of his hollowness began one night when he heard a girl jumping off a bridge into the Seine and wondered whether or not to help her, by which time it was too late. Not long afterwards he began to hear disembodied laughter following him through the streets, and decided to throw everything up in favour of the chilly obscurity of Amsterdam. Here he fought his way to a different kind of enlightenment, focused more on forgiveness than on justice – and forgiveness not only for others but for himself as well. ‘I favour every theory that denies human innocence, and every practice based on the presumption of guilt,’ he says. ‘I am, dear boy, a disenchanted partisan of slavery.’ By now it is snowing outside, and the guilty pardoner is reaching the end. ‘I hope at least,’ he says, ‘that you are a little less pleased with yourself than you were.’
Aronson maintains that the soliloquist of La Chute stands for Sartre as well as Camus. Both were well aware that a good conscience is positive proof of hypocrisy, and each of them harboured the terrible suspicion that the other had the better conscience. Sartre was generous enough to praise La Chute when it appeared, though he and Camus had shunned each other for the previous four years. And after four more years of mutual avoidance he would acknowledge it as ‘perhaps the most beautiful’ of Camus’s books, and also ‘the least understood’. But by then it was too late to sort out any misunderstandings: Camus had died in a car crash in January 1960, at the age of 46. If he had lived, perhaps he and Sartre would eventually have forgiven each other in a spirit of mournful generosity, acknowledging that what Kierkegaard said about God applies to politics too: whatever we think, we are bound, in the end, to be in the wrong.