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Albert Camus: prophet of our age: Olivier Todd interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel.

For many, Albert Camus' novels have afforded an easy introduction to the great questions of Western philosophy. Olivier Todd, Camus' biographer, delves into these questions and describes how they relate to the personal crises in the French writer's life. He also explains why Camus' stature as the prophet of our post-ideological age is likely to survive well into the next century.

ELEANOR WACHTEL: Albert Camus is one of the most widely read and most cherished of twentieth-century French writers. What is it that makes his work so popular, so appealing still?

OLIVIER TODD: There are two things: first he writes clearly and brilliantly. He writes in very different styles, but his first novel L'Etranger is short, crisp, and can be understood by almost anyone, whether or not you have a literary education, even if your French is not fluent. There is a kind of universal appeal to this work. When foreign students -- those who are not French specialists -- tell me they have read four or five books in that language, I can be pretty sure that the works of Albert Camus will be at the head of each list, especially L'Etranger -- which is read, mind you, for both good and bad reasons. The bad reason, of course, is that it is very short, and even with a limited knowledge of French one can read it in a couple of hours. But beyond the story's first layer, there are all sorts of deeper meaningful layers, and one can pick and choose according to what interests the reader. Now the second reason for his popularity -- I'd almost venture to say his universality -- is that today Camus is perceived as a sort of legend, the legend of a man who died young. He has become a sort of Humphrey Bogart of French literature, with an element of James Dean as well. But well beyond all that, beyond the legend, I think he is perceived as an extraordinarily honest man, especially in matters of politics. He maintained in the 1950s a staunch anti-communist view of the world. He refused to close his eyes to the realities of the Soviet system -- in contrast to his friends de Beauvoir and Sartre, who broke with him over this issue. And so Camus has maintained an integral honesty.

Camus didn't call himself a philosopher or an existentialist, yet he's often labelled that way. Why?

Because it is easy and fashionable to do so. In his own day he was referred to as being number two, after Sartre, in the existentialist sphere. This happened because Camus played around with the idea of the absurd, which was a very interesting and valid approach in the 1940s, especially for a Frenchman. It was absurd to be French in 1940. I don't think that absurdity as a concept is philosophically all that interesting; it simply describes a contingency of the world. Sartre made much more of it than Camus, and Camus himself went far beyond absurdity. Remember that his first novel, L'Etranger, the play Caligula, and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus were constructed around the idea of the absurd. And then he went into a sort of revolt. He revolted against himself, against his own ideas, and in this frame of mind he wrote La Peste and the essay L'Homme Revolte.

Albert Camus grew up in a working class neighbourhood in Algiers. His father died early in the First World War when Camus was only eight months old. His mother worked cleaning houses. She was illiterate. How did such a childhood affect him?

You might say he was a scion of, well, poor white trash in North Africa. His father had supervised vineyards in Algeria. His mother -- the most interesting character of his childhood -- was an illiterate char lady who was nearly deaf. And I think that is very important, because throughout his childhood Camus spoke to his mother but could not speak with her. And in many of his works you find female characters -- such as mothers -- that are quite distant, quite far away. Albert also had an invalid uncle who had worked as a carpenter and who, like Camus' mother, could neither read nor write. The young Albert lived in a squalid neighbourhood in Algiers -- Belcourt, where people spoke a kind of patois, not standard French. But he was encouraged by one of his school teachers, earned a scholarship, and was sent to the Lycee, and there he discovered not only culture in general -- poetry, foreign languages, ancient languages -- but the beauty of the French language. And I think that when you look at Camus' style -- very precise, very concise, sometimes slightly affected - you understand that this is a man who had to conquer the French language, what should have been his mother tongue. A man like Sartre, from a bourgeois background, was given this French language as a birthright. Not Camus -- he had to fight his way to mastery of the language.

And I think this also explains, to some extent, why each of his works is very different from the others. If you look at his novels or chronicles you have L'Etranger with a very staccato style; then you have the play Caligula later on, which was very classical with polished dialogue; and after that you get La Chute -- his masterpiece, to my mind, but that's a very personal point of view. And in this last work you find a satirical point of view with a lot of very precise jokes about himself. Later still we have his posthumously published novel, Le Premier Homme, in which he seems to wrap up his writing career by sampling all sorts of styles, even styles he has already used in his adolescence and early manhood. In Le Premier Homme you find somewhat purple patches, and I think that his approach to language was very much determined by his childhood and by the way he had been forced to conquer the French language for himself.

Camus' childhood in Algiers affected his outlook and his writing in other ways as well. We can see reflections of his memories of poverty and his attachment to his mother. He would later write, "I love my mother with despair. I have always loved her with despair." Why was that?

Because he couldn't talk to her, because she couldn't react. His last posthumous work he dedicated to his mother -- "to you who will never be able to read this work." Imagine a gifted writer with a beloved mother who will never read his work, never understand what he is doing. Beyond that, there were the great difficulties of simple communication.

Now I don't go into this in my book, but I think that his private life can partly be understood -- especially his relationship with numerous women -- through his relation with his mother. He didn't get what most children, especially sons, expect to get from a mother. A mother, we are told, is the most important woman in one's life, and I think he kept on hunting for something of that special relationship here and there. But, of course, one cannot reduce his romantic relationships to reflections of his relationship with his mother. But I think he felt despair ... and even if "despair" is too strong a word for his feeling, then there was certainly deep dissatisfaction.

Camus' growing up in Algeria made him something of an outsider in terms of Parisian life, but it also had a profound effect on the sensual aspect of his writing -- the sun, the sand, the sea, the light. Why was that so powerful for him?

If you go to any North African country, you will quickly realize that it's a very different civilization, a whole different way of living, shaped by the environment, the climate. For one thing, you can live outside. And Camus was very grateful for these gifts, especially as he came from a very poor background. He would later reflect that in North Africa the sun cost nothing; the beach and the sea were free of charge. At the same time he felt that he was a Mediterranean man, in contrast to the cold men of the north. I think he probably exaggerated this idea of Mediterranean civilization, but he made an effort to sum it up; he felt that there was a kind of serenity to this way of life -- "the serenity of noon," he used to say. Camus was always trying to attain a similar stage of serenity in his life, and I think he finally got there just before he died. He settled much in his tangled personal relations. There were several women in his life, and in the end they came to accept one other. He was writing Le Premier Homme, which he thought of as being his War and Peace. And with a certain modesty he remarked, "Yes, but I think I'll have a bit more humour than Tolstoy." And he also noted that there would be a lot of feminine characters in this two-volume work in progress. He admitted that he hadn't been very good up to then at portraying women.

This is interesting, because I have been struck by how few female characters there are in his work, given his preoccupation with women.

Well, Don Juans or Casanovas are not always very adept as psychological analysts. But Camus himself realized that there were not many solid feminine characters in his writing. So he had determined, he said, to give back to women what he felt he owed them. And I find that commitment very touching.

Certainly Camus seems to have had great charm with women and many affairs throughout his life. Among his many relationships, he was twice married. His first wife, Simone, he married when he was 20, and she 19. Tell me a little about her.

She was a very strange character. During a disastrous visit to Czechoslovakia, Camus opened by mistake a letter addressed to his young wife and discovered that she was a drug addict. He would also discover that she slept with doctors in order to secure drugs, and that was the end of that marriage -- but not of the relationship. He never went back to her, but I have discovered that he looked after her for years and years. He gave her money; he tried to find work for her, and he tried to help her get over her addiction. But he never mentioned her. The second wife, Francine, was an altogether different woman -- much more educated, much more honest, and in the long-run much more suffering.

Why did he marry Francine? Because you quote a letter just before the wedding in 1940 where he senses already that it's going to be a disaster.

He married her because he was in love with her, or thought he was. And I think there was a double misunderstanding when they married. He felt that she had accepted the idea of what is euphemistically called an "open marriage" -- the right to unfaithfulness. And she believed that she would make this Don Juan into a faithful husband. Of course the union could never work with the two partners coming into it with such diametrically opposed misconceptions. At the end of their lives they were fairly reconciled, though they lived separately. A few weeks before he was killed in the car accident, he said to her affectionately, "Ah, Francine, you're really my sister, but no one should marry his sister."

Days before he died, while Camus was spending Christmas with his wife and children in the south of France, he wrote love letters to four different mistresses, and all of these seem equally passionate, equally sincere. Do you understand what was going on or how he was feeling?

He certainly did not subscribe to Judeo-Christian ethics, and in many ways he needed all these women in his life, and he had different types of relations with them. Now what a psychoanalyst would say about this I don't know -- perhaps, again, that his relationship with his mother was unsatisfactory and he sought in every woman some elusive element. All I can say is that I've seen quite a lot of the women who were in his life, especially the last three who used to call themselves the "three widows." I frankly and honestly think he didn't harm any of them, and in different ways he brought them a lot.

I'd like to look at Camus' political development. In his early 20s he wrote for a left-wing Algerian newspaper, and this whole period in Algiers was an exciting one for Camus and his circle. Can you talk a little about the atmosphere at that time?

In the 1930s Camus was a young progressive. He was horrified by the condition of the native North Africans. As a reporter he went into the Kabyle Mountains and came back with extremely long stories in which he described, I quote, "The condition of people there as amounting to slavery." He also defended many Arabs who were brought before the courts. Camus joined the Algerian Communist Party in those days, but was later expelled -- just after he had resigned. I discovered the reasons behind this in Moscow's Archives of State Security.

He was accused of being a Trotskyite. What in fact had happened was that the French as well as the Algerian communists had been ordered by Moscow not to push an aggressive anti-colonialist line. They were instructed to soft-pedal anti-imperialism so as not to destabilize the alliance of the USSR and the democratic states against the Axis. But Camus could not accept this expediency. This whole episode is very interesting when you consider what happened to him later on, when he was accused by people like Edward Said of being possessed of "an uninformed colonial sensibility" because he did not accept the idea of Algerian independence. Now, personally, I think that Camus was wrong on this; I think independence was unavoidable. I believe he had lost contact with what was going on in Algeria after 1954, after the rebellion began. But you cannot say that he was a colonialist. He was a man torn, divided, and bruised by the conflict.

So Camus joined the Communist Party in Algeria and then was kicked out, after he had resigned. Why did he join in the first place? What were his hopes at the time?

I think he was fighting not only for the rights of native North Africans but also for the rights of his uncle the carpenter, his mother the char lady. Camus had an instinctive dislike for the rich and comfortable. Even after he became very well known, when a friend took him to the superb Algiers apartment of a rich liberal Frenchmen, Camus fled. He was someone who had a deep conviction that the really decent people were those from the lower classes. He has that in common with George Orwell.

Certainly when he is getting blasted from the left and right at the same time his situation reminds me of Orwell's.

Yes indeed. One has to be careful how one puts it, but in a real sense he is one of the very few intellectual heroes we have, one of the very few writers whose political views have stood the test of time.

In 1940, shortly after the outbreak of war, Camus took one of the most important steps of his life. He left Algeria to live in Paris. Why did he make this move ?

The fundamental reason was that he was ostracized in Algeria and couldn't get a job there. His progressive newspaper had been closed down and banned, and he simply could not find employment anywhere. He even found it difficult at that stage to give private lessons. And one of his most important friends -- Pascal Pierre, who was editor of Algiers Republicain -- got him a job on Parisoir, an evening paper in Paris; Parisoir was not the sort of paper that appealed to Camus, but he secured a job there correcting copy. So, earning a paycheque in Paris, he was able to complete L'Etranger, which eventually would make him very famous. He was also, I think, probably impelled to go to Paris because in Algeria young gifted people knew that reputations were made in Paris. Algerian society was very interesting before the war, but it was still very provincial. And Camus had great ambitions on the whole.

In 1943 Camus joined the Resistance movement. Can you talk about what happened there, about that period in his life ?

Camus became an active member of the Resistance the year after he returned to Paris, and the proof of this is that he had forged papers. If you compare his part in the Resistance with Sartre's, I would say that Camus was not a formidable leader or hero of the Resistance, but he did his bit. And he had these false papers which sort of guaranteed that he belonged to an organization. Sartre never had false papers. I think he dabbled in the Resistance not very actively.

But although Camus had worked in the Resistance, after the Liberation he publicly asked for pardons for writers who had been collaborators. Why was that? He was opposed to capital punishment generally, but there seems to be something more to this issue of the collaborators.

Yes, but his views had changed over time. Immediately after the Liberation, like a lot of people, he was in favour of punishing those who had collaborated with the Nazis, and especially the guilty intellectuals. But I think his respect for human life and the arguments presented by his famous opponent, Francois Mauriac, worked to change his mind over time, and he became even more deeply convinced that capital punishment had to be eradicated. Later on, with Arthur Koestler, he wrote a book condemning the guillotine, and I believe his efforts contributed to the suppression of the death penalty in France in 1981.

Especially in the earlier days while Camus was living in Paris, he became friendly with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. What was their relationship like ?

Sartre and Camus had written about each other before they met during the premiere of one of Sartre's plays. And it very quickly developed into a very friendly comradeship. Believe it or not, they did not talk about Engels or Marx; they talked about women and wine. They drank together and partied together, and there was a nice symmetrical relationship because at first Sartre said that he admired Camus very, very much; when he was lecturing in America he kept saying Camus was one of the most important writers to come out of the Resistance. Camus also admired Sartre a great deal and was obviously impressed by the mental agility of the man -- although he was always very suspicious of him.

Indeed, the warning signs were apparent long before the two first met face to face. Before the war, the young Camus wrote literary essays in his Algiers newspaper predicting that Sartre would have a great literary future, but he was sceptical about the philosophy behind all the writing. And in 1942, when Sartre wrote an essay about L'Etranger, he said this young man Camus is very gifted as a writer, but no philosopher at all. This would all resurface during their quarrel of 1951-52.

In 1957 Camus received the Nobel Prize for literature, and everybody seemed to think that Andre Malraux should have won it (except for Sartre, who thought Sartre should have won it), but was it really a surprise that it was Camus ?

In France, yes I think it was a surprise because he was so young. Very often the prize goes to someone who is almost at the end of a long career. He was the second youngest man to receive the Nobel, after Kipling. It was also unexpected because he had a lot of enemies. But he also felt rather crushed beneath the weight of all the publicity and lionization. In fact he was horrified when a chap from one ministry wrote to ask if the government might strike a medal honouring him. Camus declined, saying it was a bit too early for that.

Camus died in a car crash in 1960 at the age of 46, after having often remarked to friends that nothing was more absurd than to die in an automobile accident. And Camus' last word as a writer was with him in the car when he died -- the draft of Le Premier Homme. It took 35 years for it to be published. Why so long?

Catherine Camus, his daughter, was in charge of editing the work. With other members of the family she decided that there would be too much confusion and controversy if they brought out the work right after Albert's death. Catherine spent a lot of time deciphering the draft and making sure the text was exact. By 1995 she felt that passions had died sufficiently for that posthumous fragment to be looked at as a literary work, and not in the light of what people thought of Camus in political terms. I think she was right to publish it, and I think she was right to do so when she did.

Camus is now described as a prophet of the post-ideological age. What is it about him that enables him to maintain such an individualistic stand ?

I think that he had a great sense of what was falsely concrete and rightly abstract, and vice versa. And also he was scathing in his criticism of the systems of the master thinkers, whether it was Engels or Marx or Sartre. He was a man who informed himself. He did not judge the communist world by its pretended achievements or aspirations. He talked to witnesses. He talked to people who lived behind the Iron Curtain; he didn't simply digest Soviet propaganda or trust in the propaganda produced by the Soviets' minions in Paris. A year ago, I was in Hungary, and I talked to well-known writers who couldn't understand why so many left-wing intellectuals were behind Sartre and not behind Camus -- because they knew all along that he was right. And how did he find his way to the truth? He kept informed and modestly listened. Sartre certainly was not modest, and didn't listen modestly, or how could he have returned from a visit to Moscow in the '50s and claimed that no intellectual was freer than a Russian intellectual? That is a mistake Camus would never have made.

Camus is also remembered as a man who committed himself though he didn't like to do so. And, to be fair, neither did Sartre. Both committed themselves though they didn't like it. Camus used to say that he hated committed literature, that it sounded like compulsory military service. But each of them felt he had to take a position regarding the social and political problems of the world. It so happens that Camus was right and not Sartre. The people behind the Iron Curtain proved him to be right and proved Sartre wrong.
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Author:Wachtel, Eleanor
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Words:3849
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