The Camus I knew: His daughter recalls a great writer who died too young
Catherine Camus says the death of the literary star in 1960 left a wound that has never healed
It was the news that ushered in the 1960s with a violent bang. After lunch on January 4 1960, the car in which Albert Camus was travelling, driven by his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, skidded off a road near the northern French town of Sens and crashed into a tree.
Camus, the 46-year-old renaissance man of post-war French literature, was killed outright. Gallimard, whose uncle Gaston had published Camus’s name-making novel L’Etranger (The Outsider) in 1942, died of his injuries a few days later. The desolation in France was akin to the loss of James Dean or Buddy Holly.
Having told friends there would be nothing more “absurd” than dying in a car crash, Camus’s fate oddly mirrored the philosophical preoccupation of his writing: how to cope with the absurdity that exists in the unbridgeable gap between a meaninglessness universe and man’s aspiration to order it.
Almost 60 years on, Catherine Camus welcomes me into her father’s former home, an old silk farm in the Provençal village of Lourmarin, and tells me that the impact of that horrific event registered “like an earthquake”. At the time, she was just 14 and had spent the holidays with her parents and twin brother in Lourmarin. The consequences of Camus’s decision to drive back to Paris that day, rather than join his family on the train as he’d planned, changed the course of his daughter’s life.
By then Catherine was used to her father’s absence – he had moved out of the family flat in 1954 after his infidelities pushed his wife Francine, a pianist and mathematician, to a breakdown requiring psychiatric care. But still, she says, his death was “terrifying”.
“Papa was the only one who looked happy at my presence, the only one laughing at home with me,” she adds.
In the hospital, her mother had undergone electric shock treatment and attempted suicide; just before she returned home, Catherine says, Francine’s family had asked Camus “to leave the house – and without Papa at home it was very dark, very sinister. So when he died, I was scared. He was always the reassuring presence.”
Now 73, Catherine, who has handled her father’s literary estate for the past 38 years, lights up whenever she recalls him, admitting starkly: “I always hold him close. Without his memory I don’t think I could have got through life.”
Every week she visits the nearby cemetery where, shielded by a pink laurel bush, a modest weather-beaten stone slab marks her father’s resting place. Other admirers still make the pilgrimage, many of them plunging ballpoints into the earth as a gesture of appreciation; Catherine, a mother of two and grandmother of three, shows me a sack groaning with exhumed pens.
Throughout their childhood, Camus would jovially refer to the twins as “la peste” [the plague] and “le cholera”. “I was la peste!” Catherine says with a grin. But he could also be very strict on them. “He was severe about how we sat at the table, and at breakfast you had to be silent,” she says. “You weren’t allowed to dip your tartine into the hot chocolate but if you don’t dip a tartine, it makes a crunching noise.” She shrugs: “So I preferred not to eat that when he was there.”
This was partly his temperament, she avers – self-disciplined, rigorous, questioning – and partly the consequence of his impoverished upbringing in a working-class district of Algiers, among European settlers known as the pieds-noirs. “He wanted us to know that life wasn’t easy,” she says.
Camus’s children were barely aware that he was a famous writer. “We never really knew because he never talked about himself or his work. At an early age, people would ask what does your father do? I never wanted to say he was a writer – what kind of work is that? – so I used to say he was a woodcraftsman.”
Her brother Jean was even more disparaging. “When he was angry with him, he would leave the room saying small, second-class writer! Papa laughed at that.”
It was only after Camus died that she got the measure of his greatness. What’s astonishing – something not referred to in Olivier Todd’s superb 1996 biography – is that she and her brother weren’t allowed to attend the funeral, held two days after the fatal crash. Worse than that, while the world discussed Camus’s death, it was a subject not even raised by her own family.
“No one said a word about it, nothing. It was as if nothing had happened. They were trying to protect my mother. So I couldn’t talk to her.”
She fathomed what was going on, but was alone in her grief. Did her mother not broach the subject? She shakes her head. “Three months later, I was climbing the stairs, smiling. My mother said you shouldn’t forget that your father died. I asked myself then how she thought I could forget that.”
She pauses. “You shouldn’t do that to children because it leaves a wound that never heals.”
The pretext for my visit to Lourmarin is the first major UK staging of L'Etranger. The novel has one of modern fiction’s most famous opening lines: “Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” (“My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know,” as the Penguin translation has it). It also contains one of its best-known scenes, in which the affectless anti-hero Meursault murders an Arab on an Algerian beach, seemingly spurred by the glint of the other’s knife and the heat of the sun. The episode was inspired by a real-life (non-fatal) brawl involving one of Camus’s friends and a pair of Arabs on a beach outside Oran.
Camus finished the novel after he moved to Paris, weeks before the Germans marched down the Champs-Élysées. L'Etranger has been staged frequently in France and elsewhere, something that Catherine thinks would please her father, who adored the theatre and ran a stage company in the 1930s. However, the adaptor of the new version, the poet and novelist Ben Okri, asked Catherine’s permission to alter the tale, hoping to give Meursault’s Arab victim, silent and unnamed in the novel, a voice.
“Absolument pas,” she says. “Why? Because it would mean those people are right.” By “those people” she means those agreeing with the view, put forward in Edward Said’s 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, that Camus’s work is “informed by an incapacitated colonial sensibility”.
“I’ve been struggling against this attitude for many years,” she says. “L’Etranger is not a pro-colonialist novel. I don’t think Said read the book properly. Papa didn’t despise Arabs. He always fought for them, defended them. When Meursault arrives in the prison cell there are only Arabs in there with him, and they are silent, but for Papa silence was always significant because his mother was deaf and she barely spoke.”
Those “others” are not being deliberately denied a voice? “Exactly. But I think the best proof is that Meursault isn’t sentenced to death because he killed an Arab but because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. It’s a clear denunciation of the colonialist system.”
More than that, she adds: “I think the reason that it has lasted so long is that the reader doesn’t find exact answers. The novel retains its mystery.”
When Camus died he had with him a manuscript – about 144 pages – for what was hoped would be the first part of a magnum opus on the theme of love. Finally edited and published in 1994, The First Man (Le Premier Homme) is full of autobiographical reminiscences of French Algeria. The landscape around Lourmarin had been a Proustian spur to his memory. “I feel when I reach out my hand as if I were touching Algeria,” he told a friend.
He wrote it in an upstairs room overlooking the vineyards, standing at a lectern that now rests, without ceremony, accruing bits of junk, in a hall alcove. “This was to be his War and Peace,” his daughter explains. “What we have is the childhood section. After that he wanted to look at the Second World War – there were lots of notes for Arab characters, and women too.”
With the winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 – the money from which he used to buy the house at Lourmarin – something was released in him as a writer, she believes. “He started to think about the book early on and said that if he failed to write it, it would be as if he hadn’t written anything. For him it’s a liberation, the style is different, less austere, more lyrical.”
Even if he never got to reach his apotheosis, she believes her father’s legacy is secure, regardless of her input. “He can do very well on his own. I don’t guard the temple, because there is no temple. Intellectuals don’t know what to do with him but people love him the world over. He is fraternal. He makes people feel less alone because he is aware that life is difficult – and that humans are fallible.
“He acknowledges this weakness but he shows that the force of man is to continue. What he has written still speaks to us. And I believe the more time goes on, the more modern he is.”
– © The Daily Telegraph