There is no national French celebration of the Nobel winner’s centenary. But he wouldn’t want one, Catherine Camus says
It is a century since French Nobel prize-winning author Albert Camus was born – and more than 50 years since he died in an accident on an icy road – yet the polemics over his legacy and “mysterious” death rumble on.
What his only daughter, Catherine Camus, recalls, however, is not the man shunned by Algeria, the country of his birth, as an Arab-despising colonialist, nor the slowness of the French establishment to recognise him, nor even the anti-communist who may – or may not – have been murdered by the Russians.
“Was he killed by the KGB? I don’t know and I don’t want to know. He was Papa,” she says, her voice faltering a fraction. “And I lost him. There is nothing more to say. It was horrible enough that he was taken away; the idea that this was done deliberately is unbearable. The result was the same. He was dead.”
We are sitting in the tall-ceilinged former office of Claude Gallimard, son of Gaston, founder of the French publishing company that brought Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and André Gide to the wider world.
Camus was being driven from Paris to his Provençal home by Gaston’s nephew Michel, when the car careered off the road and hit two trees killing both menCamus, the author of La Peste and L’Etranger, was 46 when he died; Catherine and her twin brother, Jean, were 14. On the desk is Catherine’s book, Le Monde en Partage (The World to Share), published to mark the centenary of Camus’s birth. It is a hefty trove of photographs, drawings, notes, lletters, telegrams and extracts from his books and essays, documenting Camus’s connections to and travels in Algeria, Europe, the Americas and Russia. Much of the material, she says, has never been published before.
In the Gallimard reception there is a small display of Camus first editions and a yellowing page 21 of the New York Times of 18 October 1957 headlined: “Albert Camus has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.” It is accompanied by a photograph of Camus by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
That the display article is from an English-language newspaper is symbolic – Camus has long been afforded greater recognition and respect abroad than in France. Centenary events have taken place in the US, India, Israel, Chile and Jordan among others, but there have been no national celebrations in France, or in Algeria, where Camus still provokes hostility for his sympathy with the French pied noir colonialists and opposition to Algerian independence.
A major French exhibition was cancelled amid rows and recriminations over what part Algeria should play in it. Instead, a smaller, some say more anodyne, eventAlbert Camus, Citizen of the World is being held in Aix-en-Provence as part of the Marseille 2013 European culture capital programme.
However, there is no grand retrospective in Paris planned. Catherine, 68, says her father would have approved. “There are lots of small events in villages, towns, little hamlets across France because Camus is still widely read and people have great affection for him. Over and above his books, readers love the man,” she told the Observer. “He touched them as human beings, maybe because the man is in the books; he asked the same questions everyone asks and addressed the same suffering and pain and concerns everyone has. He spoke directly to them and I know he touched people profoundly because of the hundreds of letters I receive.
“That there is no national celebration of his birth is natural; those in power in France have never liked Camus, and he detested those in power. He always said he was in the service of those who suffered history, not those who made it. In many ways Camus is still l’étranger [the outsider] in France. I find it astonishing that ministers don’t realise what Camus represents for the country. I am proud of him and the image he gives of France.”
Algeria is altogether more problematic. The late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said suggested in 1993 that Camus’s work sprang from an “incapacitated colonial sensibility”.
“The plain style of Camus and his unadorned reporting of social situations conceal rivetingly complex contradictions … unresolvable by rendering, as critics have done, his feelings of loyalty to French Algeria as a parable of the human condition …”, Said wrote. Camus was critical of French colonialism in Algeria, but pleaded for reconciliation rather than independence. French historian Benjamin Stora described it as a “paradoxical and double positioning that might be called that of the ‘outsider'”.
It still rankles in Algeria, though Catherine Camus says the view of the “ordinary Algerian people, who love reading Camus” conflicts with those of the authorities in Algiers. “He was no racist, he was as concerned for the fate of Muslims in Algeria as he was for the fate of French there. In any case, events in Algeria since independence have shown his position was justified,” she said.
The book includes a chapter on England, quoting from his essay A Combat, in which he praises English “heroism” during the second world war. “We cannot forget that not for one minute was the idea of capitulation [to the Nazis] accepted by a single Englishman.” He loved Shakespeare, whose Othello he translated into French, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, William Blake and Arthur Koestler.
But it is to the man and the father, to whom Catherine Camus repeatedly returns. “He was very handsome and had the attitude that unimportant things didn’t bother him, what we would call ‘cool’ today … He never punished us if we did something wrong, he would always ask why we had done it and what we were thinking. This was complicated for a child, a smack would have been easier, but it wasn’t his way. What remains with me is his love of life and love for other human beings.”
She added: “For 53 years I have dealt with the pain of his death, and I have thought of him every single day. I don’t know what he would think of the world now, with its race for money, and consumerism and disregard for the suffering of individuals.
“I cannot speak for him, but I know that what he wrote is still relevant and still speaks to people today.”
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