On January 4, 1960 – fifty years ago, last Monday – Albert Camus, one of the most accomplished and respected French writers of a remarkable generation that included the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and André Malraux, met his tragic and untimely death in an absurd traffic accident (aren’t they all?) involving an excessively uneven country lane in Burgundy, an extravagant sports car and a wretched tree. The circumstances that led to the situation were as trivial as uncertain are the details of the accident: Camus had traveled to Provence during the Christmas season, on a family holiday with his wife and two children. They all had train tickets to make the journey back from Avignon to Paris on January 2, 1960, but Camus’ friend, publisher and all-round socialite, Michel Gallimard, asked him to take the spare seat on his Facel Vega FVS 3 Typhoon and accompany him, his wife and daughter on the two-day road trip back to Paris. Camus unwittingly sealed his fate when he took the offer. Two days, and six hundred kilometers later, he lay dead by the side of the road. Gallimard himself was taken to the hospital, but would succumb to his wounds shortly thereafter.Janine Gallimard, Michel’s wife, and their daughter, Anne, traveling on the back seats, escaped the accident unscathed – at least physically. The tragedy was complete.
Born on November 7, 1913 in Mondovi (modern day Dréan), in what at the time was French Algeria, to a family of peasant pied-noir (black-footed, as they call them in France, in reference to their emigration to Africa), Camus was in direct contact with hard work and disillusion from his earliest childhood. The Great War (1914-1918) gifted him an indelible load of misery, when it claimed his father’s life in the battle of the Marne, in 1914, but the Interwar Period saw him settling with his mother in a poor quarter of Alger and developing into a decent athlete. Alas, fate was to trump his ambition of becoming a professional football player when he was diagnosed with an early case of tuberculosis.
Camus joined the University of Alger and completed a degree in Philosophy in 1936. For the rest of his life he maintained that a novel was nothing more than a philosophy presented in the form of a fictional example. As a young man his political inclinations were obviously influenced by his early contact with the proletariat, by his direct experience of poverty. He joined the French Communist Party as early as 1935, but his sympathy with the Algerian cause, for which he aspired autonomy, if not full-fledged independence, soon got him into trouble. He was expelled from the party less than two years later, when it became clear than neither his practical nor ideological tendencies were in line with the Marxist-Leninist project. In the future Camus would align himself more closely with the anarchist movement.
When the war broke in Europe, Camus was 25 years old. He might well have made it a family tradition to die in the field of battle, had his tuberculosis, always troubling him, not come to the rescue: he was deemed unfit to join the army and dispatched with license. Thus, the world of literature gained one of the greatest writers of all time. In 1942, at the heart of the Nazi occupation of Paris, he published his first novel: The Stranger, followed by an extraordinary philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Together they pose a coherent and complete example of Camus’ position regarding life and art – a position that has been coined with all kinds of terms, from nihilism to existentialism to the more accepted absurdism.
At this stage, Camus’s reputation as an intellectual of the highest caliber was cemented. Towards the end of the war he began writing and directing plays. Caligula was performed in 1945 and The Misunderstanding in 1947, before his masterwork, the novel The Pest, was published that same year. Inexorably penetrating the town of Oran and claiming lives indiscriminately as it moves forward, Camus’ pest might well be interchangeable with war, or even Nazism.
Camus was reserved, even after world fame embraced him. He was humbled by the Academy’s decision to award him with the Nobel Prize in 1957. Unlike his friend-turned-foe Jean Paul Sartre, he did accept it, although he claimed the prize should have gone to André Malraux. Even at that point, after the production of The Just Assassins (1949) and the publication of The Fall (1956), he considered his oeuvre to be “in progress”. Throughout the 1950’s he was more engaged in political activism, his thought remaining liberal and individualistic at the same time. Indeed, he opposed the institution of marriage, despite marrying twice, and he declared himself unfit for it. At the time of his death, Camus was just 46 years old. Yet they had been intense 46 years: he had climbed his way out of extreme poverty, and he had done it on the base of hard work alone; he had moved from the anonymity of the periphery to the recognition of the grand stage that is Paris; he had gone from being a fatherless child to fathering twins himself – without betraying his absolute regard for individualism; he had gone through the worst calamity the world had ever seen and come out of it, not devastated, but rather intent on doing everything possible to avoid the disaster from continuing – to stop calamity short of a nuclear war, and to begin the reconstruction of culture, of a civilized society, expediently. Europe, as it exists today, is the fruit bore by the intentions of people like Albert Camus.
When that wretched tree crashed into the Facel Vega FVS 3 that carried the Gallimards and Albert Camus, it made certain that the life of a man who had been over-accomplishment personified come to a perfectly elegant finale. The consequences of the crash would, of course, be felt everywhere for years to come: in the individual lives it shattered, in the Parisian high society, devoid of such prominent figures, in the literature that would never be written and, indeed, in the cars that would not be produced, for Facel Vega, like Delahaye a decade earlier after a similar accident, would not recover from the negative publicity it received. The tree made certain of that. It also made certain that Camus, like Marilyn Monroe, like Steve McQueen, will never be old.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON JANUARY 9, 2010.