JULY 18, 2012
WHILE THE MAGIC KINGDOM does not boast an Existential Land — at least not the sort that would be recognized as such by Albert Camus — the author of The Stranger did, rather absurdly, join forces with Walt Disney in 1954. Shortly after the successful release of The Living Desert, Disney published a book version of his documentary film. Along with photos from the film, there were essays from celebrated writers on both sides of the Atlantic, ranging from Julian Huxley and Louis Bromfield to François Mauriac and André Maurois. Yet it was Camus who set the tone:
Where no man can live, some perhaps can learn about life…Who could tolerate discrimination and hatred, let alone survive in the desert that is in us all, without the impervious obstinacy that refuses to give in and treats death itself as a triumph?
Forget Mickey: Even Pinocchio is a stranger to this realm.
This text, along with many other unexpected treasures, surfaces in the pages of Solitude and Solidarity — a commemoration of the same “impervious obstinacy” that drove Albert Camus the length of his short life. First published in France in 2009 as Solitude et solidarité, the English translation of Catherine Camus’s selection of photographs and texts, prefaced by her short and graceful introduction, appears in advance of the centenary next year of Camus’s birth. (The English text’s one notable difference from the French edition is a blurb from Günther Grass — an odd editorial decision given the German Nobel Prize winner’s long unacknowledged wartime service in the Waffen SS.) This lapse aside, the book is a remarkable effort at recapturing — or, for many readers, simply capturing for the first time — a man whose life and work matter as greatly today as they did in his own era.
In an early essay, “Between Yes and No,” written when he was still a twenty-something pied-noir (or French Algerian), with a university diploma in hand and no job in sight, Camus observed: “When we are stripped down to a certain point, nothing leads anywhere any more, hope and despair are equally groundless, and the whole of life can be summed up in an image.” Or more than one image. He continued, “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
For Camus, much of life could be, if not summed up, at least suggested with the image of the desert. The semi-arid plateaus of the Atlas Mountains and Sahara frame most of the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom. This sun-blasted sea of sand and rocks refuses to surrender an answer to characters and readers in search of meaning. And yet, as is the case with Daru, the hero of Camus’s most haunting story, “The Guest,” Camus was chez soi in these vast expanses of silence. As he watches the sky gradually close over, Daru reflects that though the “solitude and silence had been hard for him in these merciless lands inhabited only by stones,” Daru had grown accustomed to them. This world, he reflects, was “a cruel place to live, even without the men. […] And yet outside this desert […] Daru knew, could [he] have truly lived.”
The desert sculpted not only Camus’s sense of worldly solitude, but also his solidarity with the rest of humankind subject to the same exile. The desert was the scene of political and ideological crimes committed by France that Camus denounced as a journalist. There is a grainy photograph of the young Camus, dapper in a suit, tie, and overcoat, one hand plunged into his pocket, surrounded by fellow reporters and typesetters — many of whom are holding copies of their newspaper L’Alger Républicain. The young man, his face slightly tilted and one leg set firmly ahead of the other, stares directly at the camera. We see the same confident focus on Camus’s face in the photo of his university soccer team: he crouches over the ball, leaning toward the camera with an eager smile. His duty as a journalist was scarcely different from his task as goalie: the last line of defense against the press of those committed to his team’s defeat.
Camus brought an unfaltering attention to the crippling poverty of the Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains. As with George Orwell’s essays on English miners and Spanish Republicans, moral outrage surges just below the taut surface of Camus’s prose. In a series of reports that rocked French Algeria’s political establishment, he urged his readers to attend to a world they preferred to ignore: “We condemn the Kabyles to their poverty, so we should know what it is like.” With this phrase, he summarized his professional ethic, artistic no less than journalistic. The faded headlines from L’Alger Républicain that march across the pages of Solitude and Solidarity have their place, but so too should photos of the men and women whose suffering Camus so carefully documented: a world where malnourished children played by open sewers, fainted from hunger in classrooms, fought with dogs over kitchen scraps, were wracked by convulsions, and died from eating poisonous roots.
For better and worse, there are few photos of the Berbers — or, indeed, of any of the horrors that Camus detailed as a journalist. While one must respect Catherine Camus’s editorial decisions, her choices contrast tellingly with those of Michel Onfray in his recent biography of Camus, L’Ordre libertaire. One of France’s most prominent intellectuals, Onfray suffers from a malady common to that small world: biography is mostly autobiography by other means. Yet there is one salutary aspect of his book: rather than reprinting the well-worn shots of Camus, Onfray instead reproduces brutal photos of the historic events, from starvation in Kabylia through industrial genocide at Auschwitz to civil war in Algeria, on which Camus wrote. The images of bodies piled like matchsticks, or with their throats slit, or their faces melting onto the ground in pools of flesh shock even today. These choices rightly reflect Camus’s own insistence, as he wrote in his notebook shortly after the war, “to never be polite again” — namely, never to blur or buffer the outrages we inflict on one another.
It is in a passage from The Stranger that neither Catherine Camus nor Onfray reproduce or discuss, that we grasp the full measure of Camus’s ethics. During Meursault’s trial, our attention is directed to a reporter who stands apart from his colleagues. Younger than the others, he is “wearing gray flannels and a blue tie, had left his pen lying in front of him and was looking at me. All I could see in his slightly lopsided face were his two very bright eyes, which were examining me closely without betraying any definable emotion.” At this very moment, Camus is gazing at himself. And it will be this avatar, who upon hearing Meursault condemned to death, again stands apart from his peers: he alone averts his gaze, incapable of accepting the state sanctioned death of a fellow human being.
Aside from the Disney photos, images of the physical desert are rare in Solidarity and Solitude. But we must not think of Camus’s desert as merely a geographical or cartographic expression: it has a metaphysical and ethical status as well. Geography becomes ontology in Camus’s work: the deserts extend as far as the coast where, on the sun-blasted beach at Algiers, Meursault pointlessly kills another man. This crime reflects a cosmos as empty of sense as the Sahara is of life. For humankind, thirsty for meaning, the desert and beach become the setting for absurdity. And yet, for Camus, this world-turned-back-on-itself was also the glorious setting for a youth devoted to physical pleasures. Gazing at the several snapshots taken of Camus in the mid-1930s at the Roman ruins of Tipasa, a village on Algeria’s eastern coast, we discover a young man who revels in the company of women as much as he does nature. Leaning against a massive pillar with the sea resting below, Camus slouches in a suit with his beautiful first wife, Simone Hié, wearing a wide-brimmed hat cocked over one eye.
The marriage did not last — a drug-addicted Hié soon betrayed Camus for another man — but Camus’s ties to the Mediterranean coast remained. In a set of photos taken shortly after his divorce, we see a bare-chested and unself-conscious Camus posing atop a mossy arch, or on the beach littered with abandoned articles of clothing, with either a cigarette or a woman in hand. Camus clearly flourished in the company of women, as mesmerized by them as he was by the sea and sky. In his essay “Nuptials at Tipasa,” Camus captured his attachment to this wild and sensual world: “Other than the sun, the wild odors and our own kisses, everything seems futile. […] Here, I leave others to contemplate order and reason. My whole being is overwhelmed by the promiscuousness of nature and the sea.”
Images of ancient Greece, the birthplace of this Dionysian wonder, abound in Camus’s writings as they do in these pages. (It was during this period that Camus discovered Nietzche and devoured his Birth of Tragedy. Hence the justice of reproducing the very headshot of Nietzsche, taken after he was overcome by insanity, that Camus tacked to the wall of his study many years later.) With several friends, Camus launched the Théâtre du travail, a community theater that sought to bring art to the city’s workers. One page carries the reproduction of the autograph page from Camus’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, with the graceful drawings by his friend Louis Bénisti of the actors’ costumes and masks.
The only extant play of a presumed trilogy, Prometheus Bound ends with the chained hero refusing to submit to Zeus’ will. Prometheus tells Hermes, Zeus’ messenger, that no torture will break him: “There’s no outrageous treatment, no device / By which Zeus will induce me to tell these things / Until the indignity of these chains is undone.” For Camus, a militant leftist appalled by the condition of Arabs no less than poor pied-noir, this ending made perfect sense. Not a year after the play’s production, Camus further embraced a Prometheus marked by revolutionary verve:
The spirit of revolution lies wholly in man’s protest against the human condition. Under the different forms that it assumes, it is […] the only eternal theme of art and religion. A revolution is always carried out against the Gods — from that of Prometheus onwards.
This protest assumed a hopeless yet determined urgency in 1940 with France’s defeat and occupation by Nazi Germany — the event that made Camus the trench-coated Gaulois-smoking and hair-pomaded emblem of rebellion and resistance. (Camus was vain enough to enjoy the frequent comparisons, which he himself often made, between himself and Bogart.) And, indeed, Camus often wears a trench coat and flourishes a cigarette in these photos — rehearsals, it seems, for Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic shot, taken in 1947, with Camus, coat collar pushed up and cigarette stub jammed between his lips, gazing at the camera. (Earlier this year, the photo sparked a controversy Camus would have savored: the Green Party in Marseilles tried to have the Cartier-Bresson poster removed from the outdoor display at a city museum, arguing that it violated the law forbidding all cigarette advertisements. The court dismissed the case, but the author of The Myth of Sisyphus would remind us that such absurd battles will never end.)
As early as lycée, when he played the role of d’Artagnan in Dumas’s Three Musketeers, Camus loved the theater. Acting, Camus wrote, was “a fundamental form of existence.” Soon after he turned thirty, he declared that at this age a “man ought to have control over himself…be what he is…Settle in to being natural, but with a mask.” In Brassai’s remarkable group portrait, taken in Picasso’s studio, we glimpse this thirty-year-old. Taken on the occasion of a reading of Catching Desire by the Tail, Picasso’s surrealist play, the luminaries of the Left Bank surround Camus, who directed the production. Behind him stand Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jacques Lacan, while Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Leiris flank his sides. As for Camus, he is in the same position as he was for his soccer team portrait: crouching at center stage. But this time, rather than looking at the camera, he is intent on a dog, whose fur he is ruffling.
Editor of the resistance newspaper Combat and author of The Stranger, Camus was heaved onto the stage of postwar French intellectual and political life. And we sense the staginess in the self-consciousness and awareness of his public role that Camus radiates in these photos. As his faithful but lucid editor Roger Quilliot observed, the entire universe for Camus was a vast theater.
And yet, Camus never succeeded to conquer, as he had the stage of history, the theatrical stage. Studding these pages are the beautiful playbills for Camus’s plays: Caligula, State of Siege, The Misunderstanding, and The Just Assassins. Yet the reviews, which often lambasted the plays for their didacticism and inaction, are missing. As the scholar Christine Margerrison rightly notes, Camus was unable to transform the compelling first person narratives of his novels to the needs of the stage. All the more paradoxical, then, to gaze on Camus directing both his own plays, as well as works like Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and Dostoyevsky’s Possessed that he adapted for the stage. In a series of photos taken in 1957 — the year he won the Nobel Prize — Camus rehearses an outdoor production of Lope de Vega’s The Knight of Olmedo. Striding across the grass, gesticulating with his cigarette, swirling his outstretched arms, smiling widely as he strolls with his twin children, Camus seems more at ease than, as his notebooks reveal, he ever felt as a writer or thinker. If this face, too, was a mask, Camus clearly made it his.
It was, of course, a face loved by women. Sharing the stage with Camus was a succession of beautiful actresses who were also his mistresses. There are several glimpses of Catherine Sellers, a dead-ringer for Audrey Hepburn, watching intently as Camus offers stage directions. More famously, and with many more shots, there is Maria Casarès (misspelled by the translator as Cesarès). The daughter of the Spanish Republic’s exiled prime minister, Casarès had, by the time of France’s liberation, and at the tender age of 20, established herself as a tragic actress of the first rank. Americans most likely know her from her remarkable performance as Nathalie in Les Enfants du Paradis — remarkable enough to maintain her own against the extraordinary Arletty, who starred as Garance. Raven-haired and passionate, Casarès captured Camus’s heart — as he did her own. Catherine Camus includes long extracts from Casarès’s memoirs where she recalls their relationship, one filled with “the greatest joy and the cruelest and most intense pain.”
The pain was shared — deeply and lastingly — by Camus’s wife, Francine Faure. A math teacher from Oran, Faure was, like Camus’s other lovers, as beautiful as she was accomplished: photos taken at a beach in Algeria soon after their marriage frame a playful and athletic woman diving with Camus into the sea, making faces on the sand and flashing a heart-stopping smile while climbing a tree. Christine Camus does not comment on the serial infidelities that made her mother’s life so difficult — Francine suffered the first of several nervous breakdowns in 1953, when Camus reignited his affair with Casarès — for the simple reason, one imagines, that there is no need to. Yet in the section devoted to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, the younger Camus nevertheless seems to have her say: Francine appears in nearly as many photographs as her husband, and looks as regal as the Swedish royal family surrounding her.
Not surprisingly, the Stockholm photos, like nearly all the others in this album, are in black and white. It is tempting to say that for those born with no memories of the first half of the twentieth century, the era is in black and white. And, particularly for the young today, a black and white world seems as distant and unfamiliar as Nazi Germany and the Cold War. But have we lost something, both aesthetically and ethically, with this shift? Black and white, the photographer Robert Frank once observed, “are the colors of photography. To me,” he said, “they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”
When it came to these alternatives, Camus insisted that while we have no reason for hope, we must also never despair. This commitment, carnal and ethical, to the world and others, explodes in the album’s very last photograph — a color shot, remarkably, of Camus and his close friend Michel Gallimard. The two men are sitting at a café terrace, a table covered with plates and bottles in the foreground. A red-haired Gallimard seems to be mid-sentence, while Camus, with one arm over his friend’s shoulder, the other under his chin, looks slightly to the camera’s right, a wide smile creasing his sun-tanned face. Here, as elsewhere, Christine Camus found the mot juste from her father’s writings: “Although it was the middle of winter, I finally realized that, within me, summer was inextinguishable.”
*Images excerpted with permission from Albert Camus: Solitude and Solidarity (Edition Olms) edited by Catherine Camus and translated by Joseph Laredo.