Interview with Catherine Camus, daughter of Albert Camus: Solitaire et solidaire

In January 1960, the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus was killed in a car crash along with his friend and publisher, Michel Gallimard. Recovered from the wreckage of the crash was the unfinished manuscript of Camus' latest novel, The First Man. In 1957, Camus had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his most famous novels, The Outsiderand The Plague.

Fifty years after its original publication The Outsider is still France's best-selling novel this century. In October 1995, The First Man was finally published in English, thirty five years after Camus' death. His daughter, Catherine Camus, elected to publish the manuscript unedited. Its drafts have been organised into the completed text of the novel and authorial notes which supplement its progression and development. As such, The First Man shows the rarely glimpsed process of a work in progress. The novel itself is a deeply autobiographical meditation upon Camus' poverty-stricken childhood and fatherless family within Algeria at the turn of the century. While it remains unfinished, much of the text possesses Camus' characteristic lucidity and sensuality, clearly demonstrating that his best writing was yet to come before his tragic and untimely death at the age of 47.

Catherine Camus and her partner Robert Gallimard visited London in October 1995. At the Basil Hotel, they discussed the implications of The First Man for our evaluation of Albert Camus as a writer and a political philosopher at the close of this century. The interview was conducted in French.

R: In your editor's note for The First Man you suggest that now is a more suitable time for the reception of Camus' work. Do you think Camus has been neglected in recent years?

CC: He was never abandoned by his readers. Camus is enormously read. He's the highest selling author in the entire Gallimard collection, and has been for some years now. Sales haven't ever stopped, so to talk about rediscovering him would suggest that he isn't read anymore and that's not true. It's just that, in publishing The First Man I said to myself, 'this is going to be awful,' but awful from the point of view of the criticism. I'm not afraid of Camus' public. I'm afraid of what will be written in the papers.

However, there are indications that today the intellectuals are coming back to Camus. History has given them reason to, with the fall of communism. In fact it was always the Communist problem which was responsible for the opposition to Camus. It was always and overall a political thing, a kind of misunderstanding. Camus had denounced the gulag and Stalin's trials. Today we can see that he was right. To say that there were concentration camps in the USSR at the time was blasphemous, something very serious indeed. Today we think about the USSR with the camps also in mind, but before it just wasn't allowed. Nobody was allowed to think that or say that if you were left-wing. Camus always insisted that historical criteria and historical reasoning were not the only things to take into account, and that they weren't all powerful, that history could always be wrong about man. Today, this is how we are starting to think.

R: Do you think that Camus’ work is becoming vindicated then, after this time of intellectual isolation?
RG: It all depends on the period. Just after the war, the liberation of 1945, Camus was well known, well loved by Sartre and all the intellectuals of that generation. There is an interview given by Sartre in the USA where he is asked what the future of French literature is, and he replies that the next great writer of the future is Camus. And so time passes, and a much more political rather than literary reasoning intervenes, and from the day that Camus wrote The Rebel, in 1955, there comes the rupture, and all, nearly all of the left wing intellectuals become hostile to him. Since he was already unfavourably viewed by the right-wing, he found himself entirely alone.

Then, during the ’80s, those you would call the young philosophers of France, such as Bernard and Gluxman, pointed out that Camus had said things no one wanted to hear in the political arena. They said it was Camus who was right, not those who had slid under the influence of Sartre, that is to say an unconditional devotion to Communism as seen in the Soviet Union. And ever since then the evaluation of Camus has continued to modify up until today. Intellectuals of Camus’ age who had previously disliked him now appreciate him. And at that point we come back to literature, and it’s agreed that he was always a great writer.

R: Which brings us specifically to the publication of The First Man. How will this book alter our perception of Camus’ work?

CC: We must remember that Camus wrote not even a third of what he had wished to. The First Man is his posthumous last work. But in fact, in a certain way, it is his first, because in it you find the signs of his commitments, and of the whole way of writing as well. This mixture of austerity and sensuality, the will to speak for those not able to speak for themselves.

R: There are times in his letters to Jean Grenier [Camus' philosophy professor in Algeria, published in the Selected Notebooks] when he sounds unhappy with his work on The First Man. After receiving his Nobel Prize, did he feel pressurised to produce his definitive work?

CC: He wasn’t writing under the influence of the Nobel Prize. That was an external thing for the artist in him. The Nobel Prize comes from outside, it’s a social recognition [reconnaissance] in a way. And I think a true artist is driven by interior necessities. We can’t talk about the book he wanted to write because we have barely its beginnings. He had written hardly any of it, but he needed to write it. It seems to me that if you look at the style of The First Man it conforms much more to who he was as a man, it resembles him very closely.

R: Will we get a clearer notion of his ideas through The First Man?

CC: Perhaps not, because it’s in quite a crude state. But then, in this condition one sees more, without any of the artifices of art, without anything having been erased. It is, perhaps, at the same time, more truthful. I think he wanted to write something to explain who he was, and how he was different from the age that had been conferred upon him. He was viewed by many as an austere moralist, but it was on the football pitch and in the theatre that he learnt his ‘morality’. It’s something sensed, it won’t pass uniquely through thought. It couldn’t possibly. He started thinking through sensation. He could never think with artefacts or with cultural models because there were none. So it’s true to say that his morality was extremely ‘lived’, made from very concrete things. It never passed by means of abstractions . It’s his own experience, his way of thinking. There are those who will find his notions about absurdity appealing, and others who will be drawn by the solar side of his work, about Algeria, the heat and so on.

R: Since The First Man deals with Camus’ birth and childhood in Algeria, it seems strange that Camus’ deep personal involvement with the Algerian nationalist crisis tends to get overlooked in the traditional portrayal of him as a French writer. Do you think The First Man will re-emphasise the importance of Algeria in our consideration of Camus?

CC: I hope so. Camus’ was born in Algeria of French nationality, and was assimilated into the French colony, although the French colonists rejected him absolutely because of his poverty. Politically, he was in favour of a federation, and effectively he considered that like South Africa today (or as they are trying to do), there should be a mixed population with equal rights, the same rights for the Arab and the French populations, as well as all the other races living there.

Spike Magazine


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