The Meeting That Never Was

ONE DAY in February 1945, in Paris, George Orwell waited at the café Deux Magots, where he was to meet Albert Camus for the first time. But Camus, suffering from tuberculosis and exhaustion — because of which he was currently on leave from his editorship of the resistance newspaper Combat — didn’t show up. They would never again have the chance to meet each other. Five years later, Orwell died, in England — from an illness related to his own tuberculosis.

This may very well be one of the great missed opportunities in 20th-century European letters. But although Orwell and Camus were two of the most intriguing political and literary figures of their time, they are rarely considered in relation to each other, and when they are, it is usually not to any great depth. There are superficial similarities between them that tend to distract from looking for deeper affinities, albeit buried beneath significant antimonies. Although, politically and intellectually, they drew many of the same conclusions, these were, more often than not, arrived at from very different starting points, or via different routes. And that is, ultimately, why Orwell and Camus are so interesting to consider together. In a sense, the life and work of each man acts as an independent variable to confirm the truths and the doubts revealed by the life and work of the other.

Even their similarities, if prodded gently, reveal telling differences. Take, for example, the most iconic, albeit the most superficial, similarity between Orwell and Camus: their obsessive cigarette smoking. Orwell rolled his own cigarettes, from the cheapest shag tobacco he could find — the type used by the British working class. Camus smoked Gauloises, a prepackaged, unfiltered cigarette, very popular amongst the French intelligentsia and artistic community. For each man, their preferred cigarette was a symbol for the world they tried to inhabit, but which was never really their home. For Camus, it was the French intellectual scene, a far cry from his poor Algerian origins. For Orwell, it was the British working class, very different from his middle-class upbringing, his public schooling, and his service in the Imperial Police. Each cigarette they smoked was both an act of solidarity and a calmative against not entirely fitting into their chosen worlds.

They entered each of these worlds as writers, however. But they had very different approaches and attitudes toward writing. They both considered writing as a vocation. Yet Orwell also saw it as an occupation. For him, to be a writer meant earning a living from your published work. This is why Orwell early on set himself a goal of writing and publishing one book every year. It is also why he wrote so many articles, and did so many book reviews (and later film reviews, even though he hated doing so). His freelance writing was to support his book writing. And his book writing was to support his living.

Camus also made a decision early on regarding his own career. But he felt that writing was not an occupation. It was not something to earn a living from, and so he sought out other employment. In his youth, he was struck by the romantic argument that money tainted art. But as he got older, and his romanticism faded, he worked more out of necessity. His university education was geared toward him becoming a schoolteacher, but his tuberculosis made him ineligible for the role. He had tried various odd jobs, both during and after his university study. He was a meteorologist assistant, for example. An uncle even wanted him to take over the family butcher shop, and to teach him the trade. But Camus eventually fell into journalism. Even here the writing aspect was always only a part of other more menial tasks, like typesetting, or more laborious roles, like editing and proofing or seeing someone else’s work through to print.

Orwell and Camus also approached their own writing differently. Orwell was only able to work on one project at a time. So when he had reviews to write, or a series of commissioned articles to complete, he would put aside his book manuscript, sometimes for months at a time. Even on those rare occasions when he did have a job — such as in the mid-’30s, when he briefly worked in a London bookshop, or when in the late ’30s he and his wife Eileen opened a village grocery shop in Hertfordshire — he made the job fit around his writing, and always saw it as something secondary. Running a grocery shop didn’t, for example, stop Orwell from traveling to Northern England to research his book on working-class life, or to Spain to fight against the fascists. But when a job became all-consuming — such as when he worked for the BBC during the war, and then as literary editor of Tribune — his own writing all but stopped. Starting in 1933, Orwell published one book every year up until 1939. His next book, Animal Farm, was not published until 1945. He would look back on these years in between as wasted.

During and after the war, Camus worked as a newspaper editor at Combat but also as a book editor at Gallimard, where he curated his own series (publishing, for the first time, writers such as Simone Weil and Violette Leduc). Still, Camus didn’t let his day job get in the way of his own writing. His illness had taught him that time was short, and so he didn’t waste any of it. Unlike Orwell, however, Camus would work on several projects at once. Despite his journalism, and essay writing, Camus tended to develop what he called “cycles” of work, based around a common theme. His aim was to write a novel, a play, and a book-length essay to make up each cycle of work. Although the reality never entirely matched the plan, he kept to this method throughout his life. At the same time that he was working on his novel The Stranger, for example, he was also writing his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, and working on the play Caligula. Meanwhile, the seeds of his next cycle were already being sown in his notebooks, and rehearsed in his journalism and essay writing.

Part of the reason for these different attitudes and approaches to writing may be due to their different social backgrounds. For Orwell, that background was middle-class, old Etonian — even when he rebelled against it he was still inculcated by the attitudes that came with it. He had seen several of his classmates — such as Cyril Connolly — go on to become writers and editors of literary journals and newspapers, and so he was never in any doubt that a literary career was not something he could pursue. His five years in the Burmese Police were, he later said, partly an attempt to actively avoid becoming a writer — as if it was always inevitable.

Camus, on the other hand, came from very poor, largely illiterate, working-class French Algeria. There was hardly anything inevitable in Camus’s becoming a writer. Growing up, there were no books in the house, and no privacy. During the school holidays, he worked with his uncles and older brother in a wine-barrel factory. His older brother didn’t go to high school, but went instead to work full-time with their uncles. Camus was supposed to follow suit, but an intervention from a schoolteacher, Louis Germain — and later the encouragement of a high school teacher and then university lecturer, Jean Grenier — made Camus see new possibilities. But even here, these possibilities extended mainly to the goal of becoming a high school teacher, and the need for a steady, honest job. Writing was certainly a possibility, but it was always something besides, something you did after work hours. For a working-class family in 1930s Algeria, writing was not considered legitimate work.

Tuberculosis affected Orwell and Camus in very different ways. Orwell was often sickly, and his illnesses were always lung-related. From early childhood he had bouts of chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, and influenza, often resulting in hospitalization. In September 1938, when he was 35, he went to French Morocco to recover from his first official bout of tuberculosis, although an older tubercular lesion was also found on his lungs. He became acclimatized to illness early on, to the extent that he didn’t let it get in the way of his more adventurous activities. He fought in Spain in 1936, for example, where he was shot in the throat. It was not until the Second World War that tuberculosis stopped him from enlisting. Even then, he threw himself into the home guard, and later — at the time he was supposed to meet Camus — worked as a war correspondent.

Camus contracted tuberculosis when he was 17, much younger than when Orwell became aware of his illness, but older than Orwell in his having to cope with illness in general. It therefore came as more of a shock to Camus when he was first diagnosed. Despite the poverty of his childhood, Camus was a robust and active child, playing soccer and swimming in the ocean. But tuberculosis, during the 1930s in French Algeria, was effectively a death sentence. Camus only received basic treatment because his father had died fighting in the First World War, which made the Camus children eligible for free medical care. The severity of the illness restricted his activities. He was unable to enlist to fight in Spain during the civil war in the mid-1930s, and later, at the start of the Second World War, he was again unable to enlist, despite repeated attempts.

Tuberculosis shaped Camus’s life more so than it did Orwell’s. The latter often treated his illness as an annoying aside, something he acted in spite of. It helped that his brother-in-law, Laurence O’Shaughnessy, was a leading thoracic surgeon and attending doctor at the sanatorium where Orwell would often stay in the late 1930s. Although it could be argued that Orwell’s pervasive pessimism — especially in his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, written when he knew he was dying of tuberculosis — could, in part, be due to his own sense of mortality, illness never really became a prominent subject for his writing (his essay “How the Poor Die” being a notable exception).

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