“No Longer the Person I Was”: The Dazzling Correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casarès

ON THE MORNING of June 6, 1944, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. That same night, Albert Camus and Maria Casarès landed in bed together. Though the latter event did not amount to a hill of beans to those unfolding on the French coast, Camus and Casarès would never again be the same. Nor will they ever be the same for those who read their correspondence — 865 letters (at more than 1,000 pages) stretching from the summer of 1944 to the winter of 1960.

By the summer of France’s liberation, Camus was a household name in France. Two years earlier, the twentysomething Algerian-born author had galvanized the French literary scene with the publication of his novel L’Étranger (The Stranger). In 1943, he joined the resistance newspaper Combat and quickly became its editor in chief. Faithful to the newspaper’s watchword — De la résistance à la révolution (From resistance to revolution) — Camus announced, in fiery language, that resistance was simply a first step. The goal was not just to liberate, but also to reinvent the nation. The men and women who had fought to free France, he declared on August 24, “will not agree to the return of the forces of resignation and of injustice in any form.”

This affirmation happened to echo a line he had written just a few weeks before: “I have refused resignation my entire life, choosing what to me seems essential and holding fast to it.” Camus’s audience for this personal declaration was not Combat’s readers, however, but his lover Maria Casarès. She, too, had become a household name in Paris. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), Casarès’s father, prime minister of the doomed Second Spanish Republic, had sent her to France. Still in her teens, Casarès studied theater and philosophy in Paris — the same subjects Camus had pursued as a student in Algiers, French Algeria, a decade earlier — and, by 1944, was electrifying audiences at the city’s renowned Théâtre des Mathurins. (Those who have seen Casarès in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise [1945] or Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus [1950] understand why.)

Indeed, the Mathurins set the stage for her relationship with Camus. In the still-occupied city, Casarès had been cast in a leading role in his 1944 play Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding). Though opening night was a disaster — sneers and snickers, catcalls and cries punctuated the performance — Camus was not terribly disappointed. The play, perhaps, had not been ready for prime time. But, far more important — as he wrote in his journal — he had “received on the occasion of the staging of this play the greatest joy an author can receive: that of hearing his own language borne by the voice and the soul of a marvelous actress in the exact register one dreamed for it.”

Yet that same summer marked, or so it seemed, his parting of ways with that voice and soul. When he told Casarès that he had refused resignation his entire life, Camus did not mean resisting the occupation by the Germans, but resisting the temptation to divorce his wife. Camus had married a fellow French Algerian, Francine Faure, four years earlier — a commitment he refused to break. “I know too well that all I need to do is say certain words and turn my back on this part of my life. But as I gave my word, these are words I will not say and there are engagements I cannot break.” The die seemed cast: in a letter he wrote a few days later, Camus tells Casarès that “I will try to make Francine happy.”

As his letters reveal in searing detail and shimmering language, Camus mostly failed at this task. In large measure, he failed because his separation from Casarès also failed. Four years after their initial breakup, their paths accidentally crossed — once again, remarkably, on June 6 — on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. This time, though they were often separated by professional and family duties — hence the frequency of their letter writing — their paths remained joined until Camus’s death 12 years later.

This path leads us to a man we thought we knew, but find we did not, and a woman most of us never knew, and are richer now that we do. Camus’s early letters surge with the lyricism we recall from his youthful essays. From Provence in southeastern France, he tells Casarès that he had made a wish as he watched shooting stars lace the night sky. “Should you raise your eyes towards the sky tonight,” he whispers, may they “fall like rain on your beautiful face reminding you of my love.” For her part, Casarès revises her understanding of their earlier tryst. “I was too young when I first met you to fully grasp everything that the word ‘we’ represents. Perhaps it was necessary that I had to bang my head against life in order to return with an insatiable thirst for you and for meaning.”

In 1944, Camus confessed to Casarès his “absurd” desire that she always remain at his side, even though Francine remained on the other side. Reunited four years later, Casarès returns to this “absurdity,” the most existential of words. Yes, their relationship might well be “stupid,” as Camus insisted, since he remained not just married, but also the father of young twins. Et, alors? (So what?) “Everything is stupid, if you prefer. But since this is how matters stand and we cannot change them, let’s try to manage them as best as we can and not risk spoiling everything by demanding too much from a life which is … absurd?”

The absurdities came in many shapes and sizes. In 1951, there occurred the dramatic break between Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, sparked by the publication of Camus’s L’Homme révolté (The Rebel). In this brilliant, though sometimes blurred analysis of communism and totalitarianism, Camus fingered the useful idiots on the French left who had turned a blind eye to Stalinist crimes. Inevitably, The Rebel revolted Sartre, France’s most celebrated fellow traveler. When Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes issued a scathing review of the book, Camus replied with a long letter that was often sharp and, at times, self-pitying. Sartre’s caustic and deeply personal response devastated Camus. In the grips of a “curious depression,” he told Casarès he no longer had “the desire to live.”

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