Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Camus Goes to Thailand

The other day I did a walk in Paris with an unusual literary bunch -- a jolly TV crew from Bangkok shooting a film about Albert Camus.  Renowned author of L’Etranger (The Stranger), La Peste (The Plague), other novels, plays, and major essays, L’Homme révolté (The Rebel) and others, and Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus remains one of the most beloved of writers -- not only in France and the West -- but also in Thailand.  They love him too.  To wit: a 50-minute television documentary is in the works.    

Here are the places where I took my new Thai friends, in order of our walk. 

1946 to 1950:  No. 18 rue Séguier (right).

When the Nazis were chased out of Paris in 1944, Albert Camus, then 30, suddenly became famous all across France, revealed as the editor-in-chief of Combat, the most important clandestine newspaper during the Occupation.  And when the paper went above ground, he continued as chief.  In 1946 he rented an apartment for his wife Francine and their year-old twins here in Saint Germain-des-Près.  Besides editing the paper, he completed his novel The Plague in 1947, a huge best seller, with 52,000 sold in the first two months, and considered by many his finest work of fiction.  But Combat could not compete with the big Paris, and he had to close it down at the end of the year.  

Camus had become friends with Jean-Paul Sartre 1943 and remained close at the start of this period, with Camus  commissioning Sartre in 1946 to go to America to report for Combat.  But politically, they were moving apart.  Sartre, never a member of the Communist Party, nevertheless hued to the Stalinist line, whereas Camus, once a Party member in Algeria, began speaking openly about the Soviet gulags and other forms of political repression.  “It is better to be wrong by killing no one rather than be right with mass graves,” he wrote.

Jean Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir

1943:  La Louisiane, No. 60 rue de Seine

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir lived in the Hotel La Louisiane during the last couple of years of the Occupation and after the Liberation.  Camus first met them at a rehearsal of Sartre’s play Les Mouches (The Flies) in 1943, Camus being a playwright too.  He was eight years younger than Sartre, and a sort of older brother/younger brother relationship began. Beauvoir would invite Camus for dinner at La Louisiane, even during the severe food shortage in the Occupation. In her memoir La Force de l’age (The Prime of Life), she calls Camus “a simple, cheerful soul,” ignoring Camus’ status on Combat, and certainly frowning at the fun he and Sartre were having.

The Café de Flore and the Brasserie Lipp

Surprisingly, despite the restrictions of the Occupation, literature thrived in France during these years.  Camus published his first books The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942, and Sartre his philosophical tome Being and Nothingness and his play The Flies the following year, and No Exit in 1944.  Place Saint Germain-des-Prés was literary ground zero.  Sartre and Beauvoir and their “family” took over the upstairs room at Café de Flore as their work and socializing place, away from the German officers below.  Camus was not one to hobnob with groups of intellectuals. So he and Sartre would lunch or dine, just the two, across the boulevard at Brasserie Lipp.  Sartre did not consider Camus a philosopher, but he admitted that he was the better writer.

The Café de la Mairie du 6ème Arrondissement

After moving to the Saint Suplice area in 1950, the Café de la Mairie became Camus’s local.  He’d stop in for his petit déjeuner and paper on his way to his office at Gallimard, the company that published all his books and put him their elite readers’ committee in 1942,  and became practically a family member of the large Gallimard clan.  Their solid welcome helped make up for Camus troubled upbringing in Algeria, his father dead in World War I when Albert was just a baby, and his mother poor, Spanish-born, and illiterate.

The last house: No. 29 rue Madame

In 1950 Camus, Francine and the twins moved to this attractive building right near the Luxembourg Garden, convenient for him to take the kids there.  Things went smoothly at the beginning, but the most painful period of his professional life came the following year, when The Rebel, Camus’s “intellectual genealogy of totalitarianisms,” came out in October, 1951.  The far-Left-leaning Saint German-des-Prés literati turned viciously against him.  Sartre roasted him in 19 vitriolic pages in Les Temps Moderne, attacking him for his “somber self-importance” and “mournful moderation” in his politics.  The press played it up as a personal feud, but it was essentially a dispute about the nature of the Soviet Communism.
In 1956 Camus wrote La Chute (The Fall), his last finished book, and the following year came the Nobel Prize.  At age of 43, he was the second youngest Nobel laureate, after Rudyard Kipling 50 years earlier, at 42.

But little over two years later, on January 4, 1960, he was killed in a car crash.

Francois Mauriac called him “the conscience of his generation.”

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