The Last Days of Albert Camus

The Last Days of Albert Camus

A lorry driver brought me to the bridge in Waterford. He used to go down to Algiers for a couple of years and he was talking about it as we drove along the Quay in the sunshine. “It’s a dirty city,” he said. “The place might have been good, if the French stayed.” When he brought a football down it was a precious gift for the youngsters.

12 April 1988

That was just six months before the October riots that first hinted at the impending civil war in Algeria. Now a book has claimed on the basis of some Czech hearsay that the death of the former goalkeeper Albert Camus was the work of the KGB, aided by French intelligence. At first this assertion recalled a story Graham Greene tells about Prague in 1948 in his memoir Ways of Escape.

In the midst of the communist takeover, Greene was followed and accosted by a “thin man in a dark suit with a respectable hat” who went on to introduce himself as the inventor of a guided parachute. He asked Greene to contact the British Embassy on his behalf. The Englishman took his name on a scrap of paper but then caution made him ask had the man invented anything else.

I have made a machine for building walls. That too I will give to the British Government. It builds a wall one foot every second.

Then the salient fact preceding the Frenchman’s fatal crash came to mind. Camus had two days earlier packed his wife and children off on a train to Paris so he could enjoy a long spin in the luxury fast car owned by Michel Gallimard. His demise seems regrettably derived from something as juvenile as that.

Emil Cioran detested Camus for dismissing the manuscript of A Short History of Decay (1949) as the work of someone poorly educated. One of the reasons Cioran later relished its successful publication was because it happened in a country where, he understood, prestige is everything.

Notwithstanding his unforgettable passages such as the grotesque opera scene in La Peste or the poignant school fight and its aftermath in Le Premier homme, it is fair to say that L’Étranger is, as much as anything, a parable of colonialism. Meursault’s casual brutality to an Arab (it was a hot day) and farcical trial are revealing in ways the author by his own commentary clearly did not intend. Otherwise, of course, it remains a masterpiece of passivity, right from its opening line.

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.

La Chute is the most famous book set in Amsterdam, “a capital of waters and fogs, girdled by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all corners of the earth”. Camus also wrote of it “asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges” but, in 1997, a BBC documentary ended with the camera on the warm, sunlit trees along the empty French road where he died in January 1960.

His last four love letters, read in a solemn voice-over by the actor Brian Cox, were unintentionally funny. None winged its way to his wife. Each time, the only changes to the artist’s passion were the woman’s name and the day or time they were to meet, after he got back to Paris. How did he get time to write a line?

PS The letters start at 1:21:21

The Game of the Blows

The Game of the Blows

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.

The greatest evil is physical pain.

  • St. Augustine of Hippo

In September 1978, at the age of fourteen, I sat in the first science class of a new school year. A vaguely hysterical priest was leaning against the back wall at the end of an aisle between rows of desks. Father McCarthy was new to us. The class was settling down and another boy was sent up to wipe the blackboard. It was then that I, at a back desk on that aisle, unwisely made a routine slurping sound.

A glass lens bounced off the top of the wooden desk and broke on the tiled floor. There was a stinging cut just under my right eye. Head ringing, I looked up and back in amazement. Through the empty frame on the right, I saw the cleric swaying, with his fists clenched. His mouth was hanging open. Anybody else want some, huh? Instruction began in a pin-drop silence after that. Shocked to the core after the blindside punch, I couldn’t suppress an occasional sob while he wrote furiously on the blackboard.

As I cycled home after school, this demented cleric passed in a hurry in a purple car. He was in the kitchen, all apologies to the mother when the wounded party got in. He was offering to pay for the damage to the glasses. It later transpired, of course, that he’d already told her there had been provocation, without specifying what it had been.

The blind-side fist wasn’t the limit of his arsenal by any means. Some of his science classes were held in the Physics Lab, a large classroom with long benches and some dusty bottles, tubes and burners. I was away in another world there one morning – perhaps still thinking of the cowardly, if maniacal, punch in the eye but more likely not – when called up to the front. The priest was winding a gadget with a metal spike rising out of it. The spike had a little ball on top. He told his pupil to touch the ball.

My arm took flight. The class exploded with laughter but then the chuckling padre turned to the others and said they were all going to get the shock treatment. He made them all troop up to the dynamo, one by one, and put their hands on the ball. Some hesitated but all endured this insane ritual. Back in his seat, as the pain lessened, the first victim watched the stream of grimacing boys returning to the benches, holding their sore shoulders with their good arms.

On another occasion Fr. Frankenstein manufactured some chlorine gas and passed around a canister so everyone could have a sniff. That day I was watching warily and took care not to inhale anything when the canister was passed to the back bench. Farther along that bench, though, it was a comrade’s turn to be oblivious. When it reached him, he mindlessly inhaled a gulp and put the canister away from him with a jolt. He started coughing and spluttering. His eyes were streaming. Jesus, what the f*ck is that? Welcome to the trenches.

Another sporadically violent one also hailed from West Cork. The school had a games rule that one team per match, in whichever sport, had to wear red, to assist the referees. Having to play hurling one icy day in January, I came out of the changing rooms wearing a red windcheater over a jersey. Then it transpired we were not red so the windcheater had to be taken off and left behind a goal. On a day like that, no one normal could even contemplate the thought of getting a lash of a hurley across the legs so I stood around, prodding the frozen ground with mine.

Eventually I went behind the goal to retrieve the windcheater but as I wandered back out the field the treacherous ball of course came my way. It didn’t matter which way I hit it, I was found out. Father Whelton stopped the game with a blast of his whistle and charged over like a bull, inflicting a heavy slap or two across my face for his trouble.

That was mild compared with an earlier experience with him. When I was thirteen, the avuncular pipe-smoker ran amok in Latin class but this episode was wholly premeditated. The crime was the chalk mark of a duster that he’d found on the back of his black habit. It was obvious he meant business at the start of the next class because he produced “Excalibur”, a terrible instrument consisting of several long strips of unbending thick leather, roughly sewn together. He said everyone was going to get two on each hand unless the person responsible for the chalk stigma owned up.

The culprit was too scared so it began with the boys in the front desks. It was clear this was going to be a mass execution. It took two or three innocents to get it before shame prompted the suicidal courage to own up and spare the rest. Then I got two on each hand and several on the legs and arse. Something more than sobbing resulted from that hiding. I think he doled out ten lashes in total, practically everywhere except the head.

Corporal punishment was outlawed shortly after I left school in 1982 but, even before that, there had been a despicable, prudent and of course unofficial school policy not to attempt to hit anyone aged sixteen or more. Otherwise the brutality of the time meant the smaller lads remained ‘natural’ punch bags and whipping boys to those holy terrors who were into savage punishment for trivial offences, whether out of sudden inspiration or cold calculation.