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