Albert Camus biography 1951-60

Camus finished writing The Rebel halfway through 1951. The book had been a slog and towards its completion he’d been writing ten hours a day. As ever, Camus was unhappy with the finished piece. A perfectionist who knew perfection was not possible, he would work away at project until he felt their was nothing more he could do. To his friend Char, he confided that The Rebel, his baby, had been a difficult birth and that the child was ugly.19 Despite finishing the work, Camus was in a low mood, a state of ‘airborne depression’ was how he explained it.20

He knew that the book was going to be controversial and would cost him friends. Grenier, to whom he showed the manuscript, cautioned his former student that The Rebel would actually make him enemies. Not only did Camus take the unusual position for someone on the left. criticizing the USSR, he also took a pop at cherished icons of the French left-wing such as Robespierre and St, Just. Shortly before The Rebel was released Camus asked to shake the hand of a friend with whom he’d just eaten lunch; he knew that in a few days few men would be willing to take his hand. Although Camus was prepared for criticism and the loss of friends (he was no stranger to losing friends over political and philosophical disagreements) he was completely unprepared for the deeply personal nature of the backlash. The onslaught when it came was directed as much, if not more, at him personally, as a man, than at the ideas expressed in his book.

That the Communists would not like The Rebel was no surprise to Camus. He could hardly have expected a favourable review from them. Positive write-ups from some the right were disturbing but could be predicted. Political correctness was rife at the time and publishing anything deemed to give aid to the enemy was held in an extremely dim light by writers on the left and the right. Leftists would avoid criticizing the USSR, turning a deaf ear to tales of forced labour and death camps. The view was that any public acknowledgment that all was not well in the workers paradise would be seized upon by the right.

Camus wanted a fair reading and expected Sartre to give him one. Sartre on the other hand hated the book. Not only did resent the sentiments expressed but he thought The Rebel was simply not a good book. Even Camus had his doubts on this score. Before the book went to press he had complained in private, ‘I always choose tasks that are beyond my powers. And that’s what makes me live in continual effort and what exhausts me.’21

However, on other occasions he’d believe that The Rebel was his greatest work. Sartre put off publishing a review in his journal Modern Times, not wanting to have to savage his friend. In the end he fobbed the job off on another writer, Francis Jeanson, in the belief that Jeanson would take it easy on Camus. He was mistaken. Jeanson went to town, trashing both The Rebel and its author.

There followed a furious exchange of letters, Camus refusing even to acknowledge the writer of the damning review and addressing his letters to Sartre with ‘To the editor’. In return, both Sartre and Jeanson avoided replying to Camus on the subject of his book but choose to discuss him personally instead. For the spectators, reading these exchanges, the fight was something of an entertainment. The right particularly enjoyed watching their ideological enemies air their dirty laundry in public. In the end, the general consensus was that Camus had lost the battle. He was deeply hurt, whereas to Sartre such battles were all part of the game.

When he went looking for friends and sympathizers, Camus found some, but nowhere near as much as he would have liked. To his Algerian friends he resorted to a kind of macho frustration at not being able to knock Sartre’s teeth out because the philosopher was too small. To Marie, he arrived on her doorstep, suffering from a panic-attack and on the verge of tears. Camus and Sartre would never be reconciled.

In the aftermath of The Rebel furore Camus managed to put out a collection of press articles written between 1948 and 1953, published as Actuelles II (Actuelles I consisted of articles from Combat). He also rewrote some old essays published as a collection entitled Summer.

Albert wasn’t the only Camus to suffer from depression. Francine became severely ill, starting in 1953, and had to be hospitalized. Her depression, which manifested itself in crying and obsessive talking about Maria Casares. That her husband had mistresses was no secret, to Francine and her family, or friends in Paris . Camus felt powerless to help his wife, just as he did with the first wife Simone over her drug addiction.

In hospital Francine received over twenty electric shock therapies and, in what may have been a suicide attempt, threw herself off a balcony. The ‘fall’ of the women of a bridge in The Fall is usually taken to be a reference to this event. The setting of this novel is Amsterdam , inspired by Camus’ 1954 trip to Holland . On another trip in 1954, this time to Italy, Camus fell ill. While recuperating he saw in a newspaper that Simone de Beauvoir’s Mandarins had just won the prestigious Goncourt Prize. The ‘hero’ of that novel was based heavily on Camus and the portrait is not kind. Camus commented in his notebook:

A newspaper falls into my hands. The Parisian comedy that I had forgotten. The joke of Goncourt. This time, The Mandarins. It appears that I am the hero. In fact, the author has taken a situation (the director of a newspaper originally from the Resistance) and all the rest is false: thoughts, feelings, and actions. Better: the questionable acts of Sartre’s life are liberally heaped on my back. Garbage anyway. But not intentionally, just sort of as one breathes.22

In 1955 Camus returned to journalism accepting a job at the newspaper L’Express. Just prior to starting on the paper he took a three week holiday to Greece . Here he takes notes for two short stories, The Guest and Renegade . He also put down ideas for The First Man. Camus’s last novel to date was The Plague, published years before in 1947. Back in Paris he befriends a fellow writer at L’Express, Jean Daniel, and they often go out drinking together. One place the frequented was brothel in which Camus had earned the nickname ‘Albert the Pest’23 (referencing his novel about the plague published in French as La Peste)

From May 1955 to February 1956 Camus produced thirty-five articles for L’Express. In March Camus sent a manuscript of The Fall to Vivienne Perret, wife of Jean Bloch-Michel who had worked with Camus on the paper. Originally, The Fall was intended to be one of the short stories destined for Exile and The Kingdom but Camus found it taking on a life of its own and deserving to stand alone in its own right as a novel. He hadn’t yet come up with a title, possible candidates included: A Hero of Our Time, The Last Judgment and The Good Apostle. Camus considered several other possible titles before deciding to go with his friend Roger Martin du Gare’s suggestion of The Fall.

The novel was published by Gallimard in May with many considering it a powerful return to form for Camus. Sartre believed it to be his best work but refused publicly to say anything positive about the work.24

By this time Francine seemed to be over the worst of her illness.

Throughout this period Camus was in turmoil over what would become the Algerian War. In 1954 there was an outbreak of terrorist attacks and in 1955 seventy Europeans and 50 Arabs were massacred at North Constantine. In retaliation almost 1300 were killed. Europeans were arming themselves before leaving their houses and Camus was desperately concerned for the safety of his family. In January of 1956, while still writing for L’Express, Camus called for a ‘Civilian Truce’ and visited Algeria in an attempt to gather support for his proposal. He arrive to death threats and a crowd of thousands shouting ‘Death to Camus!’ Feeling that he could do nothing useful and worried that attempts to interfere would endanger his family Camus decided to remain silent on Algeria. However, this was a public silence, he still wrote letters on behalf of those he considered to be victims of injustice in Algeria . When his friend Jean De Maisonseul was arrested Camus broke his vow and wrote an angry letter to Le Monde demanding the man’s release.

In 1957 Camus sent Jean Grenier the manuscript for the collection of short stories Exile and The Kingdom. The book, when published, was given faint praise by the critics. The Fall had been unexpected and revived Camus’s image somewhat but people were waiting for a great novel not a collection of short stories. The previous year he had adapted Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun for the French stage. It was very successful and ran for two years. In 1957, Camus threw himself into theatre work, planning a repertory theatre that would put on eight performances a week, five modern French plays, two foreign classics and a matinée performance of a French classic. That year he also published Reflections on the Guillotine an essay against capital punishment.

Things were getting worse in Algeria and some criticized Camus for publishing on the death penalty whilst remaining silent on North Africa. The problem was that he was powerless to do anything. Frightened for the safety of his mother, who refused to leave Algiers, and impotent in his attempt to intervene politically in the troubles he felt forced into silence, humiliated and weak. Feeling extremely low, he shared his troubles with his new mistress, the young actress Catherine Sellers, ‘I’ve never known such a state as I find myself in.’25

Things were about to get worse.

Camus discovered that he’d won the Nobel Prize whilst dining with girlfriend Patricia Blake. A messenger interrupted their meal with the ‘good news’. Camus reacted by almost suffocating as he choked on his food. Camus believed André Malraux ought to have been awarded the prize. Friends later commented that Camus, rather than being pleased with the award, looked on the brink of tears and like a man being buried alive.26

The problem for Camus was that, at forty-three, he should still have decades left to produce further works but the Nobel was traditionally understood as a prize given at the end of a person’s career. Not only did Camus believe he was yet to write his masterpiece but he was convinced that he didn’t have decades left to write it. In addition, having spent years getting over the onslaught after The Rebel he was well-aware that his critics and enemies were going to have a field day.

There would be good press as well as the bad but there would also be interviews, journalists would expect him to speak on the situation in Algeria and on his plans for future books. The pressure to write the next ‘Albert Camus novel’ had now become the greater pressure of writing a novel worthy of a Nobel Prize winning author.

The ceremony took place in Stockholm on December 10 th and two days later Camus spoke to the students at Stockholm University. Tensions were running high over Algeria and a Muslim student asked why Camus was wiling to discuss Eastern Europe but maintained silence on Algeria. What started off as a question turned into a tirade peppered with political slogans and insults directed at Camus. In his reply he made a comment that was classic Camus:

I have always denounced terrorism. I must also denounce a terrorism which is exercised blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and which one day could strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice.27

This was not a prepared statement but an off the cuff remark. Much was made at the time and still is today over what exactly Camus meant by holding his mother above justice. Back in Paris, Camus spent the last few days of 1957 suffering intense anxiety and panic attacks. Some extracts from his notebooks written over this period reveal the state he found himself in:

October 17th

Nobel. Strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy. At 20 years old, poor and naked, I knew true glory. My mother.

October 19th

Frightened by what happens to me, what I have not asked for. And to make matters worse, attacks so low they pain my heart.

December 29th

3pm. Another panic attack. It was exactly four years ago, to the day, that X. became unbalanced (no, we are on the 29 th , a day away then).28 For a few minutes, a feeling of total madness. Then exhaustion and trembling. Sedative. I write this an hour later.

Night of the 29th to the 30th : interminable anguish.

December 30th

Continued improvement.

January 1st

Anxiety redoubled.


The major attacks have passed. Only a dull and constant anxiety now.

In 1953 Camus started work on an ambitious adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. By 1958 he had a completed version of the play that was three and half hours long with three acts, twenty-two scenes. Financing the project was difficult but the money was found and rehearsals began in November.

Maria Casares was, for Francine’s benefit, benefit not cast although Catherine Sellers was given a role. Francine knew that her husband and Catherine were lovers but pretended Albert and Catherine were no more than friends. Maria and Camus were still together and took a trip together, along with Janine and Michel Gallimard to Greece. A new girlfriend was also on the scene, a young Danish art student called Mi. In January of 1959 The Possessed opened to mixed reviews. In order to try and make money the decision was made to go on tour with the play and this plan was successful with over 600 performances.

Camus now had less than a year to live. The previous year had been hard on Camus, starting off with intense panic attacks. The Algerian situation had broken him. The publication of Actuelles III, a collection of writings on Algeria, was a disaster and a meeting with Algerian students left him in tears after one of them called him a coward. He sought refuge away from Paris and found one in the small village of Lourmarin, in the region of Provence.

With some of his Nobel Prize money he bought a home in which he could escape from people to work alone in monastic style. Camus felt he needed solitude to write but he also found it difficult to be alone. Francine and the children would visit, as would Mi, who stayed in a nearby farmhouse. He would receive other visitors, including theatre director friend Robert Cérésol who noticed during his visit a bundled of papers labeled ‘for Nemesis’, the long essay Camus would never get to write. Camus told him that this essay would be for his return to Pre-Socratism.29

We can only speculate what the final piece would have been like. The same is true of his novel The First Man on which Camus was working in the last few months of his life. There were other projects, theatre work, including his continued attempt to be given his own repertory theatre and an television appearance for a programme called ‘Gros Plan’ in which he discussed his work in the theatre.

Francine and the children arrived for Christmas. Camus crash had spent their Christmas in Cannes, and suggested dropping by to visit Camus who had planned a brief return to Paris in the new year. Francine would take the children and Camus, who had already bought a ticket, was going to travel by train. However, Michel Gallimard persuaded his friend to drive back up in his car.

Sunday January 3rd, Camus, Michel and Janine Gallimard, their teenage daughter and their dog got into the Michel’s Facel Vega and drove north. The plan was to reach Paris in two days. The following day, after an overnight stop in the village of Thoissey, they drove until it was time for lunch. Back on the road and shortly before 2pm Michel lost control of the vehicle. Camus and Michel Gallimard were killed. The two women who were together in the back seat were thrown free of the car and not seriously injured. Among the wreckage Camus’ briefcase was discovered, containing among other items, his notebook and a manuscript containing early pages of The First Man.

<< 1943-51

19.Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life , Vintage (1998), p.295
20.Ibid, p.296
21.Ibid, p.295
22.Albert Camus, Notebooks (1951-1959) Ivan R. Dee (2008) pp.130-1
23.Todd, p.328
24.According to Olivier Todd in his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Fall (2000)
25.Todd, p.366
26.Todd, p.372
27.Lottman, p.648
28.Camus is referring to Francine’s depression.
29.Lottman, p.690