There is a danger, of course, in being exposed to literature too young. So when I read Albert Camus‘s L’Etranger in high school, in French and in English, it was like being punished twice. I thought it a squalid little book. I never returned to it, so I’ve never reconsidered my youthful impression.
But I have changed my mind several times in recent years about the author.
Camus himself seems to have been a remarkable man. Czeslaw Milosz, for example, praised Camus as the only man in postwar Paris who remained friendly to him after the Polish poet’s 1951 defection. The entire French intellectual class, which was entirely left-wing, turned against him for abandoning the communist dream. Pablo Neruda denounced him in an essay as “The Man Who Ran Away” (and if anyone has ever seen the article, I’d love to get a copy). And recently, I’ve been reading René Girard, who praised La Chute as an “admirable and liberating book” in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.
Now we hear that the Soviet authorities hated him enough to have the KGB snuff him in 1960 – at least according to a new report in Corriere della Sera, which was reported in The Guardian. Another point in his favor:
The theory is based on remarks by Giovanni Catelli, an Italian academic and poet, who noted that a passage in a diary written by the celebrated Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana, and published as a book entitled Celý život, was missing from the Italian translation. In the missing paragraph, Zábrana writes: “I heard something very strange from the mouth of a man who knew lots of things and had very informed sources. According to him, the accident that had cost Albert Camus his life in 1960 was organised by Soviet spies. They damaged a tyre on the car using a sophisticated piece of equipment that cut or made a hole in the wheel at speed.
“The order was given personally by [Dmitri Trofimovic] Shepilov [the Soviet foreign minister] as a reaction to an article published in Franc-tireur [a French magazine] in March 1957, in which Camus attacked [Shepilov], naming him explicitly in the events in Hungary.” In his piece, Camus had denounced the “Shepilov Massacres” – Moscow’s decision to send troops to crush the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, angered the Soviets even more when he publicly supported Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, nominating the clandestine novel for a Nobel. I tell the astonishing story of its Cold War publication here and a little bit here.
Oliver Todd, author of Albert Camus: Une Vie, doesn’t necessarily believe the new assassination theory:
“My first reaction is that nothing about the activities of the KGB and its successors would surprise me, but this claim has left me flabbergasted. You have to ask yourself who would benefit from this coming out and why.”He added: “It’s interesting and amusing and it is certainly true that KGB documentation is full of accounts of how the Soviets used the Czechs to do their dirty work. But while I wouldn’t put it past the KGB to do such a thing, I don’t believe the story is true.”
But I have to admit that, whether it’s true or not, the fact that the story is plausible enough to publish makes me almost ready to take on La Chute, though I’m still creeped out by L’Etranger‘s Meursault.
But the fatal car accident en route to the René Girard’s own native Provence was a different kind of tragedy. His final published novel, La Chute, René said, marked a turning a point: “Albert Camus died at the moment when a whole new career was probably opening up for him.”
Read the whole story here.