Posts Tagged ‘Albert Camus’

Was Nobel author Albert Camus murdered? New book in English says yes.

Monday, December 7th, 2020
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Was Nobel writer Albert Camus murdered by the KGB? We’ve written before about the mystery that surrounds his death at 46, and we’ve written before about Giovanni Catelli, too, the author of a book about the subject … in Italian.  His book, The Death of Camus (Hurst), will finally be out next month in English.

David Coward, currently writing a biography of Rétif de la Bretonne, writes in the Times Literary Supplement:

Albert Camus spent Christmas 1959 at his house in the Vaucluse with his family and his publisher, Michel Gallimard. After New Year, instead of returning to Paris by train with his wife and children, he decided to get a lift with Gallimard, a fan of fast cars, and his family, in their 4.5 litre Facel Vega HK500. Camus saw his family off at Avignon station on January 2 and set off the next day with the Gallimards. They stayed the night near Macon, set off again on January 4, lunched at Sens and, an hour or so later, crashed at high speed into one of the plane trees lining a straight stretch of road. Camus was killed outright, Gallimard died a few days later but Mme Gallimard and their daughter survived. There was little traffic at the time but someone remembered that the car was travelling fast and “waltzing” just before impact. Another witness recalled that the speedometer was stuck at 145 kph, though a third swore it read zero. Mme Gallimard said that something seemed to “give way” under the vehicle just before the crash.

For Giovanni Catelli, Camus’s death was no accident, but a political assassination. His book, first published in Italy in 2013, starts with the assumption that sets the tone: “Fate doesn’t conspire against a man just like that – that’s something men do”. So which men did it? Camus, voice of reason and Nobel prizewinner, certainly had enemies. French nationalists believed he had sold out to the Algerian rebels who, in turn, thought he was too moderate in his support for their struggle. The right resented his Resistance credentials, the left thought he had betrayed the cause. His criticism of fascist regimes riled Spain and his hostility to Soviet interventions in East Berlin and Hungary, plus his championing of Boris Pasternak, displeased Communist Party hardliners everywhere.

In Prague in about 2010, Catelli found a “crystal clear clue” which revealed unambiguously that Camus had been murdered by the KGB. The clue was a passing mention in the memoirs of the poet and translator Jan Zábrana (Cély život, A Whole Life, 1992) who had been told by a well-informed, well-connected but, alas, unnamed man that agents had placed a device inside a tyre of Gallimard’s car which would blow it at a pre-set high speed.

“He certainly had enemies…”

Having nailed the modus operandi, Catelli set about identifying Zábrana’s informant. The trail was cold and the suspects dead, but Zábrana had mentioned Dmitri Shepilov, the Russian foreign minister whom Camus had criticized in the Franc-Tireur in 1957 for his role in the invasion of Hungary. Surely he had a motive for silencing his tormentor? Catelli demonstrates that Shepilov and his agents had form in this department, though his list of KGB murders all involved poison. But he fails to explain why Shepilov waited three years before giving the order nor how, by then, he had the power to do so. In 1959 he was a lowly archivist in Kyrgyzstan, where he had been sent after trying to unseat Khrushchev.

Coward’s conclusion: “Catelli intrigues but does not convince.”The whole article is here. Is it just another of the modern world’s conspiracy theories, then? You can also read The Guardian‘s take on Catelli’s book and Camus’s death (and it’s not behind a paywall) here. An excerpt:

“The accident seemed to have been caused by a blowout or a broken axle; experts were puzzled by its happening on a long stretch of straight road, a road 30 feet wide, and with little traffic at the time,” Herbert Lottman wrote in his 1978 biography of the author.

Catelli believes a passage in Zábrana’s diaries explains why: the poet wrote in the late summer of 1980 that “a knowledgeable and well-connected man” had told him the KGB was to blame. “They rigged the tyre with a tool that eventually pierced it when the car was travelling at high speed.” …

Catelli has spent years researching the validity of Zábrana’s account. In his book, he interviews Zábrana’s widow Marie, investigates the KGB’s infiltration of France, and includes secondhand testimony from the controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès. Catelli was contacted by Giuliano Spazzali, an Italian barrister, after the book’s publication in Italy. Spazzali recounted a conversation he’d had with the late Vergès about Camus’ death.

“Vergès said the accident had been staged. It is my opinion that Vergès had more evidence than he cared to share with me. I refrained from asking,” Spazzali told Catelli. “Discretion is the best attitude when a hot topic rises unexpectedly. I didn’t investigate any further, and yet I remember how Vergès was certain that the staged accident was schemed by a KGB section with the endorsement of the French intelligence.”

At the conclusion of the book, Catelli hopes his work will bring forth more evidence, “before the waves of time come to lay waste to the sandy, frail traces of what happened.”

(And read the review in L’Inactuelle here.)

“Even My Revolts Were Brilliant with Sunshine”: The Solar Humanism of Albert Camus

Saturday, July 28th, 2018
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“THE SUN THAT REIGNED OVER MY CHILDHOOD FREED ME FROM ALL RESENTMENT.”

“If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

Those words marked a turning point for French-Algerian author Albert Camus. The context was the Algerian war for independence, which Camus ultimately opposed. He made the statement after revolutionaries began planting bombs on tramways in Algiers, where his mother still lived.

Camus was all for “l’instant.”

Jean-Marie Apostolidès, playwright, psychologist, and French professor at Stanford, and Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison trace Camus’s long intellectual and spiritual journey, from his impoverished Algerian childhood to the car crash that killed him at the age of 46. It’s the latest podcast up at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

In particular, they discuss his complex relationship with fellow traveller Jean-Paul Sartre, who was the greater philosopher and the more rigorous thinker of the two, while Camus was the greater writer and perhaps the greater soul. Their conflict fascinates intellectuals in France and around the world to this day.

“Camus’s strong bond with his mother is beyond and sometimes against words,” says Apostolidès. Yet Camus’s own mother never read a word of his many books. She was illiterate, half-deaf, and a speech impediment made it difficult for her to hold a conversation.

Apostolidès notes it would be a mistake to think of Camus’s adult life as serene and happy: he had several alcoholic crises, and his family life was undermined by his promiscuity. Yet his psyche was shaped by his sun-drenched childhood in Algeria, so strongly at odds with the bourgeois French upbringing of Sartre, who attended Paris’s premier École Normale. The Nobel Prizewinning Camus held to “the wisdom of a different tradition,” says Harrison, describing the sensibility of the Mediterranean basin and African that was a world away from the Nietzschean northern temperament of Europe. As a result, Sartre was interested in the arc of history; Camus was interested in l’instant of plays, journalism, theater.

Jean-Marie: “Nature has no lessons.”

“This was the main idealogical divide between the solar humanism of Albert Camus and the militant Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre,” says Harrison. “For Sartre, history was everything, and those who allied with it had to change the world, at all costs. For Sartre, there’s nothing redemptive in the sun and sea.” Sartre kept his “eyes fixed on the Medusa head of reality.

“That is finally the decisive difference between Sartre and Camus, and the reason why the dustbin of history awaits the one, and not the other.”

“I WAS POISED MIDWAY BETWEEN POVERTY AND SUNSHINE. POVERTY PREVENTED ME FROM THINKING THAT ALL WAS WELL IN THE WORLD AND IN HISTORY; THE SUN TAUGHT ME THAT HISTORY IS NOT EVERYTHING.”

POTENT QUOTES:

Jean-Marie Apostolidès:
“At the end of the line of history, there is death.”
“Nature has no direct lesson to teach us. Therefore our values are relative. Nevertheless, we have to create them.”
“Camus did not want a revolution, but at the same time he did not want to accept the passivity of the bourgeois attitude towards life. So he coined this median way between revolution and acceptance. He called it rebellion.”
On Meursault in The Stranger: “He refuses all the different figures of the father – the priest and the judge. By choosing death and blood, he tries to tries to find something equivalent to the sun.”

Robert Harrison:
“Absurdity is a weapon that you have in your heart, in your mind. Keep it present to remember always the constant of the human condition.”
“It’s very easy to be on the side of justice when nothing is at stake.”
If ever history, with its rage, death, and endless suffering, were to become everything, human beings would succumb to madness. History is reality.”
“For Sartre, there is nothing redemptive in the sun and sea. We must keep our eyes fixed on the Medusa head of reality.”
“The difference between a northern and southern sensibility is the difference between acceptance of life and an assault on life.”

Albert Camus:
“Even my revolts were brilliant with sunshine.”
“I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine. Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”
“Poverty, first of all, was never a misfortune for me; it was radiant with sunlight. I owe it to my family, first of all, who lacked everything and who envied practically nothing.”
“The sun that reigned over my childhood freed me from all resentment.”

Early praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “A penetrating account of an important thinker—and as agile, profound, and affecting as its subject.”

Sunday, February 25th, 2018
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A review of my Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard was just published in Kirkus ReviewsThe first paragraph, as is customary with Kirkus, describes the book. Then comes this:

Haven was a close friend of Girard’s, and that privileged perch allows her to consider his life both personally and intellectually. Many aspects of his history would be hard to adequately comprehend without this dual perspective. For example, she offers an impressively incisive account of his conversion from atheism to Christianity in 1958 (“It was something no one could have anticipated, least of all himself. ‘Conversion is a form of intelligence, of understanding,’ he said; it’s also a process…and as such would absorb him for the rest of his days”). In addition, her rendering is as panoramic as his thought—she considers a vertiginous array of diverse subjects insightfully, including Girard’s trenchant criticisms of Camus’ The Stranger, the ways in which the French and Americans view each other, and desire’s metaphysical aspects. Furthermore, Haven ably, even elegantly synopsizes the central tenets of Girard’s beliefs, in particular his pioneering views on mimesis—a kind of updated version of Rousseau’s amour propre—the notion that the desires and violent conflicts that often spring from people have their root cause in the gregarious mimicking of others. In this intimate but philosophically searching book, the author’s writing is marvelously clear. She expertly unpacks Girard’s ideas, making them unusually accessible, even to readers with limited familiarity.

A penetrating account of an important thinker—and as agile, profound, and affecting as its subject.

Read the whole thing here. Better yet, you can pre-order the book on Amazon here

Patti Smith in Camus’s Lourmarin: “This is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action.”

Thursday, February 15th, 2018
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Author and performer Patti Smith and I don’t have much in common, except for two mutual friends – Robert Pogue Harrison, a lover (and performer) of rock music, and publisher Steve Wasserman. Oh! Patti and I share one more common trait: a devotion to visiting the places of writers, whether homes, graves, or the settings they wrote about.

We’ve written about this before, when we published Steve’s remarks at a Writers’ Conference on the topic “A Writer’s Space.”

Patti Smith’s new book Devotion (Yale University Press) is dedicated to that topic. She describes her visits to the grave of Simone Weil, the garden of the great publisher Gallimard, and the Parisian streets of Patrick Modiano’s novels.

But perhaps the most moving passages are in the final chapter. She visits Albert Camus‘s daughter Catherine in the family home in Lourmarin, an hour outside Aix-en-Provence. It is the home he built with his Nobel money, as a family refuge from Paris. She writes: “His room was his sanctuary. It was here that he labored over his unfinished masterwork The First Man, unearthing his ancestors, reclaiming his personal genesis. He wrote undisturbed, behind the heavy wooden door, carved with twin griffins supporting a crown.”

Then she goes to his downstairs office:

Last words from “First Man”

Camus’s daughter entered, placing the manuscript of Le Premier Homme, The First Man, on the desk before me and went and sat in a chair giving us distance enough so that I could feel alone with it. For the next hour I was privileged to examine the entire manuscript page by page. It was in his hand, each page suggesting a sense of unflinching unity with his subject. One could not help but thank the gods for apportioning Camus with a righteous and judicious pen.

I turned each page carefully, marveling at the aesthetic beauty of each leaf. The first hundred watermarked sheets had Albert Camus engraved on the left-hand side; the remaining were not personalized, as though he had wearied of seeing his own name. Several pages were augmented with his confident marking, lines carefully revised and sections firmly crossed out. One could feel a sense of a focused mission and the racing heart propelling the last words of the final paragraph, the last he was to write. …

This is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action. And I, time and again, am overcome with the hubris to believe I can answer that call.

The words before me were elegant, blistering. My hands vibrated. Infused with confidence, I had the urge to bolt, mount the stairs, close the heavy door that had been his, sit before my own stack of foolscap, and begin at my own beginning. An act of guiltless sacrilege.

I rested my fingertips on the edge of the last page. Catherine and I looked at one another, not saying a word.

Albert Camus: his childhood, poverty, and “the solar side of his work”

Saturday, August 6th, 2016
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A morality made from very concrete things.

I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

The Nobel author was much on our mind last year – when Another Look featured Camus’s masterpiece, L’EtrangerIn my reading for that project, I managed to miss his daughter Catherine Camus’s 1997 interview, when she and her partner Robert Gallimard were interviewed in London by Spike Magazine‘s Russell Wilkinson. Much of the of the conversation was about the author’s last unfinished work, First Man, which had been published in English in 1995.

Much of it reminds me of these words from his Nobel banquet speech: “Art … obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.”

A few excerpts:

R: Will we get a clearer notion of his ideas through The First Man?

…I think he wanted to write something to explain who he was, and how he was different from the age that had been conferred upon him. He was viewed by many as an austere moralist, but it was on the football pitch and in the theatre that he learnt his ‘morality’. It’s something sensed, it won’t pass uniquely through thought. It couldn’t possibly. He started thinking through sensation. He could never think with artifacts or with cultural models because there were none. So it’s true to say that his morality was extremely ‘lived’, made from very concrete things. It never passed by means of abstractions. It’s his own experience, his way of thinking. There are those who will find his notions about absurdity appealing, and others who will be drawn by the solar side of his work, about Algeria, the heat and so on.

R: Since The First Man deals with Camus’ birth and childhood in Algeria, it seems strange that Camus’ deep personal involvement with the Algerian nationalist crisis tends to get overlooked in the traditional portrayal of him as a French writer. Do you think The First Man will re-emphasise the importance of Algeria in our consideration of Camus?

CC: I hope so. Camus’ was born in Algeria of French nationality, and was assimilated into the French colony, although the French colonists rejected him absolutely because of his poverty. Politically, he was in favour of a federation, and effectively he considered that like South Africa today (or as they are trying to do), there should be a mixed population with equal rights, the same rights for the Arab and the French populations, as well as all the other races living there.

***

stranger

Lots of the solar side here.

R: So Camus tried to live the paradox of being both “solitaire et solidaire”?

CC: I think Camus felt very solitary. You can see it in all his books. The Outsider isn’t Camus, but in The Outsider there are parts of Camus. There’s this impression of exile. But where he is in exile isn’t especially in Paris or elsewhere, but from the intellectual world, because of his origins. And that’s a complete exile. Just because of his way of sensing before thinking. He’s in a field that he often feels like escaping from. In any case, you have to learn what blood is. It all has to be rationalised. In that he feels exiled, solitary…

***

And love is very important in The First Man, in that Camus loves these things he never chose, he loves his childhood experience in a very real way. Their poverty meant that there was nothing else they could think about but what they would eat, how they would clothe themselves. There’s just no room for other things in his family. It’s difficult for others to imagine the position in which he found himself. There is no imaginary existence in their lives.

French intellectuals are mostly petit bourgeois, and it’s hard to say whether that makes Camus’ work more valuable. I’d rather say that it’s different. Necessarily. His positions are sensed. So, naturally, those intellectuals who don’t have that experience have difficulty in comprehending it. But I think it made Camus more tolerant because he had already seen both sides of things when the others had only ever seen one. They imagine poverty, but they don’t know what it is. In fact they’ve got a sort of bad conscience about the working classes. It’s the perspective they could never adopt, not in the way Sartre wants to, because they weren’t familiar with them. They could never address themselves to the working classes. They don’t know what it means, and that gives them a bad conscience about it. Camus has a greater proximity to those in poverty.

R: And does this proximity result from his humility, which can been seen in the letters at the end of The First Man to Monsieur Germain, his old schoolteacher?

CC: It’s because his teacher in The First Man has a primary place. Camus shows us this teacher exactly how he was. The First Man is completely autobiographical. The mother he describes is the woman I knew, and she was exactly as he describes her. And this teacher really existed. But it’s also to show that people attach so much importance to celebrity, and Camus writes his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in thanks to his teacher. … It’s to show that this is what has come from what his teacher did for him. And also throughout the world there are Monsieur Germains everywhere. That’s why I published the letters, so that he could have a place in the work. But I couldn’t ever act or think on behalf of what my father would have said or done. He’s an artist, he considers himself an artist, and so he takes on the responsibility of speaking for those who are not given the means or the opportunity.

Read the whole thing here

The Stanford book club that rocks the news

Friday, April 22nd, 2016
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Toby Wolff’s Another Look send-off last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Author Peter Stansky‘s “A Company of Authors,” the annual event where Stanford authors present their books, had its best day ever last Saturday. As I told Stanford Report“The author presentations were eloquent and excellent, without exception, and the audience questions ensured the discussion was spirited and intelligent.” And longtime Hoover fellow Paul Caringella even gave an impromptu pitch for my forthcoming René Girard biography. What’s not to like?

“I always find these occasions extremely exhilarating,” Peter said. “The heart of the university is the life of the mind and you could not have a better example of that than in the books that their authors presented here today.”

Well, you can read the whole thing here. Nearly everyone stayed through all the presentations, and the excited and audible buzz in the lobby afterwards told the story.

And I told a story, too, during my ten-minute solo for “The Wonderful World of Books at Stanford.” Peter introduced me as “the leading figure at Stanford in keeping us involved in so many exciting ways in the world of books.” So I took up the cause of the Another Look book club it has been my privilege to manage for four years. Here’s what I said:

I’m here to tell you the Another Look story. It’s a good story, and I’ve been proud to be part of it. I think you’ll like it because it’s a story about books finding their people.

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Founder Tobias Wolff. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Four years ago, the distinguished author Tobias Wolff – who was recently named a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts – approached me with an idea: he wanted to create a forum where members of the community would interact with Stanford writers, scholars, and literary figures in the world beyond, to talk about the books they love. He wanted the first book to be a beloved favorite, William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow. He asked me if I could make all this happen. Frankly, I have to say, I was doubtful. The term “book club” did not have good associations for me. But as we hashed it out, I realized my issues were two-fold: first, I figured most people, like me, didn’t have the hours and hours to read long books of other people’s choosing; and second, the books tended to be mainstream, middlebrow, middle-of-the-road “safe” choices.

Inspired by Maxwell’s novel, we decided that we would focus on short books – short enough for Bay Area professionals who are pressed for time, and who may spend their days going through legal briefs or medical documents. Also, we would focus on books that were forgotten, overlooked, or simply haven’t received the audience they merit. We would call it “Another Look.” It would be for people who wanted to be part of the world of books and literature – a world they may have lost touch with once they left university. They would be connoisseurs’ choices for books you must read – discussed and even championed by the people who love them.

Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Nobless oblige. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

We had a full house the first night, and our audiences have been steadily climbing upward ever since. One highpoint: for Philip Roth‘s The Ghost Writer, we were joined by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. It was the only time to date we have had a living author. And although he had become something of a recluse, I decided to see if I could interview him. The subsequent Q&A was published on The Book Haven and republished in La Repubblica, Le Monde, and Die Welt. It made the international press, and the high-profile Another Look was featured in The Guardian.

Toby retired … or said he was going to retire … last year (he was recalled for another year, but that’s another story). When we announced that Another Look was going to close shop a year ago, we got record numbers of people attending our event for Albert Camus‘s The Stranger – a book, Toby claimed, that was more honored than read. One member in the audience, the acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, stepped forward that night to offer to assume the directorship of the program. We’ve developed subscribers’ list pushing up to 1,400. Our February’s event with Werner Herzog at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, discussing J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine, is now on youtube, in both highlights and full-length version. (The event was covered by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner here.) The repercussions of that powerful book event will continue to unfold in the months to come.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It’s been enormously gratifying for me personally to be the point of contact with all of you in our book-loving Bay Area community – and sometimes around the nation and world, too. We have one aficionado driving in from Carmel – others write from far-flung places to tell me they’re reading along with us. And Toby has talked about this program, during his speaking engagements around the country. He’s proud of his brainchild, too.

Why am I so keen on this program? Because it’s rocked my world. Those who know me as a literary journalist know that I’ve sunk my time into the world of Eastern European poets, particularly Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, and more recently, into the French theorist René Girard, a longtime Stanford faculty member, a dear friend, and the subject of my biography. Hence, there are huge holes in my knowledge of modern fiction, and particularly American fiction. Without too much investment of time, I’ve caught up with a lot of writers I’d somehow missed. No membership fees, no meetings with minutes, no commitments – just show up, please!

So please join us next month, on Tuesday, May 10, at the Bechtel Conference Center, when we discuss Joseph Conrads novella The Shadow-Line. The story will run in Stanford Report Monday and be on the Stanford news website – we have books in the lobby. Meanwhile, take some freshly minted bookmarks – and take a few for your friends who might be interested, too.