29 March 2014

Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir

In this blog, I normally write the history of people I know well, having already admired their architecture, paintings,  books  or music. Yet my sole contact with Albert Camus came via his friendship with Sartre and de Beauvoir. Thus I am largely dependent on, and grateful to the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was born in Algeria in 1913 with no father and a sick mother. So they moved to Camus' grandmother's apartment in Algiers, for the lad to receive a good education. Tertiary educati­on was interrupted and delayed by TB but he did eventually go back to uni in 1930. Mixing with young, progressive intellectuals, he co-founded the Workers' Theatre and co-wrote a play for their theatre. The group also produced plays by Dostoevski and other established playwrights, especially chosen to appeal to the workers of the city.

Travelling to Europe first became possible for Camus in 1936, and one year later his first collection of essays was published. In 1938 Camus became a journalist for a newspaper called the Alger-Republicain, clearly hoping for independence from France (which was not achieved until 1962).

Camus left Algiers in 1940 for Paris, seeking work as a reporter for the progressive press. But 1940 was the worst time in French history for an outsider to arrive, so he returned home to Algeria. He found a teaching position in Oran, writing openly against war in Europe - this put him in danger due to the political right's rise in power in both France and Algeria. Having been declared a threat to national security later in 1940, this young man in his 20s was advised to leave Algeria as quickly as humanly possible.

Of course back in Paris he found the German army had taken the French capital and most of Northern France.

Camus (left) and Sartre, Paris

Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus first met in June 1943, at the opening of one of Sartre's plays. Camus’ recently published novel The Stranger, was a big success, so they certainly knew who he was. Camus wanted to meet the French novelist, playwright philosopher whose fiction he had reviewed years earlier and who had just published a long article on Camus' own books. In November 1943, Camus moved to Paris to start working as a reader for his (and Sartre's) publisher, Michel Gallim­ard, and the trio’s friendship warmed. They met at Café Flore, Sartre and Beauvoir’s favourite drinkery and office-away-from-home. 

In 1943 Camus joined Combat, an illegal resistance cell and newspaper that had been founded in 1942 for sabotage of the German war-machine. Camus helped by smuggling news of the war to the Parisian public via copies of the Combat paper. He became its editor in 1943, and held this position for four years. His articles often called for action in accordance to strong moral principals, and it was during this period of his life that he was formalising his philosophy.

If modern readers know only one of Camus’ novels it would be The Stranger (1942) - on the theme of the alienated outsider. His polit­ic­al history and experiences in occupied France led him to search for a way to address moral responsibility. He expressed himself in works like Letters to a German Friend (1945), which was published with other political essays, in Resistance, Rebellion and Death (1960). Part of what made Camus different from other philosophers was his fascinat­ion for and acceptance of contradiction. But that is exactly what made Camus difficult to read.

Picasso's studio, 1944

I am very grateful to The Art Blog for this photograph by Brassaï. It showed important cultural figures gathered in 1944 in Paris after the private production of Picasso's surrealist play, Desire Caught By the Tail. Jean-Paul Sartre was seated on the floor with his pipe; Simone de Beauvoir held a book; Camus was staring at the dog; Picasso was in the middle; his paintings in the background.

By the end of the war, Camus had become a leading voice for the French working class and social change. In 1946 he visited Lournarin in Province with three fellow writers and decided to stay. He rented a house in this beautiful town that reminded him of Algeria, but could not afford to buy one until his Nobel Prize money arrived in 1958. Daughter Catherine now lives in the family home in Rue de l'Eglise, complete with its large terraces, rose filled gardens and views of the distant hills. But today the street is called Rue Albert Camus.

In 1949 Camus had a relapse of his TB and turned to writing in his bedroom. When he recovered in 1951 he published The Rebel, a text on artistic and historical rebellion, in which he laid out the difference between revolution and non-violent revolt. He criticised Heg­el's work, accusing it of glorifying power and the state over soc­ial morality. Camus preferred his moderate philosophy of Mediter­ranean humanism to violence. But the attacks on Hegel and Marxism in The Rebel had an alienating effect on Camus' peers and leftist critics. After Camus attempted to defend himself in a letter to the publication, the editor of Les Temps Modernes (Jean-Paul Sartre!!) published a very long, attacking letter in response. This marked the end of the two philosophers' friendship… what a tragedy for Camus.

I know Camus and Sartre had been intimate friends and collaborators until that point. But I cannot discover whether Camus and de Beauvoir had had a friendship, separate from the occasional coffee with the three of them together.

The Camus house in Lourmarin, Provence

Camus began to write for l'Express daily newspaper in 1955, covering the Algerian war. The violence was escalating in Algeria with the arrival of French troops, and Camus was devastated. He organised a public debate between Muslims and the Front Français, which fortun­ate­ly went without incident. Then Camus came back into favour with intell­ectual circles in 1956 with the publication of his novel The Fall.

Throughout his life, Camus continued to work for the theatre, taking on the various roles of actor, director, playwright and translator. State of Siege (1948) and The Just Assassins (1950) were two of his clearly political plays. He also did successful stage adaptations of novels like William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun (1956) and Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (1959).

Melville House blog noted that the American FBI tracked Sartre and Camus via surveillance, theft, wire-tapping and eavesdropping. Appar­ently FBI agents were pursuing Camus, in particular, because he had been a member of the anti-German resistance in France. Needless to say Camus never returned to the USA after his monitored visit in March 1946.

J Edgar Hoover may have been furious but he could not stop Camus receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for his essay Réflexions Sur la Guillotine in 1957. In fact the Nobel committee particularly cited the author’s persistent efforts to illuminate the problem of the human conscience in our time! It was largely as a writer of conscience and as a champion of imaginative literature as a vehicle of philosophical insight and moral truth that Camus was honoured after WW2 and is still admired today.

In 1960, Camus and his close friend and publisher Michel Gal­limard died in a car accident near the French city of Sens while returning to Paris. What a terrible shame that Camus a) died so young and b) died before he could see Algerian independence declared. Nonetheless visitors can see where his memory lives on. There is a Camus trail in Province that includes his family home in Lourmarin, his beloved football ground, the restaurant that he used as his office, the gardens where he wrote standing up, the chateau where he first lived in Lourmarin and the cemetery where both Camus and Francine were buried.


Deb said...

Remember how impressed we were with de Beauvoir? Les temps Modernes emerged straight after WW2 ended and would have been a great opportunity for all three to work together but I am sure if Camus was involved or not.

Hels said...


I think de Beauvoir remained co-editor of Les Temps Modernes because it was an important link to the key thinkers and writers of her age. But it was a great opportunity to see her own thoughts in publication, before she completed her own books. Especially The Second Sex .

Lord Cowell said...

I had to read L'éstranger twice at college, once in English class, and once again in French. It did not leave a great impression upon me, but perhaps that is the fate of many prescribed texts!

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

I am full of admiration for the younger you :) Two things occur to me. Firstly, as you say, a teenager is likely to dislike or be bored by _whatever_ reading is set by his teachers or lecturers. I was forced to read Hemmingway in my matriculation year and loathed him.

Secondly, and more importantly, Camus is tough to read. His content is tricky and his language is rugged.

umashankar said...

That is a treasure trove on Camus, Hels. I was gripped by the enlightening account; I felt saddened by the abrupt end of his friendship with Beauvoir, and his life. Thank you for sharing.

Hels said...


Timing is everything, isn't it? :) A few months ago, my eyes would have slid right over the top of your Camus reference. Now I am paying careful attention.

The split between Sartre and Camus was terrible for Camus, and although Camus tried later in life to reconnect with his old friend, they never got together again.

nothingprofound said...

Camus took the side of life, of the sun, against history and politics. That's what caused the breach between Sartre and him. He remained a dedicated humanist and lover of life to the last.

Hels said...


Good to see you! I have no idea why the comment went to the Spam file.. that has not happened to this blog before. Sorry :(

Was Camus a fun loving, sun loving person, against politics? I suggest he was very active politically, in his anti-colonialist crusade in Algeria that made his Public Enemy 1 with the Algerian Government. In France he was deeply involved in clandestine activities against the German occupiers.

I was most proud of Camus when he become a strong voice for the French working class and for non violent social change.

nothingprofound said...

Camus' participation in politics was personal rather than ideological. He was opposed to injustice wherever it occurred. He was not afraid to speak out against the Soviets and their crimes which put him at odds with the fanatically ideological left.

Hels said...


ahh but the personal is political. Or so it should be, in educated, sensitive thinkers. That he was not afraid to speak out against Fascism and Communism suggests he was both political AND brave.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

This indeed a fascinating account of Camus, about whom we can certainly have said that we knew very little.

We are always fascinated by the connections between people at certain points in history and the various directions that their lives took them. And, how these connections develop and move forward into our own timescales and lives.

We wonder who the others are in that marvellously atmospheric picture of Brassai. In Budapest a gallery we know well represents Francois Gilot, Picasso's muse, who is still alive today! Only connect as Forster wrote!

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

Standing from L to R: Jacques Lacan, Cécile Éluard, Pierre Reverdy, Louise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, Zanie de Campan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir.

Sitting from L to R: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jean Aubier.

I too am totally fascinated by the connections between people at certain points in personal and world history. Camus might have been a very different writer, had it not been for the Paris colleagues who nurtured him.

Darragh McCurragh said...

Well, there seem t be more than rumors that the relationship between Camus and de Beauvoir went decidedly beyond a cup of coffee, even pure friendship. And the later estrangement between Sartre and him is meant to have to do with it. And de Beauvoir had an axe to grind as Sartre was not exactly monogamic. Which she might have tolerated but she would have preferred he choose more within her own class. Which is why not many men could have qualified for her quid pro quo but a man of Camus' intellectual standing. Or so I think.

Hels said...


Thank you for writing. de Beauvoir certainly had relationships with both men and women. And when she finished those relationships, she would hand the women (but not the men) on to Sartre.

So I really did think about your suggestion quite a lot, but never found any evidence for a Camus-de Beauvoir relationship.

Mandy Southgate said...

I really enjoyed this post Hels. Albert Camus is my mother's favourite author and I'm quite astounded that she read his work when she was just 17. You're right, he is not easy to read (but I thought the same about Sartre and Kafka) and so I'm pretty impressed by my mum. She had many of his books and I was appalled when a university friend borrowed them and didn't return them.

I began The Stranger a short while ago and your post has inspired me to give it another try.

Hels said...


at 17 I was still reading Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen. I would not have known where the philosophy section of the library was *blush*

Sometimes I wonder whether Camus and Sartre would have been easier to read in their original language. But Kafka would have been difficult to read, even if you were fluent in German and Czech.

Mandy Southgate said...

Well, as mortified as I am to admit it, out of the 3, I've only ever finished a book by Kafka! Must amend that this year!

Hels said...

I have added information on Camus' life in Lourmarin from 1946-1960, inspired by France Today, April-May 2014.