Jef­frey Mey­ers

Mal­raux, Ca­mus and the No­bel Prize

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Jef­frey Mey­ers

An­dré Mal­raux (1901-76) was born in a bour­geois quar­ter of Paris, Al­bert Ca­mus (1913-60) in a work­ing-class district in the provin­cial Al­ge­rian town of Oran. De­spite their dif­fer­ent back­grounds they had sig­nif­i­cant emo­tional, in­tel­lec­tual and aes­thetic affini­ties. Ca­mus’s father was killed on the Marne in Oc­to­ber 1914; Mal­raux’s father com­mit­ted sui­cide in De­cem­ber 1930. Ca­mus be­gins The Myth of Sisy­phus by as­sert­ing: ‘There is but one truly se­ri­ous philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem, and that is sui­cide.’ In Mal­raux’s The Wal­nut Trees of Al­tenburg the mo­tives for the sui­cide of the hero’s un­cle, Di­et­rich Berger, re­main mys­te­ri­ous. Mal­raux and Ca­mus did not write about each other (though Ca­mus planned an es­say) and left no de­tailed ac­counts of their meet­ings, but it is pos­si­ble to trace the in­trigu­ing progress and sad dis­so­lu­tion of their friend­ship.

The young Ca­mus first saw Mal­raux in June 1935 when the fa­mous writer gave an elo­quent, fiery and spell­bind­ing anti-fas­cist speech in Algiers. Ca­mus was then a stu­dent at the univer­sity. Mal­raux had been no­to­ri­ously ar­rested for steal­ing Kh­mer sculp­ture in Cam­bo­dia, had pub­lished The Con­querors (1928) and The Royal Way (1930), and had won the Prix Gon­court for Man’s Fate (1933), his novel about the be­trayal of the Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion in Shang­hai. In July 1935 Ca­mus told a friend ‘how much I ad­mire An­dré Mal­raux.’

That same year Ca­mus asked per­mis­sion for his am­a­teur theatre to pro­duce an adap­ta­tion of Mal­raux’s lat­est novel Days of Wrath (1935). The ti­tle comes from the medieval hymn Dies Irae about the fate of the saved and damned in the Last Judg­ment: ‘Days of wrath and doom im­pend­ing, / Heaven and earth in ashes end­ing.’ In this novel and in Ca­mus’s The Stranger the hero is tried and con­demned to death. But in Mal­raux’s book Kass­ner, a Com­mu­nist leader ar­rested by the Nazis, is re­leased when a com­rade takes on his iden­tity. Mal­raux replied to Ca­mus’s re­quest in a

one-word tele­gram, “Joue” (Play), and pleased the re­cip­i­ent by us­ing the fa­mil­iar tu form. Her­bert Lottman wrote that in Jan­uary 1936 Ca­mus used ‘off-stage nar­ra­tion’ and ‘rapid shift­ing of scenes through use of spot­lights’. The play was a great suc­cess and roused the en­thu­si­as­tic au­di­ence to sing the In­ter­na­tionale.

Mal­raux had a heroic ca­reer in the Span­ish Civil War and World War II; Ca­mus, suf­fer­ing from chronic tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, was a non-com­bat­ant. Dur­ing the Span­ish war in 1938 Ca­mus, still fas­ci­nated by the coura­geous ad­ven­turer, wrote to a friend that ‘Mal­raux prefers the epic as­pects of rev­o­lu­tion . . . and risks his life ev­ery day to jus­tify his way of see­ing.’ After at­tend­ing a pri­vate screen­ing of Mal­raux’s poignant film based on his Span­ish war novel, Man’s Hope, Ca­mus ex­claimed, ‘I was over­whelmed. What a joy to be able to ad­mire some­thing whole­heart­edly.’ When he fi­nally met Mal­raux through their mu­tual friend, the writer and jour­nal­ist Pas­cal Pia, Ca­mus added, ‘I spent a fas­ci­nat­ing hour with a per­son full of tics, fever­ish and dis­or­ga­nized, but with an amaz­ing in­tel­li­gence.’ Mal­raux had ac­quired his ner­vous tics fly­ing com­bat mis­sions in Spain.

In 1941 Pia sent Mal­raux, then an ed­i­tor at the lead­ing French publisher Gal­li­mard, the type­scripts of Ca­mus’s The Stranger and The Myth of Sisy­phus. Mal­raux en­thu­si­as­ti­cally praised the pow­er­ful ideas and per­sua­sive tech­nique: ‘I read L’Etranger first. The theme is very clear. . . . [It] is ob­vi­ously some­thing im­por­tant. The strength and sim­plic­ity of the means, which end up forc­ing the reader to ac­cept the char­ac­ter’s point of view, are all the more re­mark­able given that the fate of the book de­pends on how con­vinc­ing this char­ac­ter is. And what Ca­mus has to say, what he has to con­vince us about, is not in­sub­stan­tial.’ Mal­raux added that Sisy­phus is ‘re­mark­able, and what he has to say gets through, which is not very easy. The book com­pletely il­lu­mi­nates the novel.’ Ca­mus grate­fully re­sponded, ‘You are among those whose ap­proval I sought. . . . If my manuscripts bring me noth­ing but the plea­sure and sym­pa­thy of some minds I love and ad­mire, it will be quite enough.’

Mal­raux was pleased to see two favourable ref­er­ences to him­self in Sisy­phus. Ca­mus placed Mal­raux with Dos­toyevsky as a novelist-philoso­pher

and also stated, in his dis­cus­sion of Kafka, that ‘Mal­raux’s thought . . . is al­ways brac­ing’. Ca­mus’s two books, pub­lished in 1942, im­me­di­ately es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion and were also a great coup for Gal­li­mard. But Mal­raux had con­sid­er­able per­spi­cac­ity to rec­og­nize their merit. In three no­to­ri­ous ex­am­ples of mod­ern lit­er­ary blind­ness by ma­jor writ­ers, An­dré Gide had re­jected Proust’s Swann’s Way, T.S. Eliot would re­ject Or­well’s Animal Farm and Elio Vit­torini would re­ject Lampe­dusa’s The Leop­ard.

The two au­thors had their first so­cial meet­ing at the Gal­li­mards’ Parisian flat early in 1944. Lottman re­ported that they ‘seemed to take to each other at once. They left the Gal­li­mards to­gether’ and Ca­mus planned to walk Mal­raux home. In­stead, they changed di­rec­tion, turned to­ward Ca­mus’s house and con­tin­ued to con­verse un­til the Ger­man cur­few drove them home. Though Mal­raux was a com­pul­sive talker, Ca­mus man­aged to get a word in and later said they had had a lively rap­port.

Two in­ci­dents that took place dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion in 1944 il­lu­mi­nate their friend­ship. While edit­ing the clan­des­tine news­pa­per Com­bat, Ca­mus was also ac­tive in the Re­sis­tance. Mal­raux found him a trust­wor­thy and de­pend­able com­rade. Cur­tis Cate wrote that Mal­raux turned to Ca­mus for ur­gent help when ‘he needed a hide-out for an English ma­jor [Ge­orge Hiller] he had brought with him and who was ar­rang­ing to have weapons parachuted to the maquis­ards in the Dor­dogne.’ Ca­mus ex­plained that he had no room in his flat and was closely watched by the Gestapo, but he was will­ing to take the risk and man­aged to hide the ma­jor with a friend.

In a freak ac­ci­dent in Novem­ber Josette Clo­tis, Mal­raux’s com­mon-law wife and mother of his two sons, fell un­der a train and was killed. It is sig­nif­i­cant that on the same day Mal­raux stopped in to see Ca­mus, whom he could count on for hu­man warmth and sym­pa­thy. In a photo taken in the Com­bat of­fice, Ca­mus—thin, frail and sickly—wears a shabby dark shirt, black tie and baggy trousers. Lean­ing his right arm on a table and hold­ing a cig­a­rette in his bunched left fin­gers, he stares shyly at Mal­raux with half-open mouth. The swag­ger­ing Mal­raux—wear­ing a mil­i­tary beret and uni­form with of­fi­cer’s epaulettes—puts one hand in his pocket and lifts a

ha­bit­ual cig­a­rette to his lips. With tilted head and eyes swiveled to the right, he looks side­ways at Ca­mus. In this scene, the war­rior clearly dom­i­nates the civil­ian. As Mal­raux ob­served, ‘In­tel­lec­tu­als are like women, sol­diers make them dream.’

Yet sur­pris­ingly, at the end of 1944, Mal­raux be­gan to harshly crit­i­cize Ca­mus’ ideas. Con­vers­ing with a friend, Jean La­cou­ture noted, Mal­raux ‘jibed against left-wing in­tel­lec­tu­als . . . of the Café de Flore (which for him, at this time, meant Al­bert Ca­mus).’

Their next meet­ing, ar­ranged by Arthur Koestler in the spring of 1947, was un­for­tu­nate. Koestler re­called that Ca­mus did not need ‘much per­suad­ing to meet Mal­raux.’ La­cou­ture re­ported: ‘They started talk­ing. “The pro­le­tariat . . .” Ca­mus be­gan. “The pro­le­tariat? What’s that,” in­ter­rupted Mal­raux. “I can’t have peo­ple throw­ing words like that around with­out defin­ing them. . .” Ca­mus be­came im­pa­tient and got bogged down in his def­i­ni­tion. . . . It was a disas­ter—and the ef­fects lasted a long time.’ In the late 1940s Mal­raux quar­relled bit­terly with Sartre and in­sisted that Gal­li­mard stop pub­lish­ing Sartre’s jour­nal Les Temps Modernes. When the publisher asked Ca­mus if it would be bet­ter to keep Mal­raux or Sartre, Ca­mus re­mained loyal to the older writer and ad­vised him to keep Mal­raux.

By the mid-1950s it was ob­vi­ous that the two au­thors ex­pressed sim­i­lar themes. De­nis Boak ob­served that Mal­raux had pop­u­lar­ized the con­cepts of des­tin, fa­tal­ité and an­goisse long be­fore Ca­mus, who was ‘un­doubt­edly greatly in­debted to him for their ter­mi­nol­ogy . . . . The real sim­i­lar­ity be­tween Mal­raux and Ca­mus lies in their [be­lief in] the ap­par­ent fu­til­ity of a world with­out tran­scen­dence . . . and it is clear that Mal­raux and his for­mu­la­tion of the ‘ab­surd’ played a great part in Ca­mus’s early de­vel­op­ment.’ Carl Vig­giani also noted their por­trayal of ‘hero­ism, the con­queror, re­volt and rev­o­lu­tion, sol­i­dar­ity, the rec­ti­fi­ca­tory func­tion of art, the writer as wit­ness’.

But the two friends inevitably had se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ments. Mal­raux, a fel­low trav­eller, jus­ti­fied Stalin’s Purge Tri­als and the slaugh­ter of his Anar­chist al­lies in Spain as nec­es­sary mea­sures in the fight against fas­cism.

Ca­mus, who joined and then left the Com­mu­nist Party in the 1930s, was more con­cerned with moral stan­dards and con­demned Mal­raux’s po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency. Mal­raux op­posed French colo­nial­ism in Al­ge­ria; Ca­mus was loyal to the cause of the French set­tlers in his na­tive coun­try. In An­timem­oirs Mal­raux said Rus­sia would be France’s prin­ci­pal en­emy in the Cold War; Ca­mus thought France’s main en­emy would be Amer­ica. Mal­raux joined de Gaulle’s Right-wing gov­ern­ment as Min­is­ter of Cul­tural Af­fairs; Ca­mus dis­liked de Gaulle, re­jected or­ga­nized pol­i­tics and re­mained loyal to the Left. Their con­flicts sowed the later seeds of discord.

The No­bel Prize com­mit­tee re­fused to honour Mal­raux, who was closely con­nected to de Gaulle, and re­sented the French gov­ern­ment’s at­tempt to in­flu­ence their de­ci­sion. Mal­raux was en­vi­ous and fu­ri­ous, Ca­mus mod­est and gen­er­ous, when Ca­mus won the No­bel in Oc­to­ber 1957. The fortythree-year-old Ca­mus (the sec­ond youngest win­ner after Rud­yard Ki­pling) had been suf­fer­ing from writer’s block and felt, in mid-ca­reer, that most of his work was still un­fin­ished. When in­formed that he’d been awarded the No­bel he re­peat­edly said, ‘I wish Mal­raux had got the prize. He de­served it more than I did,’ and in­sisted that Mal­raux ‘would have won it if it wasn’t for his pol­i­tics.’ The older au­thor ap­pre­ci­ated Ca­mus’s re­spect­ful re­marks and told him, ‘your pub­lic state­ments do honor to us both.’ Ca­mus reaf­firmed that Mal­raux ‘has al­ways been my mas­ter,’ but Mal­raux’s daugh­ter found ‘it was best not to men­tion the No­bel Prize in the vicin­ity of her father.’ Ca­mus praised his main ri­val. By contrast Hem­ing­way, who won the No­bel in 1954, stated with false mod­esty that mi­nor writ­ers with no hope of win­ning—Bernard Beren­son, Carl Sand­burg and Isak Di­ne­sen—de­served the award. If the No­bel com­mit­tee had waited a few more years to give the prize to Ca­mus, he would not have been alive to re­ceive it.

Though Mal­raux and Ca­mus took op­po­site sides in the Al­ge­rian strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence, in 1958 they agreed on hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts. Mal­raux told Ca­mus, who op­posed cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, that he had per­son­ally given de Gaulle Ca­mus’s ap­peal to com­mute death sen­tences. Mal­raux tried in vain to ap­point Ca­mus as de Gaulle’s ‘per­ma­nent am­bas­sador of the French con­science in Algiers.’ In re­sponse to ac­cu­sa­tions of tor­ture by the French

army, Mal­raux ‘of­fered to send France’s three No­bel Prize lau­re­ates— François Mau­riac, Roger Martin du Gard and Ca­mus—to con­duct an in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Al­ge­ria.’ But Ca­mus was un­re­spon­sive and this ide­al­is­tic plan also failed.

In a photo of 1959, at the open­ing of Ca­mus’s the­atri­cal adap­ta­tion of Dos­toyevsky’s The Pos­sessed, both men wear dap­per suits and are more evenly matched than in 1944. Ca­mus, in pro­file, now has a more scep­ti­cal look. Mal­raux, head bent re­flec­tively and right fore­fin­ger touch­ing his thin nose, seems to be hold­ing forth. But this was their last meet­ing.

At 2 P.M. on Jan­uary 4, 1960 Michel Gal­li­mard, driv­ing his fast and ex­pen­sive Fa­cel Vega at 90 miles per hour, had a tyre blowout or bro­ken axle and lost con­trol of the car. He crashed into a tree near Sens, broke up the car and in­stantly killed his pas­sen­ger, Ca­mus. (Mal­raux had been a pris­oner in Sens, 75 miles south­east of Paris, in World War II.) Mal­raux, then cul­tural min­is­ter, or­dered his chef de cab­i­net to go to the scene of the ac­ci­dent and take charge in the name of the gov­ern­ment. Mal­raux also told him that Ca­mus had ‘re­fused all re­li­gious cer­e­mony, so if any­one sug­gests any kind of rit­ual, such as bless­ing of the body, you must op­pose it.’ He then made an ap­pro­pri­ately high-minded pro­nounce­ment: ‘For over twenty years the work of Al­bert Ca­mus was in­sep­a­ra­ble from the ob­ses­sion with jus­tice. We salute one of those through whom France re­mains present in the hearts of men.’ On the very same day Mal­raux had writ­ten to Ca­mus that the gov­ern­ment had given his troupe of ac­tors (from which he re­cruited sev­eral stun­ning lovers) their own theatre. A year later, in May 1961, Mal­raux’s two sons were also killed in a fa­tal car crash.

Ca­mus’s early death at the peak of his fame sanc­ti­fied him while Mal­raux, closely as­so­ci­ated with de Gaulle, was de­mo­nized by the Left. Many years later in an in­ter­view of 1975, the year be­fore his death, Mal­raux took a part­ing shot and den­i­grated Ca­mus’s work. He dis­liked the al­le­gory in The Plague, said he found the novel ‘so dull that he fin­ished read­ing it only out of a feel­ing of obli­ga­tion,’ and dis­missed Ca­mus as an ‘in­fe­rior writer and re­ally a “man of the theatre.” ’ De­spite their the­matic sim­i­lar­i­ties and

Ca­mus’s sin­cere tributes, Mal­raux felt Ca­mus was both dif­fer­ent from and in­fe­rior to him­self, and re­jected the younger writer as his in­tel­lec­tual dis­ci­ple and heir. Mal­raux had been gen­er­ous to the provin­cial, un­known Ca­mus, but re­sented him when he won the No­bel Prize and be­came a for­mi­da­ble ri­val. In­tensely com­pet­i­tive to the end, Mal­raux re­vised his favourable view of Ca­mus to as­sert his su­pe­ri­or­ity and strengthen his own rep­u­ta­tion.

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