Royal, Robert: Τhe other Camus
Unfortunately for both of them, the war intervened. Faure came to Lyons in France for the wedding. But when she returned to Algeria for a visit, the Allied invasion of North Africa and the Nazi Occupation of the south of France separated her from Camus for the rest of the war. (In The Plague, an allegorical treatment of the Occupation, Camus writes of the effects of a similar separation caused by a medical quarantine.) When Camus moved to Paris during the Occupation, things took an even more tragic turn.
In the highly emotional atmosphere of the time, as he continued writing and producing plays, Camus met a passionate Spanish-French actress who would become the central romantic figure in his life, Maria Casarès. Camus valued the “Castilian pride” he had inherited from his mother’s Spanish ancestors, and some strange harmony of passion, pride, and vulnerability united the two. Camus, whose reserve was legendary, could even be open with Casarès.
Until the liberation of Paris, they carried on a torrid affair. Both knew the relationship might end when the war did, and though Casarès wanted all or nothing, Camus could not make up his mind to divorce Francine. He split with Casarès, seemingly forever, in 1944, after a passionate struggle that she said “placed me at the center of life but left me completely vulnerable.”
But the strange Castilian alchemy between them did not go away. Francine came to live in Paris and had twins after the liberation. Five years later, Camus and Casarès met by accident on the street and never separated again. Oddly, Camus continued to have many other affairs. His secretary had to keep a list of young women who were to be put right through to him at the Gallimard offices, and of others who were to be told he was unavailable. He and Casarès agreed that since they could not have everything, they would live by what they called the “75 percent rule.” They existed mostly for each other, with some gaps. Ultimately, however, for Casarès, this meant that she could not even attend Camus’s funeral.
Hard as this was for Casarès, Camus’s irregularities were even harder on his wife. Unable either to leave Francine or curb his appetites, Camus finally drove her to a nervous breakdown. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1957, they went to Stockholm together for the sake of appearances, even though they were living apart. Camus was aware of his moral problem, even if many of his admirers were not, and it may have had something to do with his frequent confessions of weakness. In The Fall (1956), the protagonist makes a lengthy confession about all the women he seduced or harmed, one he may even have allowed to die, while appearing to the world to be an upright man. Though told humorously and with no little irony, the narrator’s confessions may be Camus’s as well.
It is in light of all of these political and psychological circumstances in the 1950s that we must read The First Man. What appears to be facile nostalgia floats over an immense abyss. Amid the Algerian apocalypse and personal troubles, Camus was trying to preserve an image of youthful innocence from total oblivion and perhaps make a statement as well. The critic Paul DeMan, writing without knowledge of The First Man and before his own past as a pro-Nazi writer was known, took Camus to task for believing that “he could shelter mankind from its own contingency merely by asserting the beauty of his own memories.” DeMan wickedly went on to conclude that Camus the writer was like Camus the young man and soccer goalie: he did not enter the fray but merely defended a disappearing society from attacks against it. While the charge is unfair in many ways, DeMan had a point.