MARCH 4, 2018
ON THE MORNING of June 6, 1944, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. That same night, Albert Camus and Maria Casarès landed in bed together. Though the latter event did not amount to a hill of beans to those unfolding on the French coast, Camus and Casarès would never again be the same. Nor will they ever be the same for those who read their correspondence — 865 letters (at more than 1,000 pages) stretching from the summer of 1944 to the winter of 1960.
By the summer of France’s liberation, Camus was a household name in France. Two years earlier, the twentysomething Algerian-born author had galvanized the French literary scene with the publication of his novel L’Étranger (The Stranger). In 1943, he joined the resistance newspaper Combat and quickly became its editor in chief. Faithful to the newspaper’s watchword — De la résistance à la révolution (From resistance to revolution) — Camus announced, in fiery language, that resistance was simply a first step. The goal was not just to liberate, but also to reinvent the nation. The men and women who had fought to free France, he declared on August 24, “will not agree to the return of the forces of resignation and of injustice in any form.”
This affirmation happened to echo a line he had written just a few weeks before: “I have refused resignation my entire life, choosing what to me seems essential and holding fast to it.” Camus’s audience for this personal declaration was not Combat’s readers, however, but his lover Maria Casarès. She, too, had become a household name in Paris. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), Casarès’s father, prime minister of the doomed Second Spanish Republic, had sent her to France. Still in her teens, Casarès studied theater and philosophy in Paris — the same subjects Camus had pursued as a student in Algiers, French Algeria, a decade earlier — and, by 1944, was electrifying audiences at the city’s renowned Théâtre des Mathurins. (Those who have seen Casarès in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise  or Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus  understand why.)
Indeed, the Mathurins set the stage for her relationship with Camus. In the still-occupied city, Casarès had been cast in a leading role in his 1944 play Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding). Though opening night was a disaster — sneers and snickers, catcalls and cries punctuated the performance — Camus was not terribly disappointed. The play, perhaps, had not been ready for prime time. But, far more important — as he wrote in his journal — he had “received on the occasion of the staging of this play the greatest joy an author can receive: that of hearing his own language borne by the voice and the soul of a marvelous actress in the exact register one dreamed for it.”
Yet that same summer marked, or so it seemed, his parting of ways with that voice and soul. When he told Casarès that he had refused resignation his entire life, Camus did not mean resisting the occupation by the Germans, but resisting the temptation to divorce his wife. Camus had married a fellow French Algerian, Francine Faure, four years earlier — a commitment he refused to break. “I know too well that all I need to do is say certain words and turn my back on this part of my life. But as I gave my word, these are words I will not say and there are engagements I cannot break.” The die seemed cast: in a letter he wrote a few days later, Camus tells Casarès that “I will try to make Francine happy.”
As his letters reveal in searing detail and shimmering language, Camus mostly failed at this task. In large measure, he failed because his separation from Casarès also failed. Four years after their initial breakup, their paths accidentally crossed — once again, remarkably, on June 6 — on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. This time, though they were often separated by professional and family duties — hence the frequency of their letter writing — their paths remained joined until Camus’s death 12 years later.
This path leads us to a man we thought we knew, but find we did not, and a woman most of us never knew, and are richer now that we do. Camus’s early letters surge with the lyricism we recall from his youthful essays. From Provence in southeastern France, he tells Casarès that he had made a wish as he watched shooting stars lace the night sky. “Should you raise your eyes towards the sky tonight,” he whispers, may they “fall like rain on your beautiful face reminding you of my love.” For her part, Casarès revises her understanding of their earlier tryst. “I was too young when I first met you to fully grasp everything that the word ‘we’ represents. Perhaps it was necessary that I had to bang my head against life in order to return with an insatiable thirst for you and for meaning.”
In 1944, Camus confessed to Casarès his “absurd” desire that she always remain at his side, even though Francine remained on the other side. Reunited four years later, Casarès returns to this “absurdity,” the most existential of words. Yes, their relationship might well be “stupid,” as Camus insisted, since he remained not just married, but also the father of young twins. Et, alors? (So what?) “Everything is stupid, if you prefer. But since this is how matters stand and we cannot change them, let’s try to manage them as best as we can and not risk spoiling everything by demanding too much from a life which is … absurd?”
The absurdities came in many shapes and sizes. In 1951, there occurred the dramatic break between Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, sparked by the publication of Camus’s L’Homme révolté (The Rebel). In this brilliant, though sometimes blurred analysis of communism and totalitarianism, Camus fingered the useful idiots on the French left who had turned a blind eye to Stalinist crimes. Inevitably, The Rebel revolted Sartre, France’s most celebrated fellow traveler. When Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes issued a scathing review of the book, Camus replied with a long letter that was often sharp and, at times, self-pitying. Sartre’s caustic and deeply personal response devastated Camus. In the grips of a “curious depression,” he told Casarès he no longer had “the desire to live.”
Camus soon rediscovered the desire to live, but it was a life increasingly besieged by private and public struggles. Fears over his writer’s block — he tells Casarès, “I need to work, but I cannot work. Really, I cannot” — compounded his guilt over Francine’s emotional state. In 1953, Francine seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown, a collapse in part precipitated by Camus’s relationship with Casarès. In an especially harrowing letter, Camus reports a suicide attempt made by Francine, in which she sprang toward a terrace window apparently in order to throw herself off. Camus caught her, but remained traumatized. She would have succeeded, he told Casarès, “if I had not been quick enough.” Though he insisted that he did not “fully understand” Francine’s deteriorating state, Camus found himself in an absurd situation that was, in large part, of his own making.
But these struggles neither define Camus’s final years nor his letters to Casarès. Time and again, we find the dry humor beloved by his friends, but rarely seen in his writings. In London for a production of his play Caligula, Camus observes that the decor seemed straight from the Parisian flea market and the actor playing Caligula “did not reach my shoulder.” Worse, though, was to come — namely, “the ballets that I had not foreseen.” Here, too, he refused to be resigned: he left the theater to down a scotch. Alas, he found “it was too late to order anything but coffee.” That night, he dreamed of “monstrous ballets in which I danced with King George VI.”
Casarès was more than Camus’s equal in her colorful own accounts of the theatrical life. During a performance of his 1949 play Les Justes (The Just Assassins), in which she played the leading role of Dora, she found herself in competition with a coughing audience member. “I nearly left the stage,” she informed Camus, “to offer to a man sitting in the front row throat lozenges, a handkerchief to silence his cough or two seats for another performance when he feels better. But I restrained myself.” While on tour, she finds the time to rap Camus’s knuckles for not writing:
No one could say that you are wasting your genius by writing me love letters. Yes, I understand! After twelve years during which we’ve often been reduced to epistolary deadlines, you are tiring of finding new ways to tell me you love me. Still, at least you can send me a few lines to inform me of your health and mood.
The lovers also share their opinions on the books they always seem to be reading. Stendhal is always brilliant; Honoré de Balzac is sometimes brilliant. Cardinal de Retz’s Memoirs is not all it is cracked up to be, Casarès finds, while Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) is “slight.” Ernest Hemingway is a “phony,” Camus declares, while George Orwell “belongs to the very small number of men with whom I share something.” And while writing remains a struggle, Camus finds a kind of salvation in fictionalizing his own childhood and youth. In 1957, he begins what would be his last, and unfinished book, the heartbreakingly sad and beautiful Le premier homme (The First Man). He shares with Casarès the “anguish” and “solitude” inspired by this project despite (or perhaps because of) his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature that same year. (In a note he wrote from Stockholm, Sweden, a dazzled Camus said he felt like James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington .)
We, too, are dazzled upon reading these letters. It is less a correspondence than a story, one co-written by two extraordinary figures, fully in love and fully equal to one another. “By what miracle do you always know how to answer my expectations,” Camus wondered in an early letter, “even when I myself do not clearly see or understand them?” The answer doesn’t matter, he adds. “You give me more than I could ever deserve. And I accept with respect and gratitude this marvelous love which makes me live.” Several years later, Casarès exclaims: “Oh, of course, I am no longer the person I was in 1950, not to mention in 1944. And a good thing, too!” These changes are the result of their “extraordinary complicity.” What she now is, she tells Camus, “is no longer what I have made of myself, but instead what we have made of me.”
On Christmas Day, 1959, Casarès wrote to Camus, who was in Lourmarin, the Provençal village where he had recently bought a house. She chatted about her bouts of shopping interspersed with her reading of Balzac’s Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions) — “In order,” she explained, “to conserve my own.” As for other news, she ends, “I will wait for your return to tell you … and shake the dust off you.” As he prepared for the long drive from Lourmarin to Paris, Camus dashed off a quick note: “I am so happy at the idea of seeing you again that I am laughing as I write … I am kissing and hugging you until Tuesday, when I’ll start over again.”
Casarès never had the chance to shake the dust off Camus. On January 4, 1960, the car in which he was driving with his friends Michel and Janine Gallimard and their daughter Anne, veered off the road outside Paris and collided with a tree, instantly killing Camus. All too predictably, a New York Times editorial pontificated on the meaninglessness of the accident: “There is grim philosophical irony in the fact that Albert Camus should have died in a senseless automobile accident.” Perhaps. But it is far preferable to imagine, as the author of The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) would have it, both Camus and Casarès happy.