The Posh Romantic


The little chap in the front middle is Albert Camus. He was the philandering, existentialist
French/Algerian who fought in the Resistance, won the Nobel prize, wrote The Outsider, and died in
a car crash at 46.

The photograph is of the youth team of Racing Universitaire, the Algiers equivalent of Manchester
United. Camus, appearing dwarfed by two thuggish-looking 16 year-olds on either side, must have
been decent between the sticks.

How good we don’t know. TB, the killer of the 19th and early 20th centuries, put an end to his
sporting life at the age of 17.

Camus turned to philosophy, study and women. His pursuit of the latter may have been Hollywood
influenced ……

….. although Humphrey Bogart had yet to make an impact on the screen. No doubt there were other
role models.

Camus instinctively sided with the left. Any decent person, after the slaughter of the first World War
and in the middle of the Great Depression, might have reasoned that there may be a better way to
organise life. Many felt that to oppose Hitler it was necessary to embrace communism. Camus was
circumspect but he joined, only to rip his card up a few months later. He was responsible for the
woolly statement that communism was the least bad political option, and that it might be a stepping
stone to better things.

If this was naive it was a view shared by millions of Europeans. He and they wanted it to be true and
there was little historical context from which to gain perspective. In the 1960s the English left argued
passionately for comprehensive education on the grounds that it would improve standards.

Camus was then persuaded to join the Algerian communists, with their specifically anti-colonialist
agenda. He was thrown out for breaking the rules.

Later, during the Algerian War of Independence, Camus annoyed many of his literary friends by
refusing to blindly take the side of the rebels, feeling that their atrocities were equally as bad as those
committed by the French. He urged compromise. Noting that in the previous 35 years 100 million
Europeans had died either in or because of war he advocated federation.

The only group Camus was truly a life-long member of was the Awkward Squad of One, a position he
enjoyed. He hated polarity and simplistic solutions. He was aware of the chilling throwaway by
Goebells, that propaganda was only working when ‘people do as they are told believing they are
acting of their own free will’. He knew the right didn’t have a monopoly of evil.

It’s possible that his readers were more royalist than the king. His novels, The Outsider and The Plague,
are first of all compelling stories, sparely and simply written, though detailed. Camus became irritated
when called existentialist, perhaps because, like the rest of the world, he didn’t know what the word
meant. He accepted the term ‘absurdist’ and once defined it. A single soldier, armed with only a
sword, takes on a bank of machine guns. This action, according to Camus, is absurd because of the
distance between what the soldier aims to achieve and the inevitable outcome. Others will feel it
unnecessary to explain it with such a term. Under extreme circumstances wild behaviour can be
normal, and an individual fighting against impossible odds is a feature of much good and bad

In the essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, the hero, condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a mountain,
is represented as ‘happy’, and this is called absurd. But if one substitutes ‘occupied’ or ‘not bored’ for
‘happy’ the state of mind seems less unreasonable.

The works of Camus

More than most novelists Camus presented fictionalised versions of himself in his published work. He
is criticised for not understanding or writing about women, but this is like complaining to Alan Turing
that he wasn’t on the front line. No-one can be good at everything, and Hemingway, Steinbeck and
Ibsen remain great writers despite being guilty of the same thing. His characters of both sexes are
understood insofar as they need to be in order to put the thoughts and actions of the hero into

I think a new term is needed to describe his style.

Camus had flown to Paris in 1940 to escape growing repression in his own country. He fled as the
Germans approached but returned in 1943 to edit the banned magazine Combat. By doing so, and by
holding forged ID, he risked arrest, torture and death. The French Resistance is largely misrepresented
and sentimentalised, and its influence exaggerated.

There is a superb, realistic essay here

The decision to award Camus The Nobel Prize for Literature at the age of 33 was almost certainly
politically motivated, notwithstanding his real achievements. It was 1946, he had resisted fascism, was
young and good looking, and could write. That was enough for the committee, who favoured him
ahead of Andre Malraux. Malraux had a far greater body of work and had won the Croix de Guerre.
He was entitled to be fed up.

Camus first met Jean-Paul Sartre at the Cafe de Flore, in Paris, in 1943. The two of them made the
place famous. In the end they were to fall out. Camus felt that Stalin was as great an evil as Hitler, and
Sartre, although a reluctant communist himself, eventually found it impossible to talk to Camus
without losing his temper.

It had been received wisdom in Paris that if two men met in a cafe it was to discuss sex. After Camus
encountered Sartre the fashion changed. Men were now making dates with each other to talk

It was a rule the two writers didn’t always stick to. On one occasion Sartre, 8 years older, was in bits
over a woman. Like a good mate Camus listened intently. Finally, and drawing on his own extensive
experience, he told Sartre that he was being too insistent, too eager. He should play it cool, be hard
to get.

Jean-Paul, who despite the estrangement was to speak at his friend’s funeral, heard the advice in
silence. After a pause he raised an eyebrow and asked ‘have you seen my face?’

Camus stayed in love with sport, claiming that football had taught him more about life than any book.
The goalkeeper, involved but separate, belongs to the team but is outside it. It seems no accident
that was his position.

He loathed the easy narcotic of populism. The writing was obsessively nuanced, desperate to embrace
every complex aspect of whatever he was describing. He avoided happy endings, as life does, but
loved nothing more than when passion and impulse conjoined with common sense.

My literary designation for Camus is posh-romantic. I hope it catches on.