Albert Camus’s sizzling letters to one of his three lovers

Camus’s correspondence with actor Maria Casarès is the literary sensation of the season

Albert Camus outside his Paris office in 1957. Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Albert Camus outside his Paris office in 1957. Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

 

The publication of Albert Camus’s 1944-1959 correspondence with his lover Maria Casarès is the literary sensation of the season.

Camus, the Nobel laureate for literature in 1957 and author of one of the most emblematic novels of the 20th century, The Stranger, was killed in a car crash on January 4th, 1960.

French movie buffs will remember Casarès as the long-suffering wife in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise. She was a great actor of stage and screen, who toured the world with the Comédie Française and Jean Vilar’s Théâtre National Populaire.

Camus was 30 and Casarès 21 when they met through a shared love of theatre in March 1944. Paris was occupied by the Nazis. Camus was in the Resistance. He was Spanish on his mother’s side and suffered from tuberculosis. She had arrived from Spain in 1936, aged 14. Her father had been a cabinet minister in the doomed republic, and was, like Camus, stricken with tuberculosis.

On the night of June 6th, 1944, Camus drove a bicycle down Paris boulevards, with Maria Casarès on the handlebars. They become lovers that night, the night of the Normandy landings.   

Camus’s wife, Francine, spent the war in Oran, Algeria. When she moved to Paris that October, Albert and Maria sorrowfully decided to end their affair.

On June 6th, 1946, two years to the day after they first loved, Camus and Casarès met by chance in the boulevard Saint Germain. They thought it pointless to struggle against what both considered to be their fate.

“Tied to one another by the bonds of the earth, by intelligence, heart and flesh, nothing, I know can surprise or separate us,” Camus wrote to Casarès in February 1950.

“We met, we recognised each other, we abandoned ourselves one to the other. We have lived a love of burning, pure crystal. Do you realise what happiness we have, and what has been given to us?” she wrote to him in June of the same year.

Hollywood stars

The couple looked like stars in a period Hollywood movie. Their trajectories rose in parallel. Each encouraged the other. The book’s appendix is filled with notes that Camus sent with bouquets of flowers to theatres where Casarès performed. After a standing ovation before 3,600 people in Buenos Aires in 1956, she wrote to Camus, “The few words of thanks I uttered, I said while thinking of you”. On collecting the Nobel Prize for literature the following year, he telegraphed her: “I have never missed you so much. Your Alonso.”

The letters sometimes convey Camus’s self-doubt and annoyance with literary circles, and Casarès’s disillusionment with the world of theatre. But certainty that love made them better shines through. Camus’s emotion contrasts starkly with the numb indifference of Meursault, the anti-hero of The Stranger.

“What I have said, written or done since the spring of 1944 … is different from what happened inside me before. I have breathed better, I have hated things less. I have admired more freely what deserved admiration,” Camus wrote in 1949. “With you, I have accepted more. I have learned to live.”

Three lovers

Casarès was not Camus’s only lover; she was one of three when he died. His wife suffered terribly from his infidelities and tried to take her own life in 1954. After her mother’s death in 1979, Camus’s daughter Catherine met Casarès and purchased the love letters from her. The correspondence fills 1,265 pages in Gallimard’s prestigious édition blanche. Camus’s works were published in the same collection.

Catherine finally decided to publish the letters because of their historic and literary value. The world, she writes in her introduction, “is more vast, space is more luminous. The air is lighter, simply because they existed.”

Camus called Casarès “the unique one”. In his last letter, dated five days before the fatal car crash, he wrote to her, “I shall see you soon, my superb one. I am so happy at the thought of seeing you again that I am laughing as I write.”

Camus conceived of his oeuvre in three parts: the absurd, derived from man’s unanswered questions about his own existence; revolt, which was the only salvation from the absurd; and love. He had only begun to broach the subject of maternal love in The First Man, the unfinished manuscript found in the wreckage of the Facel Vega sports car and published 34 years later.

Camus’s love letters to Maria Casarès, and hers to him, have now completed the third part of a life’s work cut short.

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