Napoleon III A Life by Fenton Bresler (1999)

Fenton Bresler, who died in 2003, was a barrister, newspaper columnist, television pundit and author of many books. He was a popular author rather than a historian, so the tone of this book isn’t scholarly but very much focuses on the personalities, the experiences and feelings of the people involved.

Occasionally this leads the tone to drop into sentimentality or cliché, but for the most part it makes for an entertaining, easy-going and often very illuminating read.

I’m especially glad that Bresler dwells at such length on the origins of Napoleon III’s family: it makes Napoleon III’s relationship with his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, much clearer, and also, in the early pages, amounts to a touching portrait of Napoleon himself and his family circle.

The Napoleonic background

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in post-revolutionary France emerging as the Republic’s ablest military leader in its war against its European enemies which had broken out in 1792.

In 1799 Napoleon carried out a coup against the so-called Directorate, the five-man government of France, and had himself declared First Consul. He had married Josephine de Beauharnais, a divorcée, in 1795. Josephine came with two children by her first marriage – Eugène born in 1781 and Hortense born in 1783. As Napoleon grew in power, declaring himself Emperor of the French in 1804, it became more pressing that he have a male heir, but Josephine failed to give him one. Thus, in 1810, he divorced her and married an Austrian princess, who soon bore him the much-wanted male child, who Napoleon appointed ‘King of Rome’.

Napoleon had four brothers and, at the height of his power, allotted all of them positions of power on the thrones of the various European countries he had conquered. He also arranged marriages for them with European princesses, in order to expand the family’s reach and power.

One of these plans was to arrange the marriage of his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, to Hortense, daughter of his first wife, Josephine, in 1806, when she was 23 and he was 28.

The couple didn’t get on but managed to have three children, all boys – Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte who died at the age of four, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte (1804 – 1831), and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873)  – who was to become Napoléon III, the subject of this book.

After Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in 1814, Hortense and her two surviving sons returned to Paris where she was protected by Alexander I of Russia. However, when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and returned to rule France for 100 days before being finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Hortense loyally supported her step-father during his brief resumption of power, and was punished for it when the Allies re-occupied Paris for the second time.

Amid a White Terror, in which aristocrats settled scores with defenders of the old regime, amid a climate of lynchings, murders and executions, Hortense and her two sons – the future Napoleon III being just six years old – fled to Switzerland and began years of exile, moving from country to country around central Europe.

Within a few months of their flight Hortense’s estranged husband, Louis, by now the ex-King of Holland, demanded custody of the eldest son, Napoléon Louis. From then on it was just Hortense and Louis-Napoléon, wandering Europe for six years before finding a semi-permanent home in Switzerland. Mother and small son formed a very close bond, Louis’ wife later complaining that he never stopped venerating his mother, even long after her death.

Hopefully, the diagram below makes things a bit clearer. it shows how Napoleon’s parents Charles and Letizia had five sons and three daughters, their dates and who they married. It shows how Napoleon (second from left) married Josephine, who already had Eugène and Hortense, how he persuaded his younger brother Louis to marry Hortense, and they had two sons, the younger of which (and the only one shown here) became Napoleon III. Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie of Austria by whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon, ‘King of Rome’, later referred to as Napoleon II, who died aged only 21 in 1832.

Napoleon III's family tree

Napoleon III’s family tree

Years of exile

Young Louis-Napoléon spent the 1820s subject to a string of overbearing tutors. He grew into a handsome man, a bit on the short side, but dashing in his army uniform, more intelligent than the other men in his family and, as this book shows in some detail, a great seducer of women. All through his life he seduced and bedded almost every woman he came into contact with.

The family tree I gave above may seem like unnecessary detail but it turns out to be vital in several ways.

By focusing on the ambience and influence of Napoleon on all his family Bresler really conveys the sense of entitlement to royal treatment and to a grand destiny which shaped Louis’ life. By giving all his siblings such exalted roles and royal marriages Napoleon I had created an extraordinarily complex web of relations across European royalty and aristocracy. These uncles and aunts and cousins didn’t just disappear when Napoleon fell from power, but their sense of imperial entitlement continued to exert an influence on Louis right up to the end of his life.

Bresler’s vividly written book does what more academic histories often fail to do – it powerfully conveys the real sense of conviction and motivation which fueled Louis. For Mike Rapport or Gareth Stedman Jones or Karl Marx, Louis-Napoleon was a joke, an empty man who believed nothing and was pushed to the surface by the failure of all the other factions of society and politics, a faute de mieux man.

Bresler’s book – personal and sentimental though it often is, wearing its amateur status with pride – nonetheless embeds you right at the heart of this extraordinary family and has you seeing the world from Louis’ point of view, as a theatre onto which he was irresistibly destined to rise to glory and to lead France.

The extraordinary thing is – that it happened just as he dreamed, exactly as he was so convinced that it would.

Death of the other heirs

Louis-Napoléon’s first political involvement was with the Carbonari, the secret society dedicated to achieving unity and independence for the then-fragmented Italy. His brother joined him in the cause, but caught measles on campaign and Bresler paints the affecting scene where Louis-Napoléon holds his elder brother in his arms as he died. It was 1831.

After Waterloo, Napoleon I’s one legitimate son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the so-called ‘King of Rome’, had been taken by his mother back to Austria. Here he was raised as a prince of the royal blood but in virtual house arrest, given the new name Franz, Duke of Reichstadt. Although he just about remembered his father before he went off to fight at Waterloo and never returned, the young prince was forbidden to speak French or even to mention his father’s name.

When Napoleon died in 1821, in exile on the island of St Helena, he bequeathed his son a load of priceless memorabilia but the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, prevented any of it from reaching the boy. As an Austrian prince Franz was raised to join the army and in 1832 given a battalion to command, but soon afterwards he caught pneumonia and died, aged just 21.

The significance of the early deaths of these two young men was that their removal made Louis-Napoleon the heir to the Napoleonic throne (there were two remaining brothers of Napoleon I, who lived in affluent retirement, but neither had any interest in returning to public life). So from this point – 1832 – onwards, through thick and thin, Louis was convinced that it was his destiny to one day rule as his grandfather had. Everyone who met him reported that he had an unalterable conviction that his destiny was to restore the Napoleonic name and rule France.

Napoleonic writings

Napoleon I spent his years of exile on St Helena dictating his memoirs. These are famously economical with the truth, tending to gloss over the fact that his rule saw Europe wracked by 15 years of bloody warfare, and preferring to position himself to posterity as a champion of the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

His grandson followed in the Emperor’s footsteps and, once he was the heir apparent, published the first of what became a series of political pamphlets, starting with Rêveries politiques or ‘political dreams’ in 1833 at the age of 25. This was followed in 1834 by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (‘Political and military considerations about Switzerland’) and in 1839 by Les Idées napoléoniennes (‘Napoleonic Ideas’).

Wordy and pompous, Louis’s books boil down to two central ideas:

  • the primacy of a national interest which transcended all particular class or factional interest
  • and universal (male) suffrage which would allow ‘the people’ to vote for a strong ruler who would implement ‘the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences’

Napoleonic referendums

I hadn’t realised that the first Napoleon felt it necessary to call a plebiscite in 1804 to approve his move in status from First Consul to ‘Emperor of the French’. Nor that the vote was so overwhelmingly positive, with 99.93% (3,521,675) in favour and only 0.07% (2,579) against.

This was to be Louis’s strategy: it was universal (male) suffrage which got him elected president in 1848, and which he then appealed to again to support his declaration of himself Emperor in 1852. Both times he won by huge majorities.

So one of the fascinations of Bresler’s book is to learn that government by plebiscite, or referendum, was a well-established reactionary strategy for appealing over the heads of the metropolitan (liberal and bourgeois) elite, to the generally more conservative, and uneducated, population at large.

Quite thought-provoking, given the pickle Britain is in following the 2016 EU Referendum…

The advantage of Bresler’s in-depth accounts

The outline of Louis’ biography in the 1830s and 40s is simply stated: he attempted two ‘coups’ designed to raise the army behind his legendary name and to overthrow the then-king, Louis-Philippe – one at a barracks in Strasbourg in 1836, then again in Boulogne in 1840.

Whereas other histories dismiss both these events in a paragraph or so, Bresler goes into as much detail as possible, describing the elaborateness of the preparations, and then how they both unravelled into farce. He drills right down to descriptions of how the conspirators entered the barracks, what Louis said and did, how they tried to persuade the head of each barracks to join them, the misunderstandings, the retreats, the squabbles between the conspirators. He tells us that he has visited the exact sites of both events and walked through the action. Bresler makes it feel like a thriller.

Same goes for all the other key moments in Louis’ career. You might not get the kind of detailed socio-economic or political analysis which you might get from academic history books, but Bresler’s more personal approach not only makes a welcome change, it puts you right there, right on the spot at some of the crucial turning points in French history.

Louis-Napoleon goes to prison

After Louis’ first coup attempt, the government of King Louis-Philippe indulgently exiled Louis to the United States, from where, in fact, he quite quickly returned to be with his dying mother, Hortense, in Switzerland. After the 1840 attempt, however, they lost patience and Louis was tried and sentenced to prison in perpetuity.

Bresler’s account of this imprisonment is absolutely fascinating. He was held in a run-down chateau in the town of Ham in the Somme district of north-east France, along with his loyal doctor and valet. He was kept in a small room at the end of a corridor, with holes in the floor and ceiling and only paper flaps to cover the window, with primitive toilet facilities down the hall. Here he built himself shelves to hold up his books, and spent a lot of time reading.

Louis and the loyal friends who had assisted at the coup and so been sentenced alonside him (General Montholon and Doctor Conneau) were the only inmates. A garrison of 200, of whom 60 soldiers were on duty at any time, was devoted just to oversee them.

One of the most flabbergasting things Bresler tells us is that Louis and the general were both allowed to have their mistresses move in and live with them. How very French! Louis’ mistress, Alexandrine moved in and, over the course of the six years, bore him two illegitimate children, Eugene and Louis, both of which were farmed out to the Cornu family in Paris to look after.

The size of the garrison guarding Louis makes it all the more amazing that in 1846 he managed to escape. Builders had arrived to finally do up the crumbling chateau and Bresler gives a characteristically detailed and nail-biting description of the plan the General, the doctor and the valet concoct, to have Louis disguise himself as one of the workmen and simply walk out the main gate. Which is what he did.

1848 to 1852

I have described the events in France of 1848 to 1852 in my reviews of:

Briefly, King Louis-Philippe of France was overthrown by a popular uprising in February 1848 and a Republic was declared, but there was then a prolonged period of chaos and uncertainty. Liberals tried to form a national government but, when they shut down the workshops which had given work and a dole to the unemployed of Paris, the working men set up barricades which led the government to appoint a general to retake the city which he did during a week of merciless violence in June 1848. Not only were thousands slaughtered but the entire far left / socialist leadership was rounded up and imprisoned.

This helped the drift in both practical politics and the national mood towards the right. His prison sentence having lapsed with the abolition of the old regime, Louis-Napoleon managed to find a new home, and his supporters raised the money for him to stand for election to the new Chamber of Deputies. To everyone’s surprise but his own, he was elected.

In the debates that ensued, Louis was wisely understated and restrained but – in line with his writings – supported the idea of universal (male) suffrage. As the action-packed year of 1848 drew to a close, Louis-Napoleon stepped up from his modest activity in the assembly, to stand in the election for France’s first ever president, running against General Cavaignac, the man responsible for the massacre of the ‘June Days’, and various liberals.

To everyone’s amazement Louis-Napoleon stormed home, with five and a half million votes compared to his nearest rival, the general, who got only one and a half million.

Louis spent the next three years conspiring to convert the four-year presidency to ‘rule for life’, succeeding in December 1851, when he staged a coup against the National Assembly. He followed this up by holding a plebiscite to appeal of the entire male population of France in December 1852, which approved of him declaring himself Emperor Napoleon, taking the number III in memory of Napoleon’s only son who, although he never ruled a country, was now given the posthumous title Napoleon II.

The great strength of Bresler’s book compared to conventional political histories is that they all start from the present – they start from a modern perspective in which the liberal opposition, or even the French socialists – are taken as standard bearers for what we now know ended up happening over the long term i.e. the development of parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, limiting the power of the rich and aristocracy, introduction of the welfare state, right to work, right to strike, trade unions, pensions and so on.

From this perspective Napoleon III was a freak, an inexplicable anomaly, an apparent step backwards to the pomp and trappings of Napoleon I.

But Bresler shows you the world from a completely different perspective, from the perspective of the extremely upper-class sections of French society, not to mention the very cream of European royalty, and the world of privilege and entitlement they inhabited.

What mattered in this world was not the press or the horribly common deputies in the National Assembly: it was the opinion of Louis-Napoleon’s mother or wife or his cousin the arch-duke and so on, an extremely small, closely-knit society. And within this world there was always the expectation that royalty or imperial values would ultimately triumph. It was God’s will. It was inevitable. And Bresler helps you really appreciate how this fondness for Empire, pomp and grandeur, was shared by millions of ordinary Frenchmen.

What, to the secular liberal writers of history appears a freakish accident appears, from the perspective Bresler gives us, quite natural and almost inevitable.

He also makes the point that Louis-Napoleon was good with people. He may have been a poor public speaker – he had a flat metallic voice and a pronounced German accent – so he came over badly in the National Assembly and among the metropolitan elite of journalists and commentators.

But he had a highly developed sense of the importance of people out there and Bresler describes Louis’ very modern campaigns or ‘charm offensives’ in which he toured virtually all of France, getting on easily with crowds and individuals of all stations of life, in towns and villages the length and breadth of the land. Having been an exile on the run and a prisoner himself living in very reduced circumstances, Louis may have insisted on imperial protocol, but as a person was always modest and approachable. Queen Victoria expected to dislike him but was charmed on their first meeting. Everyone was.

Thus, in 1851, while the deputies and political theorists squabbled in Paris, Louis-Napoleon toured the country and was rewarded with a plebiscite confirming his claim to the title Napoleon III – 7.4 million in favour to 641,000 against.

The Empire of Napoleon III

Domestic

I hadn’t realised that the 1851 coup led to such violence and repression. The population of Paris brought out the barricades (again) which the army quickly stormed with the loss of up to 400 lives. But it was the political repression afterwards which surprised me. About 26,000 people were arrested, mostly members of the left-wing opposition, some 4,000 in Paris alone. The 239 inmates who were judged most severely were sent to the penal colony in Cayenne, 9,530 political opponents were sent to Algeria, 1,500 were expelled from France, and another 3,000 were given forced residence away from their homes.

Louis-Napoleon – painted by Bresler as essentially a mild man – set up a commission to review the sentences and some 3,500 were eventually reprieved.

Imprisonment of the left opposition was accompanied by strict press censorship: No newspaper article dealing with political or social questions could be published without the permission of the government, fines for breaches were increased, and the list of press offenses was greatly expanded. After three warnings, a newspaper or journal could be suspended or even permanently closed.

On the plus side, the 18 years of the Second Empire are remembered for the growth of the French economy and boom times, especially in Paris. Having spent time in exile in Britain, Napoleon III had seen the power of the industrial revolution and he encouraged the expansion of the French railway network and the diversification of the French economy into iron and steel works.

Probably the most famous development of his time was the extensive remodelling of Paris by the architect Hausmann, responsible for creating the broad, straight boulevards which cut through Paris’s squalid slums and created the airy, sunny Paris which survives to this day. Bresler shows how closely Louis followed these plans for a new imperial capital.

The Emperor selected the Elysée Palace as his Paris residence and the palace remains to this day the official seat of the French President. He inaugurated a calendar of weekly balls and concerts at which all the great and good could meet and mingle, intrigue and do business.

A new Opera House was built, amid an outpouring of fine arts and gilded decoration. The Second Empire almost exactly corresponds with the output of Offenbach, creator of witty entertaining operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld and the Tales of Hoffman.

The Emperor Napoleon II in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The Emperor Napoleon III in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Foreign Policy

The Crimean War 1853-56 Napoleon III supported Britain and Turkey in their bid to halt Russian expansion into the Balkans, the reason war broke out. After the long grinding war, horribly mismanaged on the Allies’ side, the conference which agreed the peace was held in Paris, a diplomatic coup for Napoleon.

Mexican adventure Less successful was the scheme Napoleon III was persuaded to support, of sending a European monarch to rule over chaotic Mexico. France along with Britain and Spain had invaded the Mexican Republic in the winter of 1861 in order to reclaim the foreign debts which the Republic had inherited from the monarchy it had just overthrown. Once the money was paid Britain and Spain withdrew but the French decided to stay on and, though his contacts with the Austrian royal family, Napoleon managed to persuade Maximilian, younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis, to take the ‘throne’ of Mexico, as Emperor Maximilian I.

This bizarre situation was only possible with the backing of the most reactionary elements of Mexican society and due to the simple fact that Mexico’s neighbour, the United States, was bogged down in its own brutal civil war (1861-65).

But:

  1. Maximilian turned out to be a ‘modern’ ‘liberal’ emperor, much to the disgust of the Catholic, landowning autocracy who, therefore, never gave him the unstinted support he required
  2. Even with the backing of over 30,000 French troops, Maximilian was never able to defeat the Republican forces of the republican President Benito Juárez
  3. Once the American Civil War was over, the Americans began to actively support Juárez

Facing increasing opposition at home, Napoleon withdrew the last of France’s army in 1866. Maximilian’s ’empire’ collapsed, and he was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1867.

True to form, Bresler concentrates less on the international power politics of the tale and more on the personal experiences of those concerned. Before the end, Maximilian’s wife, Carlotta, sailed to France and insisted on an audience with Napoleon III, by this time a sick man, and begged for military help to be sent to her husband. She apparently broke down in front of Napoleon and his wife, before travelling on to see the Pope to beg for help, in front of whom she began raving that everyone was trying to poison her. By this stage seriously unhinged, Carlotta was committed to a lunatic asylum in Belgium where she lived for a further sixty years.

Here, as in so many other places, Bresler really brings history alive by going beyond the dates and geopolitical events to show you the characters and suffering and personalities of the people involved.

The Franco-Prussian War and overthrow

I’ve covered the events of the Franco-Prussian War in other blog posts:

Bismarck tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. This was just the patriotic war which Bismarck had been seeking in order to persuade the still-independent states of southern Germany to unite with the North German Confederation which Bismarck had forged under the leadership of Prussia.

It worked beyond his wildest dreams. Not only did Napoleon III declare war on Prussia but the French Chamber of Deputies rose to their feet acclaiming the war, and mobs marched round French provincial towns singing the Marseillaise.

What idiots. Within weeks the main French Army was surrounded and neutralised at Metz and the army marching to their relief was cornered and annihilated at Sedan. The Germans had better weapons, better logistics and better leadership. Many French soldiers were still trying to figure out where they were being deployed to when the decisive engagements of the war were over.

Napoleon, now quite ill with very painful bladder stones, made the quixotic decision to go to the front and lead by example like his grandfather. Except he was nothing like his grandfather. Bresler quotes the accounts of exasperated generals that Louis made and reversed judgements, confusing everyone until he eventually handed over authority to the general on the spot just in time to be captured along with the wreckage of his army at Sedan.

Once peace was made, Louis was accompanied through the lines to parley with his former colleague, the German King Wilhelm I. Must haven been an embarrassing conversation. Bismarck, who Napoleon had entertained at the French court only a few years earlier, was there with his army, and also spent some time condoling with the tired old man.

Napoleon III was moved to a castle in Germany, before being sent into exile in England. He wasn’t in France to see the catastrophe which followed, namely the French government refusing to capitulate and fighting on from Bordeaux while the Germans surrounded and besieged Paris. They eventually broke the siege, fought their way into the capital and the government finally capitulated.

The Germans marched about the place with characteristic arrogance and the German leaders assembled in the Palace of Versailles where King Wilhelm of Prussia was crowned Kaiser of the new German Empire which had been created by Bismarck. The new German Reich was built on the humiliating defeat of France.

And then, when the Germans withdrew, Paris collapsed into chaos as far left socialists declared a socialist republic and started executing the rich and Catholic priests. The new national government responded by embarking on a second siege of Paris – this time by French forces – who, after more privation and hunger, themselves finally broke into the city, the cue for vicious street fighting, in which the enraged government forces were encouraged to take revenge on the ‘communards’ for all the atrocities they were said to have committed, including executing the archbishop of Paris. It is still stunning to read that French forces killed 20,000 of their own people in just one week.

Napoleon III missed all this. He was in England, at Chislehurst. Bresler shares with us his entertaining investigations which tend to suggest that as far back as 1860, Louis – who had spent his entire childhood in exile and six years in prison – had been making plans in case the same thing happened again. Thus a British agent probably acting for him had used a large amount of money to buy Camden Place, a fairly modest (for an emperor) mansion in Chislehurst overlooking a wide expanse of grass and woodland (now home of the Chislehurst Gold Club).

Here he joined his wife, Eugénie, who had fled Paris with their son before the Prussians arrived, and here he was to live for the last three years of his life until his death in January 1873 from complications after an operation to remove his painful bladder stones.

 The Empress Eugénie and her son by James Tissot (1878)

The Empress Eugénie and her son in the grounds of Camden Place, five years after the death of her husband, by James Tissot (1878)

A medical indictment

The last chapter in the book is a surprisingly fierce indictment of the British doctors who, in Bresler’s opinion, killed Napoleon III. The Emperor had suffered from stones in the bladder for some years, which caused him a lot of pain. This ailment flared up severely during the height of the Franco-Prussian War so that even as he attempted to guide the army he was sweating with pain.

Bresler goes into full barrister mode to marshal evidence for the prosecution from two modern specialists in ailments of the bladder – James Bellringer and Sir David Innes Williams.

Bresler met, interviewed and corresponded with these witnesses and uses their testimony to assemble an argument that the procedure to destroy the stone in the bladder – inserting a device down the urethra which grasps and attempts to crush the stone so that the minuscule fragments can be passed in urine – should never have been carried out. What happened was his English doctors carried out a first procedure, but less than half the stone was destroyed and passed. After a few days’ recovery, another procedure took place in January 1873, but again the stone proved bigger than anticipated.

All was in readiness for a third procedure when the Emperor suddenly flagged, weakened, and died of heart failure. According to the modern doctors this was almost certainly due to sepsis i.e. the bladder was infected by the blockage and the medical procedure the English doctors carried out dislodged some infected bladder tissue which got into the circulation and infected the heart, causing it to fail.

Apparently, the Emperor’s death at the hands of ‘incompetent’ British doctors was a source of bitterness among French doctors and a subject of dispute between the two nations’ medics for years afterwards.

All this is fairly interesting but the revelation for me was that Napoleon submitted to these painful operations because he was planning another coup. Elaborate arrangements had been made; he was to join a cousin in Switzerland then ride with supporters to Lyon, recruiting support along the way, raising the Imperial flag and so on., just as he had tried in 1836 and 1840.

But the crucial element in raising the troops was that Napoleon should be able to ride a horse. Over the previous few years this had become pretty much impossible because of the acute pain in his bladder caused by the horse’s jogging movement. So the immediate cause of his death might have been medical ‘incompetence’. But the ultimate cause was his relentless, obsessive refusal to be denied what he saw as his pre-destined fate, to rule France and to hand on the Empire to his son.

This is not quite so completely bonkers as it sounds because Bresler explains how the Third Republic, created after Napoleon’s fall, remained deeply unpopular for years, so much so that there was even talk of restoring the grandson of Charles X, the king who had fled the throne back in 1830, the 60-year-old Comte de Chamborde.

The sensible academic histories I read make history sound like an inevitable unfolding of socio-economic trends. Bresler’s book reinserts the element of populism and mass psychology which combine with the fanaticism or abilities of specific individuals to remind us just how weird and contingent history often is. These apparently anachronistic sentiments of both royalists and imperialists, were to play a role in helping bitterly divide France during the long drawn out Dreyfus Affair and beyond. Reading Bresler’s book helps you understand their strong and abiding emotional appeal to large sectors of the French public.

A personal history

Bresler wears his personal approach on his sleeve. Rather than quote the latest academic texts, he prefers to reference very old previous biographies of Napoleon III, including some he was lucky enough to find in second hand bookshops in Paris.

He tells us about his own personal visits to various key sites in the story, and the chats he has with the local tourist board officials. For example, he shares with us his surprise that the tourist chaps in Boulogne didn’t seem to realise the shattering importance of Napoleon III’s botched coup there. Why isn’t there some plaque or guide to the precise events and locations, things which Bresler recreates for us in dramatic detail?

At another moment he stands on the very same quayside where the Emperor Maximilian reluctantly took ship to set off for his adventure in Mexico and is as affected as a sentimental novelist.

I have stood on the landing stage at Miramar from which they embarked and it seemed as if an air of melancholy still lingers upon the scene. (p.314)

Bresler visits as many of the exact locations where Napoleon lived throughout his life as he can (including a trip to the remains of the Chateau d’Ham where he was imprisoned), and especially all the houses in London which he rented. Lastly of course he visits the grand Camden Place where Louis and the Empress spent their last years in exile – and which stands to this day, as the headquarters of Chislehurst Golf Club.

This is all rather sweet and endearing, a refreshing change from the earnest, statistical and geo-political accounts of history I’m used to reading. Much closer to the personalised way in which most people actually experience life.

A verbal tic or token of Bresler’s very personal involvement with his hero is his repeated use of the word ‘sad’. Academic historians rarely express emotion, and then it’s at most the cliché that this or that decision was ‘tragic’ – but Bresler again and again takes the kind of soft, sentimental and rather naive point of view epitomised by the word ‘sad’.

The two boys [the illegitimate sons of Napoleon III], then aged fifteen and thirteen, were taken away from her [their mother, Lizzie Howard] and sadly, with the callousness of youth, soon forgot her. (p.275)

In later years, Margot married a Prussian named Kulbach and died at the sadly early age of forty-five. (p.322)

As for Louis, he would be a prisoner-of-war (albeit in the soft comfort of the new German Emperor’s summer palace) soon to be released to his last sad exile at Camden Place, with his health so badly deteriorated that he had become a pale, indecisive and sad version of the witty, commanding and assured man he had once been. (p.323)

I believe that two other factors, apart from his ill-health, led to his sad deterioration. (p.328)

Sadly [these criticisms] also apply to Louis himself. (p.332)

The year 1865 began on a sad note for Louis. (p.334)

The sad news of Maximilian’s death was much more in keeping with the reality of French life and the circumstances of Louis’ rule than all the fine uniforms and magnificent spectacles.

Sadly, they were all living in a fool’s paradise. (p.353)

Mathilde’s entry in her diary for that day makes sad reading. (p.366)

And much more in the same ilk. The ghost of Barbara Cartland floats over many of these pages.

Imperial sex

Everything we were brought up to believe about the French is confirmed by this book. The amount of infidelity, adultery, prostitutes, procuring, pandering and debauching taking place among the French upper classes is mind boggling.

Napoleon I had many ‘flings’ and a number of illegitimate children. Josephine had a number of lovers. But their grandson and his peers far outdid the older generation. Louis loved sex and he had it with as many women as possible. I’ve mentioned the lover he had while imprisoned at Ham but she’s just a drop in the ocean. Soon after he became Emperor he realised he needed an Empress and so married the Spanish aristocrat, Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick, 16th Countess of Teba, 15th Marchioness of Ardales – Eugénie for short.

But that didn’t stop him having an ‘official’ mistress – Bresler relishes the way the French have a phrase for top mistress, maitresse de titre – who was for a while the Englishwoman Lizzie Howard, but also a steady string of other young ladies who were presented to him at the numerous balls and concerts which Napoleon arranged.

There was a well-established process. After (or even during) the ball, a flunky brought the potential victim into Napoleon’s private study at the Élysée Palace. The Emperor made a quick visual assessment. If he wasn’t interested, he chatted politely for a few minutes then said that his papers called him, the flunky reappeared, the young lady retired, presumably counting her blessings. But if Napoleon liked what he saw, he dismissed the flunky and then, after a bit of chat, took the young lady up some hidden backstairs to a bedroom. Here a servant was waiting who helped the lady disrobe and then led her into the Imperial Bedroom where Napoleon was waiting, also naked.

Bresler includes quite a few gory descriptions of Napoleon’s love-making which was quick and to the point, his point anyway. One young lady recorded that she had barely had time to make a few coy protestations before he grabbed her in an intimate place, manhandled her onto the bed and was in like Flynn. There were a few minutes of grunting noises and – one victim leaves a wonderful detail – the carefully waxed ends of Napoleon’s moustache began to melt and wilt with the heat of his exertion before, with a final grunt and grimace it was all over, the Emperor stood up and the lady was despatched back to the changing room, helped back into her upper class costume, and led away..

For a while the maîtress en titre was the slender, sexy Virginia Castiglione who, Bresler reveals, was very probably a spy sent to seduce Napoleon (not very difficult) and report back on his thoughts about Italian unification to the canny Prime Minister of Piedmont, the Count of Cavour. How novelish this all is!

A propos of Italy, Bresler gives an entertaining description of the surprising crudity of King Victor Emmanuel, who ended up becoming the first king of united Italy. He was once at the Paris opera as a guest of Napoleon’s and pointed out a particularly tasty ballet dancer. ‘How much for the little girl?’ he asked. ‘I’ve no idea,’ replied Napoleon. ‘For your majesty,’ quickly interjected Napoleon’s fixer and procurer, Bacciochi, ‘five thousand francs.’ ‘That’s damn expensive,’ grunted Victor. ‘Never mind,’ said Napoleon turning to Bacciochi. ‘Put it on my tab.’

There’s a strong flavour of Harvey Weinstein about Napoleon III.

From 1863 to 1864 Napoleon’s maîtress en titre was Marguerite Bellanger, a bouncing 23-year-old country girl who catered to Napoleon’s every whim, eventually giving birth to yet another illegitimate child, Charles Jules Auguste François Marie. But none of us get any younger. On one occasion Napoleon returned to the Imperial Palace so exhausted by a prolonged session with Margot that he collapsed and had to be carried to bed – at which point the Empress Eugénie stormed round to Margot’s house in person and shouted that she was killing the Emperor – to which Margot tartly replied that if he got enough at home he wouldn’t have to play away.

(Eugénie emerges as not exactly likeable but as a very tough, independently-minded woman. She caused lots of ructions among Louis’ advisers by insisting on sitting in on Cabinet meetings and, in some of the most fraught decisions, casting the deciding vote. She was, for example, all in favour of declaring war on Prussia in 1870. After meeting the French Cabinet in 1866, Bismarck had described Eugénie as ‘the only man in his Government’, though just as able as all the men to make a catastrophically bad decision – p.340).

But it wasn’t just Louis who was at it. Almost every French figure of note seems to have had a mistress, and quite a few of these were married women whose husbands didn’t mind because they had their own harem of lovers. The atmosphere was rampant with infidelity, and the text is cluttered with countless love children being farmed out or given away.

It all makes quite a contrast with the unimaginative faithfulness of the stiff Prussian Bismarck or the sweet uxoriousness of Victoria and Albert, and goes a long way to explaining the reputation for sexual licence which France, and especially Paris, enjoyed well into the period of my youth.

(In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Christmas Holiday, which I’ve just read, young Charley’s family assume that his main motivation for going to Paris to see his university chum will be to have the kind of sexual adventures i.e. sex, which were considered impossible and unacceptable in the England of the time – and that was published in 1939.)

La gloire

One last point. In accounts of the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, and then of France’s colonial disasters in Algeria and Indo-China, again and again I’ve come across the obsession of the French military and political class with la gloire – glory.

Glory is an important part of French cultural history and political discourse. Again and again the French have behaved recklessly and stupidly because obsessed with retaining or winning la gloire for la patrie.

Bresler suggests this delusion started with the first Napoleon – within a decade of his fall, many Frenchmen had forgotten the misery of the non-stop wars he’d engaged in, let alone the fact that he was militarily defeated – twice – and become dazzled by the vague blurry memory of the ‘glory’ of the days when France had a land Empire which controlled most of Europe.

‘I swear to rule for the interests, happiness and glory of the people of France,’ said Napoleon as part of his Coronation Oath; and he had used that same vital ‘glory’ when accepting his earlier nomination as Consul for Life.

These two appeals to ‘glory’ are an indication of the psychological appeal of Napoleon I, and later of Napoleon III, to the French nation: it appealed to the average French person’s desire, above all else, for national glory; for France to be perceived as the finest, the best, in whatever context she is engaged. General de Gaulle trumpeted the same message in the 1960s. Even today’s French politicians use it as an essential part of their platform. By contrast, no British politician has ever promised glory to the electorate. It has never been part of a British sovereign’s Coronation Oath to swear allegiance to the achievement of glory as a sacred mission. No British sovereign or politician would dream of making a similar claim but to Napoleon I and Napoleon III such boasting came easily.

‘Boasting’. That’s the word. This will-o’-the-wisp gloire explains much of France’s preposterous pomposity and yet is so weirdly at odds with France’s miserable military record of the past 200 years.

  • Napoleon – defeated and exiled – twice, 1814, 1815
  • 1830 revolution overthrows Bourbon King Charles
  • 1848 democratic revolution – defeated, leads to constitutional chaos, then autocracy
  • Napoleon III – humiliating failure in Mexico 1867, crushing defeat in Franco-Prussian War 1870
  • The Commune – Red Terror then government reprisals lead to massacres in Paris 1871
  • Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906, twelve year long humiliating revelation of corruption and lies in the French army and government
  • First World War 1914-1918 – French narrowly escape defeat thanks to the British – epic mutinies at Verdun and elsewhere in 1917 shame the army
  • Between the wars – political chaos
  • Second World War – defeat and occupation by the Nazis, widespread collaboration, national humiliation
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Indo-China leading up to catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Algeria, leading to French Army attempts to assassinate the French president
  • 1958 the French Army plans a coup d’etat against the government
  • 1968 – chaos leading to near revolution

A few years ago I took the kids to Paris and visited the traditional tourist sights. It was when inspecting the Arc de Triomphe really closely, reading the dates and names of battles, that it began to dawn on me – the history of the French Army for the past two hundred years, 1815 to 2015, is a history of unending defeats.

This is what makes the French obsession with la gloire, with boasting about their ‘achievements’, all the more amusing.

No one has ever lost popular support in France by reminding people of their eternal glory. (p.250)

Bresler’s book is a highly entertaining, insightful, emotional and personal account of the strange life and enduring legacy of this most unlikely of political figures.


Related links

Related blog posts

 

Matisse in the Studio @ the Royal Academy

‘What is significant is the relation of the object to the artist, to his personality, and his power to arrange his sensations and emotions.’ (Matisse, 1935)

Upstairs in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy, five rooms are devoted to a beautiful exploration of how Henri Matisse gathered round himself and kept in his studio a rich collection of objects and textiles which he either incorporated directly into paintings or used as inspiration for his work.

I had expected a vague exploration of ideas and themes but in fact the show is extremely practical, displaying actual objects – chairs, tables, rugs, tapestries, statuettes and masks, vases, jugs and pots, classical and non-European sculptures, which Matisse acquired over his long creative life – right next to paintings which directly represent them or are inspired by them.

What’s noticeable about this ‘group portrait’ of objects from Matisse’s studio is how many of them are pretty mundane containers – jugs and glasses and bowls and cups. An indication of the sheer number of still lifes he painted and the essentially static, tranquil nature of his art.

The Object as Actor

‘A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.’ (Henri Matisse)

Using this quote we can interpret Matisse as a director who conceives of the objects in his studio as actors to be cast in different ‘roles’, according to the requirements of different compositions. Among these object-actors the exhibition includes a chocolate pot, a striking antique Venetian chair, and a small exquisitely painted table, plus other objects Matisse owned. All of them are positioned alongside Matisse paintings which incorporate them. Here’s the table:

and here’s the painting, Yellow Odalisque, which it appears in.

Matisse was given this coffee pot, sometimes used for making chocolate, by a friend on the occasion of his marriage in 1898:

Cafetière en argent, France, début du xixe siècle, chocolatière, argent, poignée en bois teinté. Musée Matisse Nice

Cafetière en argent, France, début du xixe siècle, chocolatière, argent, poignée en bois teinté. Musée Matisse Nice

It plays a starring ‘role in numerous Matisse pictures:

The nearly 40 years which separate these two works show the enormous distance he travelled from an essentially realistic to an essentially decorative art. His marriage had broken up a few months before the 1940 work was painted. Is the inclusion of the chocolate pot a sad memento of a much earlier, happier period? And the fierce black of the table top an indication of his mood?

A glass vase:

Vase, Andalusia, Spain, early 20th century. Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernadez, Nice

Vase, Andalusia, Spain, early 20th century. Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernadez, Nice

A painting incorporating the glass vase:

Safrano Roses at the Window (1925) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Safrano Roses at the Window (1925) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Something not mentioned in the catalogue is the way a lot of these containers and receptacles may well be actors which are posed in different sets and compositions; but they also wear different costumes in each role – in the sense that they contain different things in different pictures. Admittedly, these are mostly flowers, but still, the objects are most brought to life when set off against or containing other, organic, flowing and brightly coloured objects (flowers). They are always co-stars.

African art

Two rooms focused on the importance of African art – first bodies, then faces. Matisse acquired his first African artefact in the autumn of 1906 and by 1908 owned some 20 African masks and figurines. (He showed them to his frenemy Pablo Picasso, who also began incorporating them into his work.)

The wall panels inform us that the African artefacts helped Matisse to escape from the traditional Western way of seeing the human figure – not just for the sake of it but because these strangely shaped objects from a far distant culture revealed a completely new reality and a wholly new route to achieving emotional authenticity.

Maybe the entire Modernist movement in art can be summarised here, in this gesture — Emotional impact entirely supersedes figurative accuracy.

I love African art. I love its strong lines, its clarity and definition and solidity. Maybe my favourite works in the entire British Museum are the wonderful Benin bronzes. So I was quite thrilled enough just to enjoy looking at, sizing and weighing in my mind, the wonderfully strange angles, the shiny black wooden surfaces, the uncanny perfectness of the dozen or so African statuettes on display.

Jomooniw male and female figures, Bamana region, Mali, 19th-early 20th century. Private collection. Photograph by Robert Monnier

Jomooniw male and female figures, Bamana region, Mali, 19th-early 20th century. Private collection. Photograph by Robert Monnier

Matisse thought they revealed some ‘truer, more essential character’ lying beneath the superficial surface of things. It was the Edwardian period, after all, when most men and women dressed and behaved with what we would now find unbearable formality. Matisse admired ‘the jutting forms’ and ‘abrupt transition between body parts’. Instead of the lulling smoothness and sensuality of Greek sculpture, these African figurines seem energised and dynamic. New jagged visual rhythms.

The show sets his African collection against the Matisse paintings and sculptures which drew inspiration from their jagged, non-European, unsmoothness. Their ungainliness, squatness, their voodoo blankness and tremendous visual power. Hence paintings like:

Or sculptures like Two women which, while not slavishly copying the African work, clearly use them as a doorway into a chunky, elemental way of handling the human form which is walking away from the Greek and Roman tradition. (To be honest, I much prefer the African originals. Matisse seems to me to be on the way somewhere, whereas the African figurines and masks seem to me beautifully finished embodiments of their traditions and cultures.)

Two Women (1908) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Two Women (1908) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

The portrait

The next room is about ‘the portrait’ and features more African works, specifically a selection of wonderful tribal masks. The commentary points out that Matisse was attracted to the inscrutability of these African masks – they betray no emotions or feelings. This supported Matisse’s feeling that the emotional impact of a work comes not from overt expressions on the faces of his sitters, but from the composition, from the lines and shapes, and from the use of intense colouring.

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century.Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century. Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

The walls of the exhibition are dotted with quotes from the great man and one stood out for me, where he describes the way these tribal masks bring out

‘the deep gravity that persists in every human being.’

We take other people (and ourselves) so much for granted. Yet we are each as deep and complex and mysterious as the universe. From the deep impassivity of the masks Matisse drew the feeling to create works like:

You can quite literally see how these numerous objects from alien cultures helped Matisse to escape from the Western tradition, to break free, to formulate a new language, using design and colour to express new moods and feelings.

It’s not all African by any means. On another wall is a fragment of a Roman statue of a body, placed next to some of the cutouts from Matisse’s classic collection, Jazz.

The studio as theatre

This little room is the only one that actually feels a bit like a studio, containing as it does a wide variety of artefacts from the Islamic world covering the walls, as well as a huge photograph of Matisse in his fabric-festooned studio with model in ‘exotic’ dress.

Photograph of Matisse painting the model Zita at 1 Place Charles-Félix, Nice, 1928

Photograph of Matisse painting the model Zita at 1 Place Charles-Félix, Nice, 1928

Matisse relocated from Paris to Nice at the end of the Great War and began collecting items from the French colonies of Algeria (which he visited in 1906) and Morocco across the sea in North Africa. This room displays a Moorish tray, table and a big screen which he owned. A haiti is a traditional perforated wall hanging. Matisse owned several.

Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century. Private collection, on loan to Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernandez, Nice

Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century. Private collection, on loan to Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernandez, Nice

And next to it hang several examples of the innumerable odalisques he painted during the 1920s, showing how he incorporated rugs, tapestries, the tables and so on directly into the compositions.

The Moorish Screen (1921) by Henri Matisse. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950. Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

The Moorish Screen (1921) by Henri Matisse. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950. Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

The commentary points out that, for the previous hundred years or so, the genre of the ‘odalisque’ depicted young women in Eastern harems with an emphasis on their sensual if not sexual quality. What is noticeable in the numerous odalisques Matisse painted is the complete absence of sensuality; instead, they are opportunities for semi-abstract exercises in pattern, design and colour.

Naked they may be, and their pink nipples and black eyes stand out, sometimes – but by and large it is the soft furnishings which are the stars of these paintings. The faces, in particular, are constructed with the minimum of lines and colour, almost like abstract masks.

The Language of Signs

In 1941, Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer. The surgery was successful but led to serious complications which nearly killed him. Bedridden for three months, Matisse developed a new art form using coloured paper and scissors.

This final room is full of the big bright bold abstract cutouts and designs Matisse created in his final period, which he himself described as his ‘second life’. Possibly this is the most impressive and simply beautiful room in the exhibition. Again Matisse put it well when he said:

‘There is no principal feature, only the pattern is important.’ (1935)

In this photo you can see Matisse in bed working on a late paper cutout.

Hanging above Matisse’s bed is an impressive wooden panel of Chinese calligraphy, which his wife Amélie gave him on his 60th birthday in 1929. Well — it is hanging in this exhibition! Sentimental, but this one object more than any of the others, made me feel physically close to the great genius.

Calligraphy panel, China, 19th century, Qing dynasty. Photo © François Fernandez, Nice

Calligraphy panel, China, 19th century, Qing dynasty. Photo © François Fernandez, Nice

And next to it hang a number of brightly coloured cutout works in which you can trace and guess its influence. The Eskimo from 1947, is made up of five separate panels made up of motifs painted with coloured gouache. Possibly the fourth panel depicts a human face, the Eskimo of the title, done in the style of one of the tribal masks, its rectangular frames and triangular wedge completely different from the biomorphic, seaweed design of the other four panels.

There are some more African works, but in a different key, this time fabrics with abstract designs and, again, paintings and works which use the motifs and patterns as inspiration for his own uniquely bright and happy, coloured cutouts. In this final room everything has become subsumed to the search for pattern and beauty.

Summary

This lovely exhibition brings together an unprecedented number of objects from Matisse’s studio to show how (in the catalogue’s words) ‘they offered points of departure to which he could return again and again, appearing and reappearing in his work in different guises and across spans of decades, reinvented afresh in each new setting.’ It is also an entertaining overview of the career and development of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, from the earliest work here, circa 1900, to the final, wonderful, dancing cutouts of the 1950s.

Beautiful.

Inspiring.


The video

No modern exhibition is without its promotional video. Here’s Tim Marlow introducing Matisse in 60 seconds.

Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus (1960)

I loathe none but executioners.

This is a selection of 23 essays from Camus’s entire journalistic and speech-making output chosen by the man himself in the year of his death, 1960. By then Camus had published three big collections bringing together all his journalism, in 1950, 1953 and 1958 – this is a selection from those books.

The three collections were titled Actuelles I, II and III. ‘Actuelle’ is a French adjective which can be translated as ‘current’, ‘contemporary’, ‘relevant’ and it is straightaway noticeable that almost all the pieces address pressing contemporary political and social issues of his day. Collected essays by a novelist and playwright might be expected to include some studies of favourite forebears, of Racine or Zola, say. Not here. The pieces are nothing if not engagé, as the contemporary catch-phrase had it. For example, Actuelles III is entirely devoted to Camus’s collected writings on Algeria, from 1939 to 1958.

The pieces are short

The most obvious thing about the pieces is that they’re all very short. Half a dozen of them are from Combat, the underground Resistance paper Camus helped to produce during the Occupation and for a few years afterwards, often only three or four pages long. Others are ten-minute speeches, short addresses, brief replies to critics of his plays, and so on. By far the longest piece is the essay on the guillotine, a hefty 60 pages long, which brings together a career of thought to argue vehemently against the death penalty.

They cluster round two active periods

Then there’s their dates. Very roughly there are two active periods – the War (1944-45) and the late ’50s (1955-58). The speeches to Christians and the freedom pieces from the early 50s appear as interludes between these two main clusters of productivity, which obviously reflect moments when France was actually at war, with Germany, and then in Algeria.

The War

  • Letters to a German Friend (1943, 1944, 1945) [summarised below]
  • The Blood of Freedom (Combat, 24 August 1944) Short editorial exhorting his comrades to victory during the Liberation of Paris. This and the next one are, apparently, of historic importance.
  • The Night of Truth (Combat, 25 August 1944) Short editorial on the night before the German surrender of Paris.
  • René Leynaud (Combat, 27 October 1944) Short piece commemorating the execution of his friend.
  • Introduction to Poésies Posthumes by René Leynaud (1947) Longer piece giving potted bio and memories of his resistance friend.
  • Pessimism and Courage (Combat, September 1945) Irritation at bourgeois critics attacking the alleged pessimism of Sartre, Malraux and the existentialists, arguing that absurdity must be faced because it is the climate of the time.
  • Defense of Intelligence (speech given to L’Amitié Française, 15 March 1945) We must not give in to hatred; we must descend to insult; we must debate with respect. ‘There is no freedom without intelligence.’

Speeches to Christians

  • Speech given at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg (1948) He admires them for their Christian faith but honestly disagrees. ‘the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds.’
  • Why Spain? (Combat, December 1948) An article replying to criticism of Camus’s play State of Siege made by the Christian existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, who asked why it was set in Franco Spain and not Communist East Europe? Because we have still not expiated France’s sin of collaborating with Franco, Camus replies.

It seems to me there is another ambition that ought to belong to all writers: to bear witness and shout aloud, every time it is possible, insofar as our talent allows, for those who are enslaved. (p.83)

Freedom

  • Bread and Freedom (Speech given at Labour Exchange Saint-Etienne, May 1953) Intellectuals and workers must be united: if either is attacked, it is by the forces of oppression and injustice; if both stand together, they can bring freedom closer.
  • Homage to an Exile (Speech given to honour President Eduardo Santos, driven out of Colombia by the dictatorship, 7 December 1955) Really fulsome praise in his role as newspaper editor who defended other people’s rights to speech, in which he explains that those who ‘bear witness’ to oppression decrease the solitude tyranny depends on, and increase the sense of common cause and solidarity among the oppressed.

Algeria

  • Preface to Algerian Reports (March-April 1958) Actuelles III was a book-length collection of all Camus’s writing on Algeria from 1939 to 1958. This is the introduction to that volume. It is convoluted and mealy-mouthed, dutifully condemning extremism on both sides but you feel he knows in his heart of hearts that his suggested solution – Algeria to be split into federal units, some European, some Arab, along with a lot of reform and investment from France – was hopelessly impractical.
  • Letter to an Algerian Militant (to Aziz Kessous, Algerian socialist, October 1955) On 20 August 1955 FLN militiamen massacred 37 Europeans in the Algerian coastal port of Philippeville, gang-raping the women, hacking the babies to pieces. In reply, French paratroopers massacred Muslim peasants at nearby El-Halia, while surviving colons lynched hundreds of Muslims in Philippeville. Just two months later, Camus, in anguish, writes to support his friend Aziz Kessous who has set up a newspaper to try to create a space where the opposing sides can meet and debate. Forlorn hope.
  • Appeal for a Civilian Truce (Lecture in Algiers, February 1956) A speech Camus gave to a mixed audience in Algiers hoping to launch a movement to get both sides to agree at least not to target civilians. It is pitiful  to see how ineffective the stirring rhetoric of his essays and books is when it comes to the real world. And makes you realise how Eurocentric his rhetoric is. The FLN wanted their own country back; no amount of fancy rhetoric about liberty or terror or man had any hope of changing that.
  • Algeria (A personal statement, 1958) Camus thinks the FLN demand for full-blown independence is ludicrous. 1. What would happen to the 1.2 million French living in Algeria? 2. It’s all part of a conspiracy to create a pan-Islamic empire. 3. Algerians alone don’t have the economic know-how. 4. Insofar as the FLN are supported by Russia it would amount to a communist takeover of the southern flank of Europe. And so on. Camus proposes a federal structure like Switzerland, with the Muslims having one part of government, the French another. The more he elaborates the details of this complex scheme, the more unrealistic it becomes. After this final intervention, Camus retired into hurt silence and the war escalated.

Hungary

  • Kadar Had His Day of Fear (Franc-Tireur, 18 March 1957) In October-November 1956 the Hungarian people spontaneously rose up against their communist leaders. After some hesitation, the Soviet Union sent in tanks and troops to put down the revolution, killing some 3,000 civilians during days of street fighting, and sending tens of thousands of the country’s best and brightest to forced labour camps in the months that followed. Camus writes with searing anger at the naked totalitarian tyranny of the Soviets and with disgust at the hypocrisy and self-hatred of French communists who supported the Soviet intervention.
  • Socialism of the Gallows (Interview published in Demain magazine, February 1957) An equally angry and disgusted repudiation of communist totalitarianism and its supporters in the West. Totalitarianism means above else a state with only one party in it. This will inevitably crush all debate, all art, all possibility of criticism and improvement. It guarantees repression, secret police, the gulag. It also guarantees that there can never be any change or progress. By contrast, the only form of society which can guarantee at least some progress is one which allows multiple parties and viewpoints. Liberal democracy. — The anti-Marx section of The Rebel should certainly be read alongside these two pieces which unambiguously convey Camus’s violent anti-communism.

The death penalty

  • Reflections on the Guillotine (A long excerpt from a book-length symposium organised by Camus and Arthur Koestler, 1957) Anyone who’s read this far should realise that Camus is against the death penalty. Vivid description of the effect of the guillotine drive home how disgusting it is. If the aim of capital punishment is to deter, it would be on prime time TV. But most murders aren’t pre-meditated, are committed on the spur of the moment – so capital punishment cannot be a deterrent. Capital punishment degrades the executioners, as memoirs testify. Replacing it with hard labour gives the opportunity for rehabilitation. Only God has 100% knowledge; capital punishment is a hangover from the time of Christian faith in an all-knowing God, but the justice system is far from all-knowing: a steady stream of innocent men have been executed. Even one miscarriage should invalidate it forever. Most profoundly, man’s deepest virtue is revolt against the human condition, meaning death. The death penalty undermines human solidarity and community at its most vital place; this is why so many modern people feel degraded because it attacks our deepest, most animal instinct – for life.

The writer in our time

  • The Wager of Our Generation (Interview in Demain, October 1957) Back in those days ‘the writer’ had a prophetic role and authority which has completely vanished. Camus says the writer is caught between immersion in the history of his time and duty to his art, and this is a ‘dangerous’ situation. Not really.
  • Create Dangerously (Lecture given at the University of Uppsala, December 1957) A sustained 20-page expression of his view of the role of the artist, the lecture emphatically conveys Camus’s sense that a) there is such a thing as Grand Art, Art Which Matters b) the Artist has some kind of Special Responsibility to engage with his Society c) this makes Art dangerous for repressive societies and potentially for any Artist who takes them on. In other words, all the premises, conclusions and rhetoric come from a pre-Post-Modern world, the grey decade of McCarthyism, Kruschev, Hungary and Suez. 1957 was the year the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, and the first Aldermaston March took place the following year. Nuclear weapons haven’t gone away, nor various tyrannies around the world, but the sense that the world is perched on the brink of a vast catastrophe and that Artists and Writers and Intellectuals play a privileged role in explaining it all to us lesser mortals, and leading us to Freedom – this has gone for good. Five minutes after Camus died people started getting colour televisions, Andy Warhol making silk screens of Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles dropped acid, and the gadget-driven consumer paradise started up which we still live in. The core of the speech gives a history of the development of art in 19th century France leading up to the irresponsible doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, and contrast this with the aggressive doctrine of Socialist Realism, demanded in the Communist Bloc and supported by many Western intellectuals. In other words, this is an interesting analysis of the position of the European writer in 1957, but it is 60 years old and shows it.

The message

Having now read all of Camus’s main works, I think I can summarise his position as killing people is always and everywhere wrong. The foundation text in this respect is the Letters to a German Friend. In these Camus admits that he and his Nazi friend both shared the same pre-war sense of the complete bankruptcy of traditional bourgeois values and the utter meaninglessness of life in a world bereft of God or any transcendental values – but they drew very different conclusions from it.

The Nazi concluded that the only value in the world is the animal virtue of power and, like so many of his countrymen, submitted to a leader and an ideology devoted to the worship of power. Apart from the obvious consequences (invading and devastating the rest of Europe) this led to an instrumentalist point of view which saw Europe solely as a larder of oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories and so on to be used in the relentless conquests of the Master Race, and its population, similarly, as objects to be used for the Master Plan.

Camus, by contrast, saw that there is a fundamental, irreducible value in the world, and that is man’s revolt against his destiny (i.e. an arbitrary death).

Man’s greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. (p.39)

We are the only animals to be aware of our condition and to seek to rise above it. This is a value, a position, a basis for appealing to justice and against the wanton mutilation of ‘life’ and the murder of millions represented by the Nazis (and, later, the Communists). Taken collectively, or read on the social plane, this revolt becomes man’s rebellion against oppression.

I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justifications against fate itself. And it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life. With your scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man? And with all my being I shout to you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice than man alone can conceive. (p.29)

As to proof of the existence of these things – Art, culture, civilisation is the collective record of the revolt of individuals against the limits of the human condition; and rebellions in the name of justice are an undeniable fact of history, and were in train all across Europe as Camus wrote, no matter how confident the Nazis were of their total power.

These fundamental values – revolt and rebellion – are the seeds which will grow into The Rebel, Camus’s enormously long attempt to devise a philosophy or worldview which starts in the post-war waste land and works its way upwards towards a viable basis for a world of humane values, of human dignity and freedom.

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. (p.73)

The image of the individual having to decide whether to acquiesce in the triumph of tyranny or whether to stand against it, at the risk of their own lives, is obviously derived from his experience working with the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation and is made very real in his account of the capture and execution of his friend, fellow resistant and would-be poet, René Leynaud.

But it is an image, a pose, an attitude Camus carried on into the post-war era of the Cold War, when a new tyranny dominated Eastern Europe, as Communist governments in the Eastern Bloc set up new secret police forces, torture chambers and slave labour camps. Hence the two pieces here about the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

It is Camus’s misfortune that his most famous and most accessible texts – The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus – stem from his early, ‘nihilist’ period; both were drafted around 1940. To really understand his thought, it would be better to focus on his later, far more humane works – The Rebel, the late short stories, and these essays – which move towards a whole-hearted support for a liberal democratic society which enshrines competing parties, voices, and freedom of speech.

In the later essays and speeches references to his personal theory of ‘the Absurd’ disappear and, although ‘revolt’ still crops up occasionally, really the final period of Camus’s life was devoted to the ideas of Justice and Freedom, and the need to speak out against Oppression and Injustice wherever they are found.

Europe and colonialism

It was Camus’s consistent opposition to Soviet tyranny which brought down on his head the wrath of the communist-minded Paris intellectual élite but which now, of course, make him look like a hero. Except the image is troubled because of the darkness shed over his later years by the outbreak of war in Algeria, his homeland. The four pieces on Algeria bring home his inability to agree with the colonial wish for independence; he just refuses to accept it as a possibility because it implies the exodus of 1.2 million French from Algeria (which is what in the end happened).

They also shed light on another limitation of Camus’s thought. It is very Eurocentric. In the Letters to a German Friend he discusses Europe’s histories and values in a way which remains very much within the European arena. The Algerian tragedy is a violent reminder that there is a very big world outside of Europe, its tragedies and civilisation, and it is a world where European philosophy, rhetoric, political and cultural values, may simply be irrelevant.

In fact, the more I’ve read about Camus’s position on Algeria the more I’ve been disappointed by his complete silence about Vietnam. For eight long years from 1946 to 1954 the French tried to put down the Vietnamese struggle for independence, as described in histories like The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow.

Hindsight is easy. I’m being unfair. Taken altogether what these essays show more than anything else is what an extraordinarily troubled era he lived through. Foreign invasion and humiliation, the threat of violent revolution bringing the utter loss of freedom and human dignity, the collapse of European empires all round the world, the real risk of nuclear armageddon – it was a difficult time to understand, to grasp, and in which to hang on to fundamentally humane, decent values. Camus did his best, despite his flaws.


The comedy of being French

These essays are intensely serious. You’d think smiling had been banned, let alone laughing. The British ridiculed Hitler (who only had one ball, the other was in the Albert Hall). By contrast, the French invoked the long history of their grandeur and prestige and their gloire. In this respect – obsessing about France’s special destiny, invoking its unique civilisation, and so on – Camus is no different from the grand rhetoric of de Gaulle. I couldn’t help smiling at Camus’s Frenchness i.e. his conviction of his country’s invincible superiority to all other nations, despite the rather prominent evidence to the contrary.

For history is the record of what actually happened, not of what writers and philosophers would like to think happened. And having recently read Alistair Horne’s massive history of the Battle of France I know that France fell to Germany in 6 quick weeks because French society was ruinously divided, demoralised and defeatist (as described from the inside in Jean-Paul Sartre’s great Roads To Freedom trilogy).

In this respect Camus’s Letters to a German Friend perform a prodigious feat of philosophical prestidigitation. They explain that France’s bad management, lack of preparation, appalling military and political leadership, defeatism and swift surrender turn out all to be indicators of France’s spiritual and moral superiority. France wasn’t ready to fight because it was too dedicated to the noble arts of peace. It was too good to fight. Ha!

More – by losing the actual battle France turns out to have won the moral war, because it took her four long years to overcome her natural repugnance to warfare, her superior preference for happiness and civilisation, in order to fight back. Sadly, of course, the Germans never had these superior moral qualities. And so, announces Camus, with a Gallic flourish -the German victory in 1940 was in fact an indication of Germany’s spiritual defeat. Voilà!

Camus goes on to give a quick overview of European civilisation (which in fact turns out to be largely based on French achievements) in order to show how the Nazis only regarded Europe as a collection of resources – oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories – to be exploited, whereas the superior French – naturellement – see Europe as a glorious repository of civilisation and intelligence. At which point Camus rattles off some characteristic landmarks of European civilisation, such as the cloisters of Florence, the gilded domes of Krakow, the statues on the bridges over the Charles River, the gardens of Salzburg. And then tells his German friend:

It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. (p.24)

‘We’? ‘We’ would have to liberate them? The French?

Did the French ‘liberate’ Florence, Cracow, Prague or Salzburg? No. Did the French even liberate France? No. On D-Day 73,000 American, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadian soldiers landed in Normandy, 4,400 of whom died on the first day.

And the Russians. They helped defeat the Nazis a bit.

Many of the Combat essays read as if they should be sung by Edith Piaf at her most histrionic:

We know this fight too well, we are too involved through or flesh and our hearts to accept this dreadful condition without bitterness. But we also know too well what is at stake to refuse the difficult fate that we must bear alone. (p.35)

You’d think the Spanish republicans, the Czechs, the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, the Finns and Danes and Dutch and Belgians, let alone the Russians at Leningrad or Stalingrad, none of them had experienced anything like the French, who alone knew the tragedy and, oui, mon brave, the nobility of suffering!

The Paris that is fighting tonight intends to command tomorrow. Not for power, but for justice; not for politics, but for ethics; not for the domination of France, but for her grandeur. (p.36)

a) Camus’s French arrogance – his complete omission of the vital role played by the Anglo-Saxon countries in standing up to Hitler and then overthrowing the Nazi regime – his sublime confidence in French exceptionalism, matches the haughty grandeur of de Gaulle, and is just as ludicrous.

b) On a more serious note, this willful omission mirrors his neglect of the colonial issue, the post-war problem of France’s Empire – and specifically the massive war in Vietnam which kicked off as soon as the World War ended  – until he was absolutely forced to confront it when his own homeland went up in flames.

If Camus’s notions of French grandeur and prestige and gloire turned out to be a fatal dead end, nonetheless his championing of human freedom and dignity against Nazi and Communist tyranny remain impressive and inspiring to this day. It set the tone and helped spread the language of resistance to communist tyranny – of being a ‘witness to truth’, of art’s capacity to unite people against oppression – which echoed on in the writings of, for example, Václav Havel and Polish Solidarity. 


Credit

The English translation by Justin O’Brien of Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus was published by Alfred Knopf in 1960. All quotes & references are to the Vintage paperback reprint of this 1960 translation.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus (1957)

The deep, clear water, the hot sun, the girls, the physical life – there was no other form of happiness in this country. (page 49)

Camus’s later writings are more literary than logical. His biggest attempt at a philosophical work, L’Homme révolté, met with such harsh criticism on its publication in 1951 that he never again attempted a full philosophical work. Instead these later writings rotate around ‘ideas’, which are really more like symbols, complexes of meaning and emotion, with as much psychological or sociological as logical content.

For example, the early idea of the Absurd, which he developed in the 1930s/early 1940s drops away and is replaced by the more wide-ranging, richer idea of ‘exile’. ‘Exile’ can have several meanings:

1. The philosophical or maybe spiritual meaning of ‘exile’ is brought out in the section of The Rebel which deals with Nietzsche:

From the moment that man believes neither in God nor in immortal life, he becomes ‘responsible for everything alive, for everything that, born of suffering, is condemned to suffer from life.’ It is he, and he alone, who must discover law and order. Then the time of exile begins, the endless search for justification, the aimless nostalgia, ‘the most painful, the most heartbreaking question, that of the heart which asks itself: where can I feel at home?’

In the godless universe, where on earth can the thoughtful man feel at home?

2. But ‘exile’ can also refer to literal exile from one’s homeland, legal banishment, expulsion from your community. Many of the revolutionaries who figure in The Rebel were unhappy exiles, in fact exile is often an intrinsic aspect of the life of l’homme révolté.

3. And there is a third sense of exile, biographically specific to Camus, whose life was stricken when his homeland, Algeria, rose up in revolt against French colonialism and the untroubled paradise of his boyhood memories ceased to exist, becoming instead a site of murder and torture, which it was now very dangerous to return to. He found himself exiled from this childhood.

‘Where can I feel at home?’

All these forms of exiles are looking, in their different ways, for ‘the kingdom’, real or imaginary, which they can return to, where they will finally feel ‘at home’, where exile will end, where values and meaning, love and security, will be found.

This polarity, this tension, this plight, is, as Camus himself might have put it, the climate in which the six short stories in Exile and the Kingdom were all written, the situation which, in different ways, they each explore.

  1. La Femme adultère (The Adulterous Woman)
  2. Le Renégat ou un esprit confus (The Renegade or a Confused Spirit)
  3. Les Muets (The Silent Men)
  4. L’Hôte (The Guest)
  5. Jonas ou l’artiste au travail (Jonas or the Artist at Work)
  6. La Pierre qui pousse (The Growing Stone)

1. The Adulterous Woman (La Femme adultère)

The woman is Janine, tall, middle-aged but still alluring. She married short, bug-eyed Marcel, not so much because she was attracted to him, but because he so obviously needed her. His love made her real. That was 25 years ago, when Marcel was an ambitious law student. Things have changed. When his parents gave up their dry goods business, Marcel decided to abandon the law in order to run it. Then the war came with its privations. Soon their joy rides in the car stopped, the outings to the seaside ceased. Marcel became obsessed by the business. She became a shop-keeper’s wife. They had no children. Her life became entombed in the shuttered apartment above the shop.

After the war Marcel wanted to expand his sales to ‘the villages of the Upper Plateaus and of the South’, and that is why she is sitting jammed up next to him on the hard seat of a filthy local bus bumping its way through a sandstorm on the edge of the desert in the freezing cold.

They get to a town and Janine tags along after Marcel as he tries to sell his wares to Arab merchants. They end up going up onto the parapet of the local fort and looking out over the cold stony desert. They go to bed, Marcel falls asleep. But Janine is tormented by the lost years and the vanished opportunities.

She sneaks out of bed along the hotel corridor, and then runs through the dark streets back to the fort and up the stairs to the parapet where she looks up into the billions of stars in the freezing black sky and has an epiphany.

Not a breath, not a sound – except at

intervals the muffled crackling of stones that the cold was reducing to sand – disturbed the solitude and silence surrounding Janine. After a moment, however, it seemed to her that the sky above her was moving in a sort of slow gyration. In the vast reaches of the dry, cold night, thousands of stars were constantly appearing, and their sparkling icicles, loosened at once, began to slip gradually toward the horizon. Janine could not tear herself away from contemplating those drifting flares. She was turning with them, and the apparently stationary progress little by little identified her with the core of her being, where cold and desire were now vying with each other. Before her the stars were falling one by one and being snuffed out among the stones of the desert, and each time Janine opened a little more to the night. Breathing deeply, she forgot the cold, the dead weight of others, the craziness or stuffiness of life, the long anguish of living and dying. After so many years of mad, aimless fleeing from fear, she had come to a stop at last. At the same time, she seemed to recover her roots and the sap again rose in her body, which had ceased trembling. Her whole belly pressed against the parapet as she strained toward the moving sky; she was merely waiting for her fluttering heart to calm down and establish silence within her. The last stars of the constellations dropped their clusters a little lower on the desert horizon and became still. Then, with unbearable gentleness, the water of night began to fill Janine, drowned the cold, rose gradually from the hidden core of her being and overflowed in wave after wave, rising up even to her mouth full of moans. The next moment, the whole sky stretched out over her, fallen on her back on the cold earth. (Page 29)

What with the lying prone and the moans it would be easy to interpret this as some kind of sexual experience. And the title – the adulterous woman – suggests that she is being sexually unfaithful (somehow). But I think that’s too easy.

In the last few sentences Janine retraces her steps to the cheap hotel, slips back into bed beside Marcel, who wakes up to find her weeping inconsolably.

Camus had a kind of gift for making everything he wrote seem pregnant with meaning, with allegory or symbolism. But the obvious level of meaning is, here, also the most powerful. It is a story about loss – lost time, lost life, lost love, the loss which is somehow central to life.

2. The Renegade or a Confused Spirit (Le Renégat ou un esprit confus)

This is a weird one, a real oddity in the Camus I’ve read so far. It is the dramatic soliloquy of a man who’s gone mad. He was a not very bright student at a theological seminary. He came out to Algeria to preach the Word of God. He had a personal mission/obsession with suffering, with undergoing ‘the offence’ all the better to demonstrate to the heathen how superior his God was, how it enabled him to turn the other cheek, and so on. So he ran away from his seminary in Algeria heading south until he reached the region around Taghaza in the country to the south of Algeria, Mali.

Here he was captured by brutal, pagan ‘natives’ who tortured and beat him. He was imprisoned in their ‘House of the Fetish’, home of a primitive idol, and here he witnesses various holy ceremonies conducted by the Sorcerer, which include beating a number of native women and then choosing one to mate with, like an animal, in the face of the Fetish.

The narrator is imprisoned in this pitch black hut made of salt and mud and fed on grain thrown onto the floor, while defecating in a hole he gouges. He is reduced to a condition of complete animality. On one occasion a native woman enters and apparently offers herself to him sexually, which he is beginning to act on when the Sorcerer and other tribesmen enter, beat him up and then tear out his tongue, making him pass out with pain. He comes round to find his bloody mouth stuffed with grass.

As his brutal treatment continues the narrator makes the transition to becoming the willing slave of the Fetish, a wordless devotee of the tribe and its god.

All this is being narrated as flashbacks from a ‘present’ in which he is lying in wait for a missionary. He heard, from his prison inside the House of the Fetish, French voices, apparently two army officers explaining that they are going to garrison twenty men outside the village to guarantee the safety of a Christian missionary who is on his way. The slave narrator decides to escape the House of the Fetish and kill the missionary. He wants to spark an incident, to get the French to retaliate against the tribe in order to cause a Holy War, and (in his fantasies) prompt the tribe to invade and conquer Europe overthrowing the wretched God which he now curses and despises.

And so, through the slave’s garbled consciousness, we gather that he does indeed waylay the missionary and beat him to death, as he tells us how good it feels to strike ‘goodness’ in the face with a rifle butt.

I laugh, I laugh, the fellow is writhing in his detested habit, he is raising his head a little, he sees me – me his all-powerful shackled master, why does he smile at me, I’ll crush that smile! How pleasant is the sound of a rifle butt on the face of goodness…

But the tribe has noticed his absence and come looking for him, and start to beat him up. As they approach, knowing he’s going to be punished, beaten, humiliated again, the narrator experiences a confused longing to escape, to be free of his demented damaged mind, to go home.

Here, here who are you, torn, with bleeding mouth, is it you, Sorcerer, the soldiers defeated you, the salt is burning over there, it’s you my beloved master! Cast off that hate-ridden face, be good now, we were mistaken, we’ll begin all over again, we’ll rebuild the city of mercy, I want to go back home.

But here, right at the end of the ‘story’, there is one short throwaway last line, apparently spoken by a new, third-person, narrator, which brutally describes the demented man’s pitiful death.

A handful of salt fills the mouth of the garrulous slave.

***********

Wow. This is a strong story, a fierce imagining, told in a rambling, demented style completely different from Camus’s usual philosophical detachment (the gra gra describes the sound he makes with his tongueless mouth), with long disjointed sentences conveying the persona’s mad raving.

What a jumble, what a rage, gra gra, drunk with heat and wrath, lying prostrate on my gun. Who’s panting here? I can’t endure this endless heat, this waiting, I must kill him. Not a bird, not a blade of grass, stone, an arid desire, their screams, this tongue within me talking, and, since they mutilated me, the long, flat, deserted suffering deprived even of the water of night, the night of which I would dream, when locked in with the god, in my den of salt. (p.48)

Literary critics have gone to town with numerous interpretations and the ideas invoked – colonialism, Christianity, the death of God, his replacement by a savage idol, sexual submission maybe rape, the denying of language to the white man (his tongue being torn out), his Stockholm Syndrome identification with his tormentors, his mad nihilist desire to provoke a Holy War and the conquest of Europe by Muslims hordes – there’s plenty of dots here to join up more or less any way you want.

I choose a psychological interpretation. I think it is Camus letting off steam in what amounts to a really long cry of agony.

3. The Silent Men (Les Muets)

They are silent because these men, the handful who work at a small cask-manufacturing workshop in a city on the coast, had gone out on strike for twenty days but then, eventually, been forced back to work for the usual reasons – the need for money, the refusal of the boss to back down. And so they file one by one into the knackered old workshop and, in silence, start up the old routines of work.

One by one, they went to their posts without saying a word. Ballester went from one to another, briefly reminding them of the work to be begun or finished. No one answered. Soon the first hammer resounded against the iron-tipped wedge sinking a hoop over the convex part of a barrel, a plane groaned as it hit a knot, and one of the saws, started up by Esposito, got under way with a great whirring of blade. Saïd would bring staves on request or light fires of shavings on which the casks were placed to make them swell in their corset of iron hoops. When no one called for him, he stood at a workbench riveting the big rusty hoops with heavy hammer blows. The scent of burning shavings began to fill the shop. Yvars, who was planing and fitting the staves cut out by Esposito, recognized the old scent and his heart relaxed somewhat. All were working in silence, but a warmth, a life was gradually beginning to reawaken in the shop. Through the broad windows a clean, fresh light began to fill the shed. The smoke rose bluish in the golden sunlight; Yvars even heard an insect buzz close to him.

The owner, M. Lassalle, tries to be friendly with his workers but they all resolutely silent. He thinks they’re sulking, but as Yvars, the lead figure in the story, explains to himself, that:

they were not sulking, that their mouths had been closed, they had to take it or leave it, and that anger and helplessness sometimes hurt so much that you can’t even cry out. They were men, after all, and they weren’t going to begin smiling and simpering.

I liked this story very much because it’s about work and manual labour at that, and so, for once, Camus actually gives sustained descriptions of things, of the world around him, rather than his usual retreat into characters’ feelings which almost always become extreme meditations on death and God and meaninglessness and so on.

It’s an oddity that the man who made so many general statements about the joyful physicality of the body really devoted so few pages to its description. I’ve done scores of manual labouring jobs. I grew up in a village shop and gas station, working in the shop from age 11, working on the pumps from age 16 and then working in the dark, oily, noisy tyre bay, handling the long heavy wheel jacks and the pneumatic bolt remover to undo the bolts holding a wheel to the car axle, alongside other lads swapping banter, walking past the Pirelli calendar on the wall, washing your hands in the tub of swarfega, sitting outside sharing a fag in the sun between jobs.

Descriptions of work, real physical work, of manual labour, are so rare in polite and ‘serious’ fiction that I always relish them.

Again the hammers rang out, the big shed filled with the familiar din, with the smell of shavings and of old clothes damp with sweat. The big saw whined and bit into the fresh wood of the stave that Esposito was slowly pushing in front of him. Where the saw bit, a damp sawdust spurted out and covered with something like bread-crumbs the big hairy hands firmly gripping the wood on each side of the moaning blade. Once the stave was ripped, you could hear only the sound of the motor.

There is a story of sorts, more an incident. Half way through the afternoon the foreman, Ballester, rushes through to say the owner’s little girl has had a fit. He dashes off to fetch an ambulance, which arrives soon after. At the end of the day the owner returns to the workshop to say a very pale and listless goodbye. Now the workmen don’t know what to say because they are embarrassed by their emotions of pity and compassion which, being rough men, they can’t express.

And so the story contains two kinds of silent men, or men who are silent in two ways. Even in this slight text Camus can’t help being schematic.

Yvars cycles home, admiring the darkening sea. He is 40 now, married to Fernande and they have a school-age son. He wishes he was 20 again and could go swimming in the warm sea. More than that,

If only he were young again, and Fernande too, they would have gone away, across the sea.

Another man who lives where he has lived all his life, who has a job, a wife and child but… but… somehow is not at home.

4. The Guest (L’Hôte)

Daru is schoolteacher in a really remote part of southern Algeria, atop a barren plateau. This year has seen an appalling drought, with Daru becoming a distribution point for government food aid. Now it has suddenly and unexpectedly snowed, in the middle of October. He’s looking out the schoolroom window when he sees figures approaching. It’s the local gendarme, Balducci, riding a horse and leading an Arab on foot with his hands tied together.

They greet Daru who welcomes them inside. Balducci explains that the Arab (who is never named) is under arrest for murdering his cousin in a nearby village, apparently in an argument over grain, cutting his throat like a sheep. Now the Arab is docile, edgy, silent.

To Daru’s horror, Balducci announces that he’s handing over the prisoner to Daru, going back to his post, and it will be Daru’s responsibility to take the prisoner on to the police headquarters at Tinguit! Daru emphatically doesn’t want the responsibility. He doesn’t want to be involved. It’s not his business. Nonetheless, Balducci makes Daru sign a document accepting responsibility, then leaves, first giving Daru his spare revolver.

There follows an uneasy night. Daru behaves decently if gruffly. He undoes the rope binding the Arab’s hands and makes them both some food. The Arab appears puzzled by this kindness but, after some hesitation, eats. Then Daru makes up two camp beds in the schoolroom, but lies there awake. In the middle of the night there is the promise of some excitement when Daru becomes aware that the Arab is getting up, with infinite slowness and stealth.

You and I have seen a thousand Hollywood thrillers so we’re expecting the Arab to make a move on the apparently asleep Daru. So does Daru. He pretends to be asleep and watches the Arab, in the event, quietly leave the schoolroom. Daru breathes a long sigh of relief thinking his onerous responsibility is over. Except that a few moments later the Arab returns. He had gone to the loo. After this act of not attacking him or escaping, Daru is able to fall asleep.

Next morning he makes them both breakfast and then orders the Arab to get dressed and follow him. He leads him some way south of the school building but then stops the Arab and hands him a package of food and 1,000 French Francs. Darus is not going to take him anywhere.

Instead Daru shows the Arab two alternative routes: the track south leads to the nomads who will give him shelter. Then he shows the track heading east. A day’s travel in that direction is the police station at Tinguit. It’s the Arab’s free decision.

Daru turns and heads back towards the school. After a little way he turns and looks and sees the Arab still standing in the same spot. OK. Daru continues. Closer to the school he turns again and at first can see no-one in either direction. Then, straining his eyes, he realises he can make out the figure of the Arab amid the vast stony waste of the desert. He is on the path east to Tinguit, presumably to hand himself in.

Is this a comment on the docility, the lack of independent-mindedness, the village stupidity of the Arab? Or his sense of honour? Or his reluctance to hand himself over to the nomads?

Whatever the Arab’s motivation, Daru grunts and returns to his school building. But not to his former life. That is gone for good. For on the blackboard he finds a simple sentence has been scrawled, presumably by Algerian rebels: ‘You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.’ Daru thought he had behaved decently. He thought he had given the Arab the freedom to choose his destiny. He thought he’s managed not to get embroiled in the conflict between the Algerian rebels and the French authorities. Looks like he was wrong on all counts.

Daru looked at the sky, the plateau, and, beyond, the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.

This story really sums up a lot of the qualities of Camus’s prose and fiction which you hear so much about. The setting is bleak and elemental. The prose is pared down and simple. It is factual, descriptive, minimal, and yet pregnant with meaning.

The schoolmaster was watching the two men climb toward him. One was on horseback, the other on foot. They had not yet tackled the abrupt rise leading to the schoolhouse built on the hillside. They were toiling onward, making slow progress in the snow, among the stones, on the vast expanse of the high, deserted plateau. From time to time the horse stumbled. Without hearing anything yet, he could see the breath issuing from the horse’s nostrils.

Interpretation

Like almost all Camus’s story it is a parable, designed to have higher meanings read into it.

1. Contemporary readers had no difficulty reading it as a comment on the by now three years-old Algerian War (which started in 1954). Daru is caught between two worlds. Not part of metropolitan French culture, but not part of the native Arab world. The French authorities try to drag him into the conflict. He refuses to take part, insists on treating the Arab decently, and even gives him his freedom to decide his fate. Although this could also be interpreted as trying to shirk his responsibilities. But, either way, his fine intentions are turned to dust by the last-page promise of revenge. He is caught up in the conflict whether he wants to or not, regardless of what he does.

2. There is also the ‘existentialist’ interpretation. (Camus insisted he wasn’t an existentialist – ‘I do not have much liking for the famous existential philosophy and, to tell the truth, I think its conclusions false’, Resistance, Rebellion and death, page 58 – and Sartre said he wasn’t an existentialist, and having looked at their respective philosophies I am perfectly clear why Camus wasn’t an existentialist – nonetheless, when you read essays about him many if not most commentators casually describe him as an existentialist.)

Anyway, the existentialist focuses on the image of a man alone in the vast desert, abandoned by God etc, thrown back on himself. According to Sartrean existentialism, he has to create himself by means of his actions, which are utterly free, for which he must assume complete responsibility. Thus he shrugs off the duty imposed by the state and acts out his independence. But according to Camus’s very different philosophy of the Absurd, Daru rebels not only against the duty imposed on him, but also against the world of blood and death which the Arab represents. He seeks – as the long argument of Camus’s philosophical work, The Rebel, requires, to revolt against the world of bloodshed and against the world of binary choices – France v. Algeria. He seeks to create a space for individual freedom and dignity. He gives the Arab his own choice and human dignity back.

In this reading, the final message on the blackboard asserts the primacy of Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd over Sartre’s philosophy of freedom because it highlights the limits of Daru’s freedom. We can only operate within the restraints of the society around us. We are not absolutely free, as Sartre claims.

3. A third interpretation simply picks up the theme of exile. A long passage describes the impact of the summer-long drought on the villagers of the region and Daru’s role in trying to help them. It is designed to show the primal experiences and human solidarity which tie Daru to this bleak barren landscape. And by extension suggest the huge tug Camus felt for the land where he grew up and where he felt tremendous solidarity with the poorest of the poor pieds noirs, the most impoverished of the European settlers in Algeria, and therefore the acute pain of his exile once the war began.

The little room was cluttered with bags of wheat that the administration left as a stock to distribute to those of his pupils whose families had suffered from the drought. Actually they had all been victims because they were all poor. Every day Daru would distribute a ration to the children. They had missed it, he knew, during these bad days [of the recent snowfall]. Possibly one of the fathers or big brothers would come this afternoon and he could supply them with grain. It was just a matter of carrying them over to the next harvest. Now shiploads of wheat were arriving from France and the worst was over. But it would be hard to forget that poverty, that army of ragged ghosts wandering in the sunlight, the plateaus burned to a cinder month after month, the earth shriveled up little by little, literally scorched, every stone bursting into dust under one’s foot. The sheep had died then by thousands and even a few men, here and there, sometimes without anyone’s knowing. In contrast with such poverty, he who lived almost like a monk in his remote schoolhouse, nonetheless satisfied with the little he had and with the rough life, had felt like a lord with his whitewashed walls, his narrow couch, his unpainted shelves, his well, and his weekly provision of water and food. And suddenly this snow, without warning, without the foretaste of rain. This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men – who didn’t help matters either. But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled.

5. Jonas or the Artist at Work (Jonas ou l’artiste au travail)

Astonishingly, this is a comedy. Yes, it’s funny. Many parts of it could come from Oscar Wilde or Saki, with their dry sardonic humour. Even the protagonist’s name is English – Gilbert Jonas is an artist. Usually Camus’s stories are set in real time: the previous four stories all take place in the course of a day, or 24 hours, or even a brief hour or so with flashbacks (as in The Renegade). But this story gives a bird’s eye view, so to speak, of Gilbert’s entire career, his appearance, his rise, his peak and his fall.

There are numerous incidents but the outline is simple: Gilbert casually takes up painting; to his surprise his work is popular, he acquires an agent who successfully sells it. He allows himself to be married to sweet Louise who loves him with a selfless devotion, and they move into a cramped apartment characterised by an enormous studio with high windows. But as word gets around fashionable Paris, critics and society ladies drop by his little apartment, followed by disciples asking his opinion of their work, the phone is ringing all the time with invitations to lunch or dinner, his wife produces one, two, three babies who are parked around the flat, bawling continuously, until Gilbert is living in a state of siege.

His friend, Rateau, sardonically observes his friend’s rise into fan-infested chaos, observing his productivity slowly drop off, and also his inspiration. Gilbert finds himself going out during the day to avoid the scrum of fans and socialites in his flat, at first to find ‘subjects’ in the streets and parks but quickly taking comfort in snug little cafés and then in the snug little arms of the complaisant women he encounters there.

Drunk and unfaithful, his output tails off, until a tear-stricken scene with the faithful Louise reveals all and he promises to reform. But the crowds continue to throng the studio and they are now joined by Louise’s sister and her daughter, come to help, so that eventually Gilbert constructs a kind of loft flat high up in the big studio room, climbing up there by a ladder each morning and not coming down. His fans, his disciples, the critics and the ladies who lunch decide he is being hoity-toity now he is famous and start to abandon him. Rateau hears the critics dismissing his work and a once-loyal disciple remarking that Jonas is now ‘finished’. His agent calls to say sales are falling off and he will have to reduce his monthly stipend to Gilbert. But Gilbert sits every day in his loft, oblivious to the world around him, his eyes glazed over, now reduced to complete inactivity, staring blankly at an empty canvas all day long.

**********

The story is an obvious satire on the perils of fame, and of the type of people who infest Paris’s intellectual world. But it’s actually quite a simple-minded portrait. In its simplicity it kept reminding me of Oscar Wilde’s elegant witty fairy tales for children. It has a tenderness, a gentleness and charm which are all the more surprising when set against the unremittingly harsh, bleak, bare desert world of the other stories. Here is Gilbert gently struggling to conceal from his wife that her stealthy creeping around the studio puts him off painting much more than loud bold interruptions would do. There is a sweet kindness in every sentence and in the entire sentiment which is missing from pretty much everything else Camus published.

But when the rooms were full of paintings and children, they had to think up a new arrangement.
Before the birth of the third child, in fact, Jonas worked in the big room, Louise knitted in the bedroom, while the two children occupied the last room, raised a great rumpus there, and also tumbled at will throughout the rest of the apartment. They agreed to put the newborn in a corner of the studio, which Jonas walled off by propping up his canvases like a screen; this offered the advantage of having the baby within earshot and being able to answer his calls. Besides, Jonas never needed to bestir himself, for Louise forestalled him. She wouldn’t wait until the baby cried before entering the studio, though with every possible precaution and always on tiptoe. Jonas, touched by such discretion, one day assured Louise that he was not so sensitive and could easily go on working despite the noise of her steps. Louise replied that she was also aiming not to waken the baby. Jonas, full of admiration for the workings of the maternal instinct, laughed heartily at his misunderstanding. As a result, he didn’t dare confess that Louise’s cautious entries bothered him more than an out-and-out invasion. First, because they lasted longer, and secondly because they followed a pantomime in which Louise – her arms outstretched, her shoulders thrown back, and her leg raised high – could not go unnoticed. This method even went against her avowed intentions, since Louise constantly ran the risk of bumping into one of the canvases with which the studio was cluttered. At such moments the noise would waken the baby, who would manifest his displeasure according to his capacities, which were considerable. The father, delighted by his son’s pulmonary prowess, would rush to cuddle him and soon be relieved in this by his wife.

The concern for his wife and his children; the comic observation of people’s foibles: it is all touching and sweet and gentle in a way you wouldn’t have thought Camus capable of.

6. The Growing Stone (La Pierre qui pousse)

‘I used to be proud; now I’m alone…  I never found my place. So I left.’

D’Arrast is a French engineer. He is driven by a black driver, Socrates, through the jungle of Brazil to Iguape, a remote settlement on the coast. Here the pompous Mayor and drunk Chief of Police make a fuss of this great man, honouring them with his presence, who has come to build a jetty to protect the town from the periodic floods of the vast river. D’Arrast for his part is a man adrift. He nods and shakes hands but his mind is elsewhere. He asks to be taken to the miserably impoverished Negro quarter and into a typically squalid hut.

Socrates introduces him to a black ship’s cook who tells him about the town’s precious stone statue of Jesus which is kept in the Garden of the Fountain. The story goes that one day it floated up the river and was found on the bank. Supposedly you can chip bits off the statue as relics, as good luck charms, and the stone regrows. The ship’s cook was in a ship which sank. He was going to drown and prayed to the stone Jesus, promising he would carry a 100 pound stone on his head in the annual procession, if he was spared. Jesus heard his prayer, the waters were stilled and he was able to swim to shore. Now he is going to carry his weight in the procession which takes place tomorrow. He asks D’Arrast if he ever made a promise, and asks him to help him keep his.

That night D’Arrast meets up with the cook and family, for a meal and then onto the hut where he witnesses, and takes part in, a prolonged pagan ceremony, involving frenzied dancing, howling and barking, supervised by a sorcerer. Although different in detail, it recalls the pagan sex ceremonies witnessed by the demented missionary in The Renegade.

The next morning D’Arrast is taken by the Mayor to watch the official Catholic celebration, consisting of a procession round the town with a statue of Jesus. This is the procession his friend the ship’s cook vowed to accompany bearing a heavy stone on his head. By the latter stages of the procession, though supported by his family, he is staggering. D’Arrast leaves the balcony where the mayor had taken him to run down and be with the cook. Suddenly his ordeal and his promise seem important to the Frenchman. When the stone falls off the cork mat which is protecting the cook’s head and falls to the ground, the Frenchman bends down, puts the mat on his head and the enormous stone on top of it.

And then staggers after the Christian procession into the main square. But he abruptly turns away from the church and heads off towards the poor black quarter he had visited the night before. Despite the yelling of the crowd to turn round he staggers on towards the poor hut of his friend and there throws the stone into the primitive fireplace where it comes to rest in the flickering flames and ashes.

Exhausted, D’Arrast slumps against the wall, and the shattered cook, his brother and the rest of their family join him.

No sound but the murmur of the river reached them through the heavy air. Standing in the darkness, D’Arrast listened without seeing anything, and the sound of the waters filled him with a tumultuous happiness. With eyes closed, he joyfully acclaimed his own strength; he acclaimed, once again, a fresh beginning in life. At that moment, a firecracker went off that seemed very close. The brother moved a little away from the cook and, half turning toward D’Arrast but without looking at him, pointed to the empty place and said: ‘Sit down with us.’

It would appear that in the last few sentences of the last story one, at least, of Camus’s characters does finally overcome their feeling of exile and in some way manages to ‘come home’.


The irrational in Camus

The book’s title and most of the commentary I’ve read about it foreground the cool rational concepts of ‘exile’ and ‘kingdom’, but in fact the stories also contain a lot of the irrational – the two descriptions of frenzied pagan rituals, the demented monologue of the mad missionary, the semi-sexual epiphany of Janine on the parapet of the fortress, even the brutal murder committed by the unnamed Arab in The Guest – all suggest that the book is just as much an exploration of the irrational, the animal and the bestial in human nature as of dry intellectual ideas.

There’s far more of the weird and strange, of the uncanny, in Camus than his critics usually bring out.

The night was full of fresh aromatic scents. Above the forest the few stars in the austral sky, blurred by an invisible haze, were shining dimly. The humid air was heavy. Yet it seemed delightfully cool on coming out of the hut. D’Arrast climbed the slippery slope, staggering like a drunken man in the potholes. The forest, near by, rumbled slightly. The sound of the river increased. The whole continent was emerging from the night, and loathing overcame D’Arrast. It seemed to him that he would have liked to spew forth this whole country, the melancholy of its vast expanses, the glaucous light of its forests, and the nocturnal lapping of its big deserted rivers. This land was too vast, blood and seasons mingled here, and time liquefied. Life here was flush with the soil, and, to identify with it, one had to lie down and sleep for years on the muddy or dried-up ground itself. Yonder, in Europe, there was shame and wrath. Here, exile or solitude, among these listless and convulsive madmen who danced to die.


The translation

Like all the Penguin editions of Camus I’ve read, this one is clumsily translated. The clumsiness is demonstrated in at least two ways: word order and idiom; and the use of subordinate clauses.

As to word order, almost every paragraph contains sentences where the original French word order has been kept and sticks out in English.

By subordinate clauses, I mean that although Camus’s prose is regularly praised for its spare simplicity, the actual texts we have in English are very often characterised by the addition of subordinate clauses which make his sentences long and clunky.

Modern spare prose was pioneered in English by Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s. Rule one is for each sentence to contain only one declarative statement, with one main verb and no subordinate clauses. A quick search of the internet reveals that there is an online Hemingway app. The first thing it does for you is identify long complex sentences in your prose and show how they should be split up into shorter, simpler ones.

At its most characteristic, Camus’s prose is certainly like as simple as his fans describe:

The coffee was ready. They drank it seated together on the folding bed as they munched their pieces of the cake. Then Daru led the Arab under the shed and showed him the faucet where he washed. He went back into the room, folded the blankets and the bed, made his own bed and put the room in order.

But there are also numerous places where the translation literally follows the French way of describing things, including the tendency to dangle subordinate clauses qualifying the object of the sentence. This is contrary to Hemingway rules and also to good English style.

Homeless, cut off from the world, they were a handful [of nomads] wandering over the vast territory she could see, which however was but a paltry part of an even greater expanse whose dizzying course stopped only thousands of miles farther south, where the first river finally waters the forest. (The Adulterous Woman)

This sentence should be split in two after ‘see’, the next sentence starting ‘And this itself was…’

Struck by the change in his voice, D’Arrast looked at the cook, who, leaning forward with fists clenched and eyes staring, was mimicking the others’ measured stamping without moving from his place.

Again, the sentence should end at ‘cook’, and a new sentence start ‘He was leaning forward…’.

Sentences like this give you a continual, slightly uneasy sense that this is not English prose, make you aware that it is a translation from a foreign language with its own rhythms and rules. And from time to time the text crosses a border to become completely alien in style and voice.

She did know that Marcel needed her and that she needed that need, that she lived on it night and day, at night especially – every night, when he didn’t want to be alone, or to age or die, with that set expression he assumed which she occasionally recognized on other men’s faces, the only common expression of those madmen hiding under an appearance of wisdom until the madness seizes them and hurls them desperately toward a woman’s body to bury in it, without desire, everything terrifying that solitude and night reveals to them. (The Adulterous Woman)

Could be simpler, couldn’t it? The paragraph should probably be split up at ‘die’. The next sentence could begin something like: ‘On those occasions he had the set expression which she occasionally…’ To go full Hemingway this second sentence should stop at ‘faces’, the next sentence starting ‘It was the expression common to all those men who gave an appearance of wisdom until…’ But even with these surgical repairs, this sentence is still a mess.

In particular, the French obviously has a habit of qualifying the key noun in a sentence with a subordinate clause which can’t help but break up the flow.

When D’Arrast, his head in the vice of a crushing migraine, had awakened after a bad sleep, a humid heat was weighing upon the town and the still forest.

There is too much going on here. It should be two sentences:

D’Arrast awoke after a bad sleep to find his head in the vice of a crushing migraine. A humid heat was weighing upon the town and the still forest.

Even this could be phrased better, but it’s a start. From this and scores of other examples the reader learns that French obviously allows for, permits or encourages more convoluted sentences than English normally does, sentences made up of two or more clauses whose stitching together often leads to the inversion of traditional English word order. None of the Camus translations I’ve read are without plenty of these blemishes.

If I had my way I’d commission a new edition of Camus, rewriting all the prose to put it into English word order and rhythm, and properly introducing and annotating every text. Both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel are, at an absolute minimum, crying out for proper indexes. It is a scandal that Penguin are still republishing the same badly translated and unannotated editions which are 60, sometimes 70 years old.


Credit

L’Exil et le royaume by Albert Camus was published in France in 1957. This translation of Exile and the Kingdom by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1958. It was republished as a Penguin paperback in 1962. All quotes & references are to the 1974 reprint of this Penguin edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus (1943)

I can’t bear to hear you talking like that, about crime and punishment… (p.105)
[Martha to her mother, Act 3, Le Malentendu]

Apparently, Camus heard the story this play is based on while on a holiday in Czechoslovakia in 1936:

When his father dies a young man, Jan,leaves home to seek his fortune. Years later he returns a rich man determined to surprise his old mother and grown-up sister, Martha, and asks to stay at their wayside inn without telling them who he is (he is so changed in appearance that they don’t recognise him). Little does he know that in the intervening years his mother (reluctantly) and sister (enthusiastically) have adopted the habit of murdering rich travellers who stay with them. Despite umpteen moments when he could have told them who he is, the son continues to conceal his identity and so the women murder him (giving him a sleeping draught in his evening tea, then dumping his comatose body in the river). The next morning, while going through his papers, they discover the truth – that he is their son/brother.

It has the feeling of a folk story, with the grim bitterness of folk wisdom. It certainly makes for a very taut if characteristically diagrammatic play.

In tune with the neo-classicising tendencies of between-the-war France (think the neoclassical works of Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso), Camus tries to give the language the clarity and depth of classical tragedy. The more abstract the action, the more allegorical the story becomes, capable of numerous interpretations. The most obvious interpretation is to see it as a demonstration of the ‘Absurdity’ of the world, and the preposterous vanity of human wishes.

Jan’s wife, Maria, has accompanied her husband on his pilgrimage back to his old home and begs him to reveal who he is, her feminine intuition (and the the genre of tragedy) giving her a premonition that something bad will come of keeping silent. But Jan refuses, he wants to get to know his mother and sister again as they naturally are, before revealing his identity, and – after some feverish dialogue – he sends Maria away before checking into the inn.

Above and beyond the schematic nature of the plot, Camus gives the play a kind of structural symmetry by having the daughter of the house, Martha, and the wife, Maria, mirror each other. Martha is motivated to murder rich men in order to fulfil her dream of being able to leave the rainy country behind and go and live in the hot south by the blue sea. Placed in the diagram opposite her is the young man’s wife, Maria. Martha, in her dialogue with Jan, paints rhapsodic pictures of the hot country by the blue sea where they live and which they have left behind on this fool’s errand – so that Jan can carry out what he thinks of as his duty, and share his money with his mother and sister.

One aspires to travel to – the other has come on pilgrimage from – the unnamed hot country.

Outcome

When Martha reads the passport which reveals that she has just murdered her brother, she doesn’t go wailing hysterical but stands numb. She hands it to her mother who breaks down and vows to kill herself. Martha doesn’t stop her mother as she exits the stage to go and throw herself in the self-same river where they disposed of her son’s body.

Then Maria enters asking where her husband is. There is absolutely no shred of psychology or any human touch in the way Camus has Martha tell Maria point blank: ‘He’s dead. We murdered him.’ She sounds like a robot, and the news gives rise to an entirely predictable outbreak of weeping and wailing on the part of Maria. But this doesn’t result in what you could call any believably human behaviour (like Maria attacking Martha, maybe, or smashing up a few things).

Instead, the pair remain more or less fixed in place and, through tears of anguish, discuss the philosophical issues this dreadful misunderstanding has raised. Well, shout about the philosophical issues.

Crime and punishment

Le Malentendu confirms the sense I’ve been developing that Camus’s over-riding concern is more about Justice, about the contrast between divine and human Justice, the (im)possibility of Justice in a godless universe – than about absurdist existentialism as such.

As in Caligula the terminology of crime and punishment dominate the characters’ dialogue – after all the entire play centres (as does his famous novel, The Outsider) on a murder. It is no accident that Dostoyevsky figures in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, nor that Camus’s last work was a labour of love converting Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils into an elaborate stage production. The more of Camus I read, the more I realise that crime and punishment seen in are his central concerns.

Religion

But they are crime and punishment seen, as in Dostoyevsky, from a religious point of view. Cross Purpose tends to confirm my sense for the centrality of Catholic religion in Camus. On the last page the two women, Martha and her opposite number Maria, reach a crescendo of hysteria, Martha (the murdering sister) yelling at Maria that love is futile and life is pointless, we all end up in the wet mud of the grave eaten by worms:

What do they serve, those blind impulses that surge up in us, the yearnings that rack our souls? Why cry out for the sea, or love? What futility! Your husband knows now what the answer is: that charnel house where in the end we shall lie huddled together, side by side. (p.114)

And she yells in contempt at Maria to pray to her useless God. But despite this atheist harangue, pray to God is just what Maria proceeds to do in the final gesture of the play:

Oh God, I cannot live in this desert! It is on you that I must call, and I shall find the words to say. [She sinks on her knees.] I place myself in your hands. Have pity, turn towards me. Hear me and raise me from the dust, oh Heavenly Father! Have pity on those who love each other and are parted. (p.115)

‘Ayez pitié de moi,’ is the cry at the end of Racine’s searing tragedy, Andromache, but Racine’s characters believed in God. Here the very idea of God, or calling on him, is heavily mocked because Maria’s agonised prayer is, apparently, answered by the old serving man. This figure has been absolutely mute throughout the play, shuffling here and there in silence to tidy up the dishes and so on. Now, as Maria, stricken, on her knees, begs for mercy, the door opens and the old man comes in and -for the first time – speaks:

THE OLD MANSERVANT [in a clear, firm tone]: What’s all this noise? Did you call me?
MARIA [gazing at him]: Oh!… I don’t know. But help me, help me, for I need help. Be kind and say that you will help me.
THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.

These are the last words in the play. I think it is intended to sear your soul with the futility and meaningless of life and to be a really bitter satire on the complete absence of God or divine love from the world – rather the opposite, the ironic presence of mocking humanity. But, as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, I think the modern reader would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing at its preposterously pompous self-importance.

The translation

The translation is, frankly, dire. I can’t imagine it being used on a modern stage; to be remotely usable it would have to be comprehensively rewritten.

Unhappily one needs a great deal of money to be able to live in freedom by the sea. (p.68)

Do please let us take the chance of someone’s coming and my telling who you are. (p.71)

On such occasions one says, ‘It’s I,’ and then it’s all plain sailing… There are situations in which the normal way of acting is obviously the best. If one wants to be recognised, one starts by telling one’s name; that’s common sense. Otherwise, by pretending to be what one is not, one simply muddles everything. (p.72)

I have not been given my rights and I am smarting at the injustice done to me… Let every door be shut against me; all I wish is to be left in peace with my anger, my very rightful anger. (p.108)

Algeria

It is of passing interest that the hot southern land which Martha longs for and which Jan and Maria come from is pretty obviously Algeria. Camus was effectively exiled in mainland France during the Second World War, when he wrote Le Malentendu, and he pined for his hot homeland and also for his wife, who had stayed there to pursue her career as a teacher.

Martha imagines her hot sun-bleached paradise, and Jan describes to her the sound of the waves and the colourful flowers of spring, and his wife Maria laments having to leave the blue skies of home – all of them quite obviously describing Camus’s Algeria,

that southern land, guarded by the sea, to which one can escape, where one can breathe freely, press one’s body to another body, rolling in the waves… (p.108)

But having processed this fact – Algeria = sunny paradise, Europe = rainy prison – it doesn’t really add much to your appreciation of the play except to make it seem even more schematic.

And having recently read Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Camus makes the informed reader notice that in all three characters’ fantasies of this hot country there are no people, certainly no dirty impoverished Arabs to clutter up the scenery. As in L’Etranger and La Peste Algeria is a depopulated allegory of a country rather than a historic place.


Credit

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus was written in 1943 in occupied France, and performed and published in liberated Paris in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Cross Purpose was brought together with CaligulaThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Edward Said on Albert Camus (1994)

A brief introduction to Edward Said

Edward Said was born in 1935 in Palestine. His father was from Palestine, his mother from Lebanon. They were both Christians, not Muslims, so he was already an outsider in a predominantly Muslim part of the world. Said attended British Anglican schools in Jerusalem and Alexandria, which further detached him from the surrounding Muslim culture and Arab language, before being sent to an elite school in Massachusetts. He went on to earn a BA (1957) at Princeton University, and Master of Arts (1960) and Doctor of Philosophy (1964) in English Literature from Harvard University, before joining Columbia University in 1963 as a member of the English and Comparative Literature faculty.

A privileged private education and a prodigious academic ascent.

At Columbia Said taught the classic 19th and 20th century novels – Jane Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Conrad, Graham Greene. His thesis was on Conrad, the novelist of colonial disillusion and pessimism. He produced several works of straight literary criticism which show awareness of the new intellectual winds blowing in from Paris, an awareness of the theories of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on, but all these pale into insignificance before his epoch-making work, Orientalism (1977).

Orientalism examines the little-read works of 19th century ‘orientalists’, men who claimed to be experts on the peoples, the histories, cultures and languages of the Middle East, India and North Africa. The book’s thesis is straightforward – that the writings of all these ‘orientalists’, even the most sophisticated and erudite of them, are soaked in a set of clichés and stereotypes about the native peoples of the places they studied, which helped their European imperialist masters – in most cases Britain or France – to rule them, to dominate them, to subjugate them.

Orientalist discourse portrays ‘the natives’ as lazy, corrupt, decadently sensualist or fanatically religious, as economically or culturally backward – however you cook it, as needing the beneficent intervention and rule of our glorious, civilised, law-bringing empires.

Said reviews the rise and development of ‘orientalism’ as a field of knowledge and shows how riddled it is from top to bottom with offensively racist clichés which allowed the imperialist powers to pursue their aims of control and exploitation with a clear conscience.

Although you can criticise various aspects of the book (and many critics did, very fiercely) there is no denying that it opened minds to a completely new way of seeing European culture – from the outside, as an instrument of domination and control – and that this radical new perspective led quickly to the birth of a new discipline, ‘post-colonial studies’.

The book caused much controversy, especially among contemporary experts on ‘the Orient’ (mostly meaning the Middle East) who felt insulted and undermined. Said defended his thesis in journals and in the media, his TV and radio appearances raising his profile.

His public profile went up further when he began to get involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1967 War onwards, assenting to Israel’s existence but calling for equal recognition of the rights of Palestinians, including the right to their own territory and the right for the large Palestinian diaspora to return home. His ongoing involvement with Palestinian politics, to the extent of becoming a member of the Palestinian National Council, ensured his position as a leading public intellectual, frequently subject to furious criticism.

Anyway, back to his books, Said followed up Orientalism with Culture and Imperialism (1993). This was based on lectures he gave applying the insights of Orientalism to specific authors from the canon of 19th and 20th century literature, including Jane Austen (with her famously casual mention of Caribbean sugar plantations in Mansfield Park), Dickens (the role of Australia as the destination for Mr Micawber at the end of David Copperfield and as the site of Magwitch’s reformation in Great Expectations), Conrad’s florid depictions of colonial despair in his Far Eastern novels and, especially Heart of Darkness.

And there is a chapter about Albert Camus.

Albert Camus

Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria to European parents. His father died when he was small and he grew up in great poverty in a suburb of Algeria, mostly looked after by his strict grandmother while his mother went out to work. He showed intellectual precocity and studied philosophy at Algiers university. There he will have been exposed to the latest European thinking of the early and mid-1930s which was uniformly pessimistic, typified by Spengler’s masterpiece The Decline of the West (1922) and the grim existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, summed up in Being and Time (1927).

But unlike most writers and philosophers, Camus was a very physical being. He was good looking and fit, played football professionally, swam in the Mediterranean and had many girlfriends.

This dichotomy, between physical activity, sunbathing and swimming – Joyful and happy – and thinking – Negative and troubled – comes across powerfully in his early essays such as Summer in Algiers and underpins a lot of his ‘philosophy’.

In The Myth of Sisyphus (if I understand it correctly) the thinking mind is afflicted by the absurd disconnect between the human wish for order and meaning in the universe and the distressing absence of that order and meaning in the universe as we experience it. The anguish of feeling disconnected, ‘abandoned’ in a ‘godless universe’ is so distressing it leads some people to contemplate suicide, which is the subject of the essay.

But Camus revolts against this option, because it destroys one half of the absurd proposition Man + World. It is an absurd solution to an absurd predicament. Absurd man is saved from despair by his revolt against his situation:

Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.

‘Passion’. Maybe I’m over-simplifying but it seems to me that Camus had to struggle all his life just to allow the joyous physicality of existence to triumph. I feel like I’ve experienced the same kind of struggle between being a bookish depressive appalled by the history of our species, and a guy who likes to go running, swimming, cycling and walking. Maybe lots of bookish people feel the same. Although his terminology and his prose style are often impenetrable, I think it is centrality of this common dichotomy, and Camus’s passionate defence of Life, despite all the arguments to the contrary, which made him so popular in his day and such an enduring figure.

Said on Camus

Pages 204 to 224 of Culture and Imperialism are devoted to a study of Camus. It opens with a brief recap of the way the French Empire expanded exponentially after the French defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War – overseas conquest against technologically backward countries compensating for their humiliating defeat to the all-powerful Germans. This huge expansion (between 1880 and 1895 French colonial territory shot up from 1 to 9 million square kilometers, p.205) was accompanied by an explosion of new writing, not only factual descriptions of the new colonial acquisitions – mainly in Africa – but also expanding and justifying France’s vision of itself as a uniquely privileged exporter of civilisation and culture – what came to be known as its mission civilisatrice.

The essay takes the history of the Algerian town which the French named Bône as an example, a settlement which the French expropriated from the native Algerians and where they recreated French architecture, law and culture. And then Said points out that Camus was born to immigrant European parents in the small settlement of Miondovi, just outside Bône.

Said starts his critique by quoting from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s long essay about Camus, written for the old Modern Masters series back in 1970. O’Brien critiques aspects of Camus’s writings but nonetheless praises Camus for his achievement in depicting ‘Western consciousness’, for being the most representative intellectual of his day, in his troubled quest to establish and preserve humanist values in the unfavourable circumstances of the Cold War.

Said criticises O’Brien, and by implication all other fans of Camus, for precisely this evaluation, claiming that making him a universal representative of the Western intellectual effectively erases the profound and vital Algerian roots of his writings.

Let’s look at the novels in terms of their Algerian setting. Of Camus’ three novels – The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956) – the third one is immediately excluded because it is about a Paris lawyer now living in Amsterdam. It was published two years after the Algerian War of Independence began (November 1954) and so Algeria was no longer available as a neutral backdrop for a fable about human consciousness.

This simple fact already sheds light on the other two novels – it brings out how the Algeria of their setting (Algiers and nearby villages in The Outsider, Algeria’s second city, Oran, in The Plague) is prior to the war of independence. Camus’s Algeria is a blank canvas, a neutral backdrop against which the European heroes act out their allegorical stories.

Only three Arabs appear in The Outsider, none of them are named or speak, and the role of the central one (the brother of an Arab woman who is regularly beaten up by the protagonist’s friend, Raymond, and who seeks to avenge her) is to be shot dead on a sunlit beach by the novel’s anti-hero, Mersault.

It requires little effort for even the casual reader to see that the Arabs are merely the toys or mannequins or wordless puppets which exist solely to provide fodder for the adventure and agonised musings of the central, European figure.

Likewise there are no named Arabs in The Plague. It is a novel entirely about Europeans. The majority of deaths from plague in The Plague must, logically, be the deaths of Arabs, since they made up nine tenths of the population of Algeria and of Oran, the city where the story is set – but there is no sense of this in the novel, no sense, for example, that the Algerians might have had different cultural and religious ceremonies and traditions surrounding their Muslim dead.

To be harsh: in Camus’s two most famous novels, nameless faceless Arabs have to die in order for Europeans to have fancy philosophical reflections.

So you don’t have to be a genius to see that Camus’ reputation as an embodiment of ‘Western consciousness’ can be regarded – when seen through a post-colonial lens – as more of an indictment than a tribute, in that this wonderful ‘Western consciousness’ is in fact the consciousness produced by, and which benefits from, wide-ranging and brutal imperial exploitation.

The accusation is that Camus’s fictions erase the identity, and even the presence, of colonised native people. Seen from this harsh perspective, far from promoting a universal anything, Camus’s fictions – no matter how troubled and questioning they may appear to be – in actual fact, by virtue of their assumptions and subject matter, continue the racist, colonial project of imperial France.

This is despite the fact that Camus himself, when working as a journalist before the war, produced powerful and well-researched reports on the miserable poverty of many Algerians which he regarded as a direct result of imperial exploitation. He may well have done; but in the fictions – which is all that anyone reads – Camus is, despite his best intentions, an accomplice.

Said’s prose style

Said’s aim is admirable, it is a shame that his prose is so wordy and pretentious.

What I want to do is to see Camus’s fiction as an element in France’s methodically constructed political geography of Algeria, which took many generations to complete, the better to see it as providing an arresting account of the political and interpretative contest to represent, inhabit, and possess the territory itself. (p.213)

To resituate L’Etranger in the geographical nexus from which its narrative trajectory emerges is to interpret it as a heightened form of historical experience. (p.224)

Culture and Imperialism is mostly made up of this kind of bombastic grandiloquence which often produces relatively little insight. Said’s prose preens and grandstands. Also, he spends a lot of time promising detailed close readings of the texts which he then often fails to deliver. Both these characteristics quickly become pretty irritating. Nonetheless, just pondering the colonial position of Camus for the time it takes to read these twenty pages, prompts powerful reflections.

My overall conclusion on Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, both of which I’ve read in their entirety – is that the bombastic style routinely fails to deliver the kind of nuanced text-based insight it promises – but that, despite the pretentious literary-critical style, Said’s thorough-going post-colonial approach is a revelation, a real eye-opener, and prompts a complete re-appraisal of everything you thought you knew about the literature of the European imperial powers.

Paralysis

Sometimes Said’s contorted prose style throws up unexpected phrases which strike a chord.

I was struck by Said’s phrase that Camus’s was an ‘incapacitated colonial sensibility’ (p.213). That notion of ‘incapacity’ is fruitful. As I mentioned above, from his earliest essays Camus appears to be stricken, caught, torn between the healthy outdoor joys of the body which are continually ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (Hamlet), by the bleak indoor climate of 1930s philosophy and intellectual enquiry to which he was also passionately attached.

It adds an extra dimension to Camus’s essays and novels if we overlay this body-mind dichotomy with the additional idea of a late-imperial guilty conscience. Camus wants simple pleasures – he wants life to be simple – but it isn’t because Algeria is a colonised country, the great majority of its population are downtrodden and exploited. How can you not feel guilty living there and seeing the poor and exploited every day? How can you join in the great European debates about ‘freedom’ and ‘being’ and ‘communism’ and all the rest of it, while you pick your way between the ragged street beggars or avert your gaze from the Arab Quarter, the squalid lanes of the Casbah?

On this reading, the paralysis of his characters – trapped under the pitiless sun like Mersault, or imprisoned inside the quarantined city of Oran – reflects not only the overt issues of exile and rebellion, but also the ideological dead-end of French colonialism, which fully understands its time is up, that it has no future repressing an entire people, but simply can’t conceive the possibility of handing over power to the natives and thus abandoning the hard work of a century of colonising effort. The French colonial mind is trapped, stuck, paralysed, stricken, incapacitated.

The plight of Camus’s fictional characters may well be the plight of stricken 1930s intellectuals – but, seen from Said’s perspective, it is also the plight of last-gasp late-colonialism.

On this reading, absolutely everything Camus wrote is compromised, holed beneath the waterline, by his unwilling, reluctant, and barely acknowledged acquiescence in French imperialism. The recurrent longing for union with the sun, the sea, the desert, is an impossible longing by the writer to be free of French colonial history and commune directly with the Algerian landscape, for a moment forgetting that it is a landscape made safe for Europeans to have great philosophical epiphanies in as a result of 100 years of expropriation, land clearing, and forced resettlement of its original peoples. It is a longing to forget that guilt.

Said analyses a story from Camus’s late collection Exile and the Kingdom to bring out how all but one of these late stories are nostalgic for a simpler, less conflicted world, in that they are about French people seeking ‘to achieve a moment of rest, idyllic detachment, poetic self-realisation’.

These are not stories about existentialist man (and woman). They are stories about late-imperial men and women, seeking a peace and harmony with their colonial setting which is ultimately impossible, an impossible dream.

The literary critic Roland Barthes described Camus’s prose as écriture blanche, which translates as ‘white writing’, but also has overtones of blank or empty writing. Said’s post-colonial perspective helps us see that the tone of The Outsider is not just blank because the lead character is almost psychotically disconnected from society and his own life (the obvious interpretation) – but because the entire narrative blanks out the native population, the colonial setting, France’s imperial presence. What makes the novel so blank and empty is the complete absence of the violent history and oppressive imperial structure in which it operates.

Camus and the Algerian War of Independence

After the war of independence broke in 1954 out Camus found himself in an impossible position. His entire childhood, his identity and that of his poverty-stricken mother and all the friends he had seen around him struggling to survive, were all entirely derived from their setting in Algeria. He couldn’t tear his entire personal and social history out of his identity. And so the great defender of humane liberal values found himself attacking the Algerian freedom fighters and opposing the war for independence. Camus went back to Algeria (from Paris where he’d lived since 1945) and tried to set up a movement for peace, to organise local truces to end the appalling bloodshed on both sides, but these all failed.

It was a war of extremes and Camus’s well-meaning liberalism was a drop in the ocean, a drop of dew which evaporated without trace in the fierce Algerian sun. It is no accident that in his last few years he turned from either political essays or novels back to his first love of the theatre, for the most part writing dramatisations of other people’s novels (winning prizes for his stage adaptations of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky). The blank unpeopled background of Algeria which underpinned his most famous works was no longer available.

Camus’s tragic death in a car crash in 1960 aged just 46 has a poetic justice about it. His identity had been torn apart, his ability to write the nativeless allegories set in his homeland had been removed. As a late-colonial writer, the death of his colonial setting signified his own writerly – and then literal – death.

To summarise in a sentence: whenever you read anyone saying that Camus’s writing in some way addresses ‘the human condition’, Said’s wordy but invaluable contribution is to force you to add that Camus’s writing just as much or more, and whether he wanted it to or not, reflects the late-imperial, colonial condition.


Credit

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said was published in Britain by Chatto and Windus in 1993. All quotes & references are to the 1994 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

The Algerian war of independence

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (p.63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence) which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims, and comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city. The plague just gets worse and worse with Rieux reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary ideas derived from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these come into contact with Dr Rieux, acquaintances who he treats or friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon, Jacques. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t let off till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, but Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this very believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself the Narrator, who explains how he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age, it is he who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s flail or scourge swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. He offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There follow inevitable are dialogues between Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in conversation with Rieux and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. it is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which the narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of tertiary characters like Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates through existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned harpy of Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the injustice of bourgeois society, which stood up for the workers and the humiliated everywhere. But he found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders claimed were necessary to overthrow the regime which carried out executions. Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying all chime perfectly. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois legal world of his father, he has equally walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register of this text – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. A saint without God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He is a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague strikes. When the city is closed he finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers. This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another and primed to be smuggled out of a gate by ‘friendly’ guards only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches. It is the presumably deliberate opposite of Hollywood exciting. Somewhere the narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion is contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-struck Oran, he’s realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the issues of Camus’s time, or of larger issues of justice and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic version of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, he uses his skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by the narrator as precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which the narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them when Grand calls Rieux to tell him he’s found Cottard just as he was hanging himself. They save and restore him. From that point on Cottard is shifty and evades police and the authorities since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in he becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises it is bubonic plague quicker than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally introduced, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague which ultimately declines because it has just worn itself out.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children round town. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a victim he is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising them like this makes it clearer than when actually reading it, how schematic the characters are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity. Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types.

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, is set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist.

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever, pain, the last-minute falling off of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto.

Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus is not a philosopher – although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to the same level as Sartre who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s tribe – and Camus himself is ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus is a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe. ‘Exile’ is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging. He uses the word ‘hope’ to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his other ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’. The medical aspect is medieval. We read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter at around 100 pages each. The Plague is the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The revelation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is arguably more important that the ideas around the Absurd
  3. The horrible long-winded style which makes stretches of it almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post).

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18 year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England where the Church of England is run by nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics. The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God. Politically, the Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free to make your own set of values and decisions derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

A lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something – and now it is lost. In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or exiled by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse. Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals without bursting into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of facts about the world we live, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

All this is prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly existential or atheist worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology. This plucky godlessness only really has meaning be reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. They can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of throats, some foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc — it’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before they can get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity or what have you.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace, before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus. The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his own life and actions – but where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text infested with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are some passages about the Absurd but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. Notions of the law are inextricable interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice. And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and now have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wondered why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and be a member of the Resistance. That would be of huge historic importance and also directly tie his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful. Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels mention the war, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all, with their predominating idea of the injustice of the world.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything, a transparent reference to The Trial.)

Statistical evidence

Because the entire translated text is available online, you can do a word search, with the following results which tend to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

So there is surprisingly little direct reference to the main concepts which made him famous. Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more expressed and discussed.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’. This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from belief systems which give our lives purpose. But it is typical of Camus that it isn’t a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing (p.62)

Part one

Mersault is a young French man, born and bred in Algeria, living and working in the capital Algiers. He is directionless, aimless, never really knows what to say to people, goes along with whatever people suggest. His mother’s been living in a home for over a year and the story opens as Mersault receives news of her death. He doesn’t know which day she actually died on, the telegram could have been delayed a day or two. Doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. He never used to visit her. It would have been too much bother.

Mersault catches a bus out to the village of Marengo and walks to the home to attend a night-long vigil and then the funeral, all of which he finds a chore. When they ask him if he wants a last look at his mother before they put the coffin lid on he says no. They look at him. He realises it was a mistake. The home and church officials talk to him but he hesitates, says whatever comes into his mind and generally makes a bad impression. When asked, he guiltily realises that he doesn’t know how old she was. He looks out the window and thinks what a nice walk he could have had, if only his mother hadn’t gone and died.

Back in Algeria his boss commiserates with him but Mersault, typically, doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Once or twice he lets slip his real feelings which is that he doesn’t feel anything but this goes down badly so he errs on the side of keeping his mouth shut. We meet his neighbours in his shabby tenement block (he can hear his neighbours through the walls), notably the old guy, Salamano, who walks his mangy mutt every day, and spends all his energy shouting and abusing it, until one day it runs off never to return.

Mersault observes the street life of his quarter of Algiers, the hot sun climbing the sky, the shop shutters opening, a bourgeois family going to church. Later, in the evenings, he observes the lads, the local ‘bloods’, coming back from the cinema, eyeing a gaggle of girls on the corner. All very laid back and evocative.

Mersault himself has picked up a girlfriend he meets casually at the beach, Marie Cardona who used to be a typist at his office. There are long sensual descriptions of swimming at the public pool or at a secluded bay. On the beach, in the cinema he touches her breast. They kiss. They go back to his flat and make love. Sunday follows Sunday in this lazy sensual way. When she asks him whether he loves her, he shrugs: probably not. She asks if he wants to get married. OK. Why not? He has no idea how much his indifference hurts her. Doesn’t care, either.

Also in his block is a loud young man, Raymond Sintès, who the neighbours often hear beating up his Arab girlfriend. Local rumour has it he’s a pimp, though he denies it. Mersault, drifting as usual, finds himself getting to know Raymond. He listens passively to Raymond’s harrowing description of how he routinely beats up his girl. In fact he’s recently been in a fight with the girl’s Arab brother. Mersault nods vague approval.

This is enough for rough Raymond to think Mersault is his friend and he asks Mersault to write a letter to the girlfriend, asking her to come to Raymond’s flat so they can make up. Them he explains, he’ll get her sexually aroused, begin to make love to her – and spit in her face.

Mersault can’t see any reason not to. A few days later, after the unfortunate girl does come back to Raymond’s flat, he beats her up, the cops are called, Mersault even allows himself to accompany Raymond to the police station to testify that it was the girlfriend’s fault, that Raymond caught her cheating on him. He doesn’t know whether this is true, it’s just Raymond asked him to help out and, you know, why not.

Thinking Mersault is now his pal, Raymond invites Mersault and Marie out to the house of a friend of his, Masson, on the coast. As they leave the apartment building to head for the bus station, Raymond points out a couple of Arabs watching from across the street: it’s the brother of the woman he beat up, and a mate.

Out at Masson’s place, they swim. They cook. They drink and chat. Raymond flirts with Marie who is uncomfortable but Mersault doesn’t really care. They have a massive lunch, fried fish then steak and chips with lots of wine, till they’re all pretty tipsy.

The menfolk decide to go for a stroll. They notice they’re being followed by the brother and his mate. Suddenly there’s a confrontation. Masson beats up the mate while Raymond takes on the brother. The latter pulls a knife and cuts Raymond badly on the arm and lip but the Europeans manage to fight them off. Masson and Mersault help Raymond back to the beach cottage and Masson recommends a doctor who always spends his Sundays out there, so he takes Raymond off to get patched up. A hour later he reappears, stitched up and in a bad mood. He insists he wants to go for another walk, the others discourage him, he gets cross and sets off with Mersault following.

Inevitably they come across the Arabs, again, tending their wounds by a stream across the beach. Raymond is now packing a gun, a revolver. He asks Mersault whether he should plug the Arabs and Mersault finds himself saying the first thing which comes into his head which is – Not unless they strike first. ‘Here, let me take the gun,’ Mersault says, and Raymond passes it over. All four actors stare at each other, turned to stone under the pitiless sun.

Then the Arabs have gone, ‘like lizards’ disappearing into the rocks. The spell is broken and Raymond and Mersault return to the cottage, Raymond swaggering and happy. As they climb the steps Mersault decides, on a whim to go back along the beach. The sun is pressing on his skull. He’s vaguely thinking of the shade under the rock and the tinkling stream. But the Arab is there, the brother, lounging by the little stream. They look at each other. Mersault walks closer. The Arab pulls a knife and there is a still moment while he holds it up, glinting in the fierce sunlight. Mersault fires the gun. Pauses. Then fires four more shots.

Part two

He’s in prison, charged with murder. Mersault is held on remand for an interminable 11 months during which he carries on feeling nothing whatsoever, either about his plight or his responsibility, while he is interrogated by the magistrate, discusses the case with his lawyer, goes to trial and slowly rumbles along the conveyor belt of the Law.

The magistrate reveals that he is a devout Catholic and claims that if only Mersault will acknowledge God and throw himself on the mercy of the Lord etc will he experience forgiveness and be relieved of his guilt. But Mersault feels no guilt. He doesn’t know what the magistrate’s on about. Instead of regret and guilt Mersault appals the magistrate by saying he feels, on reflection, ‘a kind of vexation’ (p.74). From then on the magistrate humorously refers to Mersault as ‘Mr Antichrist’.

Killing a man has made no difference at all to Mersault. Marie comes to visit him but he can’t get very worked up. She’s in floods of tears, and says they’ll fight for his freedom and when he gets out they’ll get married. Oh. Alright, he shrugs, in his usual listless way.

When the trial finally comes round Mersault discovers that everything he did and said in since his mother’s death (and which we saw being carefully annotated in part one of the book) has been collected up and is now being thrown in his face and used against him. His lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral is reported as ‘great callousness’ (p.68). His listless replies to the people at the Home or at the funeral or to his boss incriminate him. Marie is made to admit that they started their liaison the day after the funeral, swimming on the beach and going to a comic movie. In the hands of the prosecution all this goes to demonstrate that Mersault is:

an inhuman monster wholly without moral sense. (p.97)

His lack of concern for his girlfriend is brought up. Even the way he fired once and then paused before firing a further four times. We know this is all the result of Mersault’s profoundly hollow lack of emotion, of affect or personality – but to the prosecuting lawyer it can all be built up into the image of a cold calculating killer.

The text reports the apparatus of the court and the palaver with the barristers for the prosecution and defence but Mersault, typically, zones in and out of their arguments and the development of the trial.

Finally, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by a judge who finds him repellent, cold murderer.

In the last few pages there’s a set piece scene between Mersault and a priest who comes to try and persuade him to repent and have faith in God. This strikes me as unimaginative, a cliché of this kind of meaning-of-life novel stretching back to the vast arid wastes of Dostoyevsky’s obsession with religion. The priests’ persistence in trying to get Mersault repent finally drives him to his only display of emotion in the book, when he grabs the priest’s collar, shaking him, and shouting what right has he got to impose his lifeless creed on Mersault? Mersault’s destiny is what it is, when he’s dead that’ll be it, done, over.

Guards come and release the priest. Mersault collapses on  his bed exhausted and drifts into sleep. When he awakes it is the middle of the night and he can see the stars shining out of a pitch black sky. He knows in the morning he will die. But suddenly he feels cleansed and free.

For the first time, the first time, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. (p.120)

He realises that he is happy.


Commentary

Contemporary critics went mad for this book. It caught the mood of the times and made Camus a literary phenomenon.

  • It chimes with the tough guy films noirs coming out of America at the time (This Gun For Hire, Journey into Fear, The Glass Key), with their brutal but highly stylish violence. I visualised the scene where Marie visits Mersault in prison and has to struggle to make herself heard among the other prisoner-visitor conversations, in black and white, out of a James Cagney movie.
  • It chimes with something fatal about the Second World War, about the Nazi occupation of France and the undermining of French Enlightenment values, the end – possibly – of European civilisation.
  • It seems to say something about our post-Christian age and confirm Dostoyevsky’s worst fears – if there is no God, everything is permitted; Mersault kills with no guilt whatsoever.
  • For others Mersault is a symbol of the mindless superiority complex of European colonialism – a hollow shell himself, he doesn’t give a damn about the Arab woman getting beaten up or about murdering the Other, the Arab, the colonised. None of the Arabs are given names or even speak.
  • Or Mersault is a type of the rootless young European male, no values, no role models, living a casual empty life, a type of the tough or hoodlum threatening society, a precursor to the rebellious rockers of the 1950s.
  • To the Communists Mersault is the type of the rootless petit bourgeois, obsessed with his own petty affairs, whose life is meaningless and aimless – he needs to find solidarity with the working classes and join himself to the Forward March of History by joining the Communist Party.
  • To yet others, Mersault is like the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, an everyman figure who is caught up in a terrifying web of misunderstandings, whose life takes a turn for the worse through no fault of his own.
  • The long trial scene is enough to put anyone off getting involved in the Law, especially criminal law where barristers are paid to twist the truth out of all recognition in order to get a result
  • To the philosophically-minded, Mersault is an epitome of Camus’s own philosophy of ‘the Absurd’ as outlined in The Myth of Sisyphus: the lumbering mechanism of the rational, common sense Law can’t hope to capture the intensity, the weirdness, the irrationality of human nature.
  • To feminists The Outsider is a typical patriarchal story of men fighting over the body of a woman who isn’t even named – all three women in the story – his mother, Marie, the unnamed Arab woman – are victims of male indifference or violence.
  • To literary types Mersault’s central defining act is like the acte gratuit idea of André Gide – the notion that life is empty and meaningless and that we must rebel against its emptiness with one great decisive irrevocable act, which has no meaning in itself but represents our protest against meaningless existence.
  • To other commentators Mersault is a representative of ‘Mediterranean Man’, a kind of throwback to pagan times, untroubled by Christian conscience or guilt, he lives in a permanent present of the senses, a kind of post-Christian hero.
  • To yet others the protagonist of the story isn’t the man Mersault at all, it is the pitiless landscape of Algeria with its blistering heat and inhuman craggy landscape. Arguably, the ‘scorching hot’ sun is as much a character in the book as any human.

The light was almost vertical and the glare from the water seared one’s eyes. (0.58)

The sand was as hot as fire and i could have sworn it was glowing red. (p.59)

It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea. (p.60)

  • Rereading it carefully, it struck me that Mersault is an uneducated, working class man living in a pretty rough milieu. Surprisingly, he admits that he was once a student but, more true to form, says that when he was forced to give up his studies he realised ‘all that’ i.e. studying, was pretty futile anyway (p.48). He gets on just fine with the violent bullying abuser Raymond, Marie is a callow typist, his mate Emmanuel often doesn’t understand what’s going on at the cinema. Noscitur a socio. I think Mersault is rougher, chavvier, than is often realised. This is certainly the impression the prosecution lawyer seeks to give, that Mersault is part of a squalid low-life vendetta.
  • The final chapter, with its protagonist crying out against the ‘brutal certitude’ of his execution could easily be taken for a tract against the death penalty which was only abolished, in France, in 1981.
  • There’s even a theory that Mersault is on the autistic spectrum, possibly with Asperger’s Syndrome: incapable of making out other people, lacking the ability to know what is required in pretty much every social situation he finds himself in. Which also explains why he sees things in such uncomfortable detail – the blobby red ears of an old man, the sopping wet hand towel at work – while not having a clue what to say to people. An indication of this comes late on when we learn that he hasn’t looked once at Marie who has come day after day to support him through the trial. And when he does, for the once and only time, look at her and she smiles wanly and gives him a little wave – his face doesn’t flicker. He neither waves nor smiles back. Heart of stone.

I could go on.

What strikes me rereading The Outsider today is that the descriptions of lazy swimming in the sun are not quite as good as I remembered. I prefer Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of swimming off the Riviera in The Sun Also Rises. I liked the scene where he watches from his balcony a gang of young men sauntering along the boulevard, backchatting with young women – I feel I’ve seen that scene hundreds of times.

I’ve just read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. What bursts from Sartre’s texts is their enormous super-abundance of hyper-sensitive self-awareness, a prolific stream of profuse and varied perceptions, characters bursting with ideas about ‘existence’ and ‘freedom’, sensations turning into ideas, ideas turning into feelings, freedom and anguish mingled with night and the cold snow, a bombardment of ideas and concepts.

Camus’s novel, by contrast, feels empty. The hollow shell which is the central character goes about his life, barely involved in it, certainly not thinking anything, finding himself in situations with other people rather than creating them, and always taking the easy way, out, saying whatever first comes to mind. He is not even stupid, he’s just not there.

  • I just nodded to cut things short. I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
  • I had nothing to say and the silence lasted quite a while.
  • After that I don’t remember much. Somehow the night went by.
  • I nodded… I made no comment… I had no objection… I just listened without speaking… I didn’t say anything… I kept silence… I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I told him I hadn’t expected anything whatsoever… I told him I had no objection…
  • really I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I found him rather boring but I had nothing to do…
  • I said the first thing that came into my head…
  • I said the first thing that crossed my mind…
  • I found that my mind had gone blurred: everything was dissolving into a greyish, watery haze…
  • I had stopped thinking altogether…

As he says, with deliberate downbeat irony, ‘Imagination has never been one of my strong points’ (p.111).

It is a portrait of vacancy. And that’s why so many different critics and interest groups were able to fill the novel up with their own interpretations. It is an empty vessel, a mirror.

Algeria

The Algerian War of Independence broke out in 1954 but there had been violent incidents of rebellion and harsh repression immediately following the end of the Second World War. Knowledge of this later  history sheds a harsh historical light back on Camus’s novels set in Algeria. His people, the pieds noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, would eventually be forced to flee into exile back in France, all one million of them.

At the time of its publication the book was most widely read as an epitome of ‘existential man’, confronting the meaninglessness of existence on a rocky coastline stripped of all colour and help. Seventy years later it is hard not to read it, at least in part, as a record of the hollow, heedless, empty-headed arrogance of French colonial culture… whose days were numbered.


Credit

L’Étranger by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1946, and as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 60p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne (1977)

The Algerian War was the long brutal conflict between the National Liberation Front (the Front de Libération Nationale or F.L.N.) fighting for Algerian independence from the French Empire, and the French Army tasked with repressing it.

The war lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic and eventually forced General de Gaulle out of retirement to become President in 1958, solely in order to sort out a peace deal. As the violence committed by both the FLN and the army increased, as international opinion turned against the French, and as the Soviet bloc became friendlier with the Algerian revolutionaries, de Gaulle found himself reluctantly pushed towards the only logical solution – that France withdrew and granted Algeria its independence.

This was so unpopular among the 500,000 or so troops which France had by this time deployed to Algeria, and who had been fighting and dying in often inhospitable environments (the arid desert, the freezing mountains) that it prompted a military coup by the generals in Algeria. This collapsed in just four days, but the rebellion helped bring together a number of mid-ranking soldiers and psychopaths into an anti-de Gaulle, anti-independence paramilitary which called itself the Organisation armée secrète or O.A.S.

These (and other freelancers) planned and attempted some thirty (!) assassination attempts against de Gaulle as well as an escalating campaign of murder and terrorist outrages against liberal French in Algeria, against writers and thinkers in Paris (they bombed Jean-Paul Sartre’s flat and the homes of newspaper editors) as well as attacking Muslim bars, shops, schools, colleges and so on. IN February 1962 they killed over 550 people. The F.L.N. responded with their own tit-for-tat terrorist outrages. In March F.L.N. activists broke into the home of a pied noir nightwatchman, disembowelled his wife and smashed the heads of his two children, aged 5 and 6, against the wall (p.526). This book is packed with stories like that. Every day in Algiers was marked by the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1962 secret talks began between de Gaulle’s emissaries and F.L.N. representatives at a secret location in the Swiss border. Horne’s book – brilliant in every aspect – shows how right down to the wire the F.L.N. representatives refused to budge on the purity of their demands for complete independence and control of all Algeria’s territory (shrugging aside attempts by France to hang on to her naval bases or the vast areas of the Sahara to the south of the Atlas mountains where, ironically, in the last few years of French rule vast reserves of oil and even more of natural gas had been discovered). A peace treaty granting Algeria independence was signed in March 1962.

Brutality

Official French figures tally up to about 300,000 Algerians who lost their lives in the fighting, but even more in the terrorism and as victims of the extensive intra-Muslim fighting and vendettas. The Algerian state settled on the round number of one million Muslims and sticks to it to this day.

The F.L.N. used terrorist tactics, planting bombs, using drive-by shootings and chucking hand grenades into European cafes, bars etc, but mostly they set themselves to murder Algerians who had sold out to the French authorities e.g. native village constables and local caids, cutting off noses or lips as a first warning, slitting the throats of any ‘traitors’ who remained loyal to the French regime. The French efforts became steadily more indiscriminate, arresting all political suspects in the towns, bombing entire villages and, at the scenes of brutal murders of Europeans, running wild and shooting every Muslim in sight. All of which, of course, helped recruitment to the rebels.

Both sides used torture although the F.L.N. routinely used barbaric bloodthirstiness: on August 20, 1955 about 80 guerrillas descended on the town of Philippeville and went from house to house massacring all Europeans. Mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies cut open by bill-hooks, babies had their brains beaten out against the walls. One women had her belly cut open and the corpse of her young baby – cut to ribbons by knives – stuffed back inside her (p.121). When French paratroopers arrived on the scene some hours later they went mad and machine gunned every Muslim in sight.

In this respect F.L.N. tactics worked: the native population was terrorised into abandoning the French and giving the guerrillas help; the atrocities sparked the French into harsh reprisals which further alienated both peasant and educated opinion. The F.L.N. strategy was to militarise the conflict and the whole country, and it worked.

The advent of the O.A.S. in the final period of the war raised the levels of wanton brutality to revolting new heights, as French fanatical right-wingers launched attacks in mainland France and in Paris. The French Secret Service attempts to penetrate the O.A.S. were eventually successful in rounding up the O.A.S. leaders but, ironically, this only increased the level of murder and terrorism because the psychopathic ordinary members were now headless and unchecked.

In another level of irony (and what is history except irony written in blood), Horne shows how the O.A.S. – fighting to keep Algeria French – probably did more than any other group to ensure Algeria became independent.

Their aim was to create such chaos that it would lead to the overthrow of de Gaulle the traitor and then… and then… something good would happen (like the coup plotters, they had no grasp of politics). But their way to achieve this chaos was through random outrages, mostly against moderate and educated Muslims – and this had the effect, in the final year of the conflict, of driving a huge wedge between the communities. And this had toe effect of destroying forever any hope that the pieds noirs would be able to live side-by-side in harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

Divisions on both sides

War suggests two monolithic sides, but in fact both ‘sides’ were deeply divided and riven by factions. Ever since the French Revolution back in the 1790s, the French political nation has been bitterly divided between a revolutionary Left and an authoritarian Catholic Right, with all kinds of ineffective liberals ranged in between. After the Second World War, France also had to contend with a large and powerful Stalinist Communist Party. This contributed to the chronic problem with French politics – its instability: there were no fewer than 21 different governments between 1945 and 1958! It was, thus, very difficult for ‘the French’ to formulate and stick to one policy.

On the other side, Horne explains the political situation at the start of the war among the Algerians: there was a communist party, a Muslim fundamentalist party, and a Liberal party representing the so-called évolués i.e. educated Algerians who were progressing along the state-approved path towards full ‘French-hood’.

All of these found themselves outflanked and outmoded by the violence and determination of the F.L.N. But there were also big divisions ethnically and culturally among the Algerians, and within the F.L.N. itself. For a start there were gulfs between the minority of urban, educated, literate Algerians and the majority of the nine million population which were illiterate peasants. Also between ethnic groups in Algeria, for a large percentage of the population were (and are) Kabyle, descended from the original Berber tribal occupants of the country who had their own language, culture and traditions and not all of whom were Muslim. Horne shows how the Kabyle-Arab divide was a permanent problem of the F.L.N. leadership and on the ground led to some appalling massacres perpetrated by each side.

A glaring example was the Massacre of Melouza, in late May early June, 1957, when FLN rebels massacred 300 Muslim inhabitants of the Melouza village because they supported the rival rebel group M.N.A. To be precise the F.L.N. rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, herded them into houses and the mosque and slaughtered them like animals with rifles, pick axes and knives (p.221).

There was also a long-burning division between the ‘insiders’, who stayed in the country to lead the armed struggle, and a cohort of ‘outsiders’ who a) acted as ambassadors, seeking political and financial support from other Arab states – especially Nasser’s nationalist Egypt and b) worked tirelessly at the United Nations in New York to lobby the Cold War blocs and the rising non-aligned movement to support the struggle.

As in every other aspect of this masterful book, Horne gives a thorough and insightful account of the changing personnel, changing relationships and evolving success of each of these factions.

Obstacles to a settlement

The successive French governments had a dual prong strategy: to completely suppress the armed revolt through military means, while simultaneously implementing ‘reforms’ to try and win over the majority of the population. These were stymied for a number of reasons.

  1. Too little, too late The government sent Liberal Jacques Soustelle as Governor-General of Algeria in 1955 to devise a reform package. He introduced the concept of ‘integration’, not altogether easy to distinguish from the previous policy of ‘assimilation’. He aimed to improve the crushing poverty and unemployment in which most rural Algerians lived. He declared he would make Arabic an obligatory language in Muslim schools, train peasants in modern agriculture, eliminate inequities in education alongside the creation of other public works. But the rebellion had already started and, as atrocity followed atrocity, Soustelle found his rational, sensible plans becoming irrelevant in the sea of blood.
  2. The pieds noirs Pieds noirs is French for ‘black feet’. It’s a slang expression the metropolitan (or mainland) French invented for the French who had settled in Algeria. In actual fact, a large proportion of the European settlers in Algeria were from Italy, Spain and other countries. But they all thought of themselves as 100% French and were led by some powerful men who owned huge businesses, rich from shipping, agriculture, vineyards, housing and so on. There were nearly a million pieds noirs and they dominated the Algerian Assembly. In theory Muslims could be elected to this, but in practice, through a system of double elections designed to prevent Muslims being elected, only a small number of Algerians were representatives, despite the natives outnumbering the settlers by about 9 to 1. Anyway, unlike the French government and Liberal opinion, pieds noirs sentiment was solid and consistent: it was anti any kind of further power or representation for Algerians, it wanted the war pursued with maximum aggression, it was against independence in any shape or form. Early on it held riots against ministers sent over from France and realised that it, too, could mobilise the street and threaten violence to foil any attempts at concession.
  3. Algeria was French The strangest element, the most fateful, tragic aspect of the whole bloody tragedy, was that the French government of 1848 made the fateful declaration that Algeria was an integral part of France, as much a part as Brittany or the Dordogne. At least Morocco and Tunisia to the west and east of it had only been French protectorates and so they could, relatively easily, be given their independence – both in 1956. (An unintended consequence was that F.L.N. fighters could use both countries as refuges and arms bases.) But French politicians were lumbered with the fateful situation that Algeria was legally – and all the pieds noirs took this absolutely literally – part of France and so could not be given independence because it was not legally or culturally perceived as a separate entity.

Thus for the French it was not a question of granting a colony independence: it was a case of losing part of France itself. This, to any outsider, is quite obviously insane and part of the experience of reading this long book is to be soaked in the ongoing insanity of the entire French political class. Looked at in this way, the F.L.N. struggle can be seen as the brutal attempt to make the French realise and admit that Algeria was a nation in its own right.

Indo-China and Algeria – one long war

If the year 1954 rings a bell it’s because that was the year the French Army lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and, as a result, began to withdraw from Vietnam (see my reviews of two classics on the subject, The Last Valley by Martin Windrow  and Embers of War by Frederik Logevall). The massive French base at Dien Bien Phu was overrun in May 1954 and the rebellion in Algeria began in November 1954. In fact Horne shows that the founding meeting of the umbrella group of revolutionary parties that formed the F.L.N. actually took place on the very day that news of Dien Bien Phu reached Algeria. Many of the same military units who had just been repatriated from Vietnam found themselves being sent on to North Africa to fight another insurgency.

Thus, although on opposite sides of the globe, the wars in Indochina and in Algeria can be seen as aspects of the same struggle of native peoples to free themselves from French rule. Taken together they meant that France was engaged in serious colonial wars from 1945 to 1962. Long time, isn’t it? A long time that it could have been devoting its money and energy to rebuilding its war-torn society back home. And, if it had agreed negotiated independence for both countries, how many lives would have been saved, and what a good reputation France would have enjoyed within those countries and around the world. It makes Britain’s withdrawal from India and Pakistan, though flawed, look like the wisdom of Solomon.

The French military record

In the 1950s the French Army had to look back 150 years, to the heyday of Napoleon, to be really sure of major military victories which they won by themselves.

Napoleon’s army had been finally, definitively, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The conquest of Third World Algeria began promisingly in 1830, but the French faced stiffer opposition than they expected and the conquest dragged on for over 15 years. It’s true the French won the Crimean War (1853-56) but only  in alliance with the British, only just, and only after establishing a reputation for caution and delay and after losing huge numbers of troops to illness. A few years later the military suffered a humiliation when their attempt to install a Francophone Emperor in Mexico failed and the puppet Emperor was executed in 1867.

But none of this compared with the seismically crushing military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the Prussians had finished occupying and looting Paris, the city descended into a super-violent civil war as leftists declared a Commune and the French Army was sent in to defeat and annihilate them. The military defeat of the war and the deployment of Frenchmen to kill Frenchmen left a poisonous legacy which lasted a generation.

A generation later the French Army was the epicentre of the Dreyfus Affair which from 1894 to 1906 tore the country (again) into violently opposing factions either supporting or reviling a certain Captain Dreyfus, who was (wrongly) alleged to have sold military secrets to the Prussians. When he was, finally, exonerated, almost the entire army hierarchy looked like frauds and incompetents.

The French would have lost the Great War if the British Expeditionary Force had not helped to hold the line on the Marne in 1914. After three years of butchery, in 1917 the French Army was dishonoured to suffer widespread mutinies (the British didn’t).

Between the wars France was so divided that many thought the street riots which erupted across Paris in 1934 were the beginning of a civil war. The profound divisions between left, right and liberals encouraged the spirit of wholesale defeatism which led to the speedy French capitulation against invading Nazi Germany in 1940 (‘better the Germans than the reds’, was the cry of conservatives across the country).

France was finally liberated in 1945, with a large contribution from the British but mainly from the overwhelming might of the Americans, scores of thousands of whom died to liberate la patrie. Immediately, the French roared back into arrogant World Power mode and, in Indo-China, instead of taking Vietnamese nationalists seriously, spurned all talks and decided to beat them militarily (the tragic story so brilliantly told in Frederick Logevall’s Embers of War) to restore France’s gloire and grandeur and prestige around the world (it is telling that even in English, we use French words for these ideas).

The eight-year struggle to hang on to Indo-China climaxed in the international humiliation of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, when the French army’s heavily-defended citadel was crushed by the third world army of General Giap, leading the French Army and civilian administration to pack up and leave Vietnam.

(Some of the many, many soldiers, statesmen, civilians and eye witnesses quoted in this long book start the long track of France’s humiliations earlier, with the massive failure of the Seven Years War back in the 1760s, in which King Louis XV’s lack of financial and military commitment led the French to lose both Canada and India to the British Empire. Reflecting on this during the days it took to read this book, a simpler theory came to mind: in the Seven Years War Louis sacrificed the foreign colonies because his main focus was on maintaining France as the pre-eminent military power on the Continent, as his father had and as Napoleon would do. If we take this as the central aim of French foreign policy – to maintain French pre-eminence on the continent – then it was doomed to failure when it met the unstoppable rise of Prussia and Germany from the 1850s onwards. It took three bitter wars between the nations – in 1870, 1914 and 1940 – to prove beyond any doubt that Germany was (and remains) the top power in Europe. So a) France had wasted all those years, men and money in a project which turned out to be futile – while b) all the time their bitter rivals the British were by and large ignoring continental squabbles to focus on expanding their vast maritime empire).

Thus, at their elite academies (e.g. the famous École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr) each new generation of French officers was brought up on an unremitting diet of gloire and grandeur but had, embarrassingly, to look all the way back to the great battles of Napoleon 150 years earlier, to find the last real military victories, the last time the French had really won anything. The French were very aware that in the Great War (arguably) and in the Second War (definitely) its success was on the coat tails of the British and the Americans.

This long history of defeat and humiliation helps to explain the special bitterness and acrimoniousness of France’s relations with her colonies post-1945. She didn’t want to be humiliated yet again. According to the French historian, Raymond Aron:

that deep ingrained sense of past humiliations had to be exorcised. (p.331)

And yet, with bleak irony, it was the very doggedness with which she hung on in Indo-China and in Algeria that ended up guaranteeing the political and military humiliations she was striving so hard to avoid.

It’s important to grasp this sense of inferiority and grievance and bloody determination because it helps to explain the fundamental irrationality of the French military ending up declaring war on their own government, trying to assassinate the French head of state, taking France to the brink of civil war, and why a hard core of ‘ultras’ formed the O.A.S. which set out on a policy of murdering their fellow Frenchmen.

Suez

Horne pithily calls the Suez invasion ‘the shortest war in history and possibly the silliest’. (p.163). I hadn’t previously understood its connection with Algeria. The French were convinced that Nasser (leader of Egypt) was supplying the F.L.N. with arms and munitions (they and everyone else were given that impression by the fiery pan-Arab messages coming over on Radio Cairo). In fact, Nasser and the other Arabs were notably unhelpful in the early part of the war, refusing to supply the rebels anything – but the French didn’t know that. Thus when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 – two years into the Algerian crisis – the French seized the opportunity to strike a blow against the (supposed) supplier of their enemy in Algeria. The Israelis already wanted to strike a blow against the strongest Arab state and both countries leaned on the British to get involved.

The Suez Crisis is remembered because only a day or so into the joint Israeli-French-British assault on the canal zone the Russians began to make loud warning noises and President Eisenhower threatened to ruin the British economy by selling the U.S. government’s sterling bonds unless the Brits desisted. British forces were stopped in their tracks and British political leaders, the army, informed public opinion, all realised – with a never-to-be-forgotten jolt – that it marked the end of Britain’s role as a Global Power.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s my generation accepted all of this as a given and now, 60 years later, it seems like ancient history. But it is just one more of the many insights this wonderful book throws up, to revisit it from the Algerian perspective.

Scale

The Algerian War is important in its own right, as the largest and bloodiest of all decolonising wars. You occasionally read about:

  • Britain’s heavy-handed response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, but that eight-year conflict resulted in some 12,000 Kenyan dead (mostly killed by fellow Kenyans) and only 200 settlers dead.
  • The Malayan Emergency, when Chinese communists led an insurgency against British imperial forces over a 12-year period from 1948 to 1960, led to a total of about 2,000 Malay and British police and army killed, and some 6,000 communist insurgents dead.
  • The crisis in British-held Cyprus in the later 1950s which resulted in some 600 dead.

Together with other small conflicts, these ’emergencies’ and insurgencies routinely appeared on the front pages British newspapers during the 1950s, but they are quoted here to compare and contrast with the awesome scale and enormous casualties and the huge political turmoil of the Algerian War. It was a completely different order of magnitude and the sheer number of bombings and atrocities is impossible to imagine. In some months there were over 1,000 incidents, over thirty every day. At the peak of O.A.S. activities they would set off 20 or 30 plastic explosive devices every day. In all, the French authorities recorded some 42,090 acts of terrorism.

Horne’s book is long and immaculately detailed, giving a riveting military history of the entire conflict, peppered with accounts of just enough of the atrocities to make you feel continually sick, and tense at the scale of what was at stake. It is like one of the most gripping novels ever written.

Long-term

The Algerian War turned out to be a testing ground for the kind of urban terrorism which has become so common in the 21st century, a pioneer of the strategy of attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets – nightclubs and pop concerts – in order to militarise and polarise society: the worse the atrocity, the greater the success in creating the battle lines.

The only response to this kind of terrorism-to-divide is not to rise to the bait and not to let society become polarised. But the best way to prevent it is not to allow injustice and grievance to build up to such a pitch in the first place, by giving all parts of society a voice, a say, and by having mechanisms through which to confront and solve grievances.

The war was also a template for the kind of asymmetric warfare in a Muslim country between a Western-style army and irregular militia and terrorist units, which has also become common in the 21st century – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. The cover has a blurb from Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco – the damning account of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – which says this book has become compulsory reading for all U.S. military officers and counterinsurgency specialists, and Horne himself draws direct parallels with the Iraq invasion in his preface to the 2006 edition.

The war was such a long and convoluted conflict, with so many aspects, that it also contains examples of a whole range of political problems. In fact, it could almost be read as a sort of compendium of classic problems of statecraft.

  • How not to colonise a country and how not to ruinously hang on to it long after the time to go has come.
  • How not to stage a military coup, something the generals in fact attempted twice, failing both times.
  • How to return to a divided nation as a saviour, how to be all things to all men, and then how to steer a perilous course through violently opposing factions – as de Gaulle did.
  • How not to try and assassinate a head of state.
  • How to penetrate urban guerrilla organisations – Horne’s account of how the French penetrated the undercover F.L.N. network during the Battle of Algiers is brilliant.
  • Just as insightful, and impressive, is the account of how General Maurice Challe in 1959 instituted a whole new method to tackle attacks by smallish groups in remote desert areas – by using radio to call in helicopters carrying reinforcements to surround the armed bands, and by not giving up the chase or hunt until each one had been exterminated. Challe’s approach was showing real results, clearing entire areas of nationalists and reducing attacks, when his operation was overtaken by political developments and he was replaced by a general who never completed the process.
  • Building a wall. Like the Israelis were later to do, and Donald Trump threatens to do in our time, the French built a wall against their enemies. In their case it was an electrified fence stretching along 320 kilometres of Algeria’s border with Tunisia, the so-called Morice Line, because Tunisia in particular was a major bolthole for F.L.N. operatives, guns and money. The Morice Line formed a barbed-wire barrier lined with minefields and a sophisticated alarm system which alerted rapid response units to attempts to breach it, and who could be quickly helicoptered to the breach to intercept and kill F.L.N. fighters.
  • Urban uprisings. Both the pieds noirs and the Muslims staged mass uprisings in Algiers. The French one, starting in January 1960, was called ‘the week of barricades. Horne even-handedly shows how the pieds noirs students and activists organised it, and how the authorities tried to handle it.

There is just a whole host of war-related conflict and public order disturbances throughout the book. Not only Western armies but police forces could probably learn something about managing civil disturbance, disobedience and violent crowds.

Mass migration

The peace was signed with little agreement about the future of the pieds noirs. Seeing themselves as sold down the river, abandoned by their fatherland, and terrified of the reprisals in store once an F.L.N. government took over, the result was panic and a mass movement of people on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War.

Over a million pieds noirs fled Algeria in a matter of weeks! There were many heart-breaking and panic-stricken scenes which Horne describes. Because of the demand on ships and planes, the pieds noirs were only allowed to take two suitcases of belongings with them. So they made bonfires of all their other goods, mementoes and belongings, then left their homes, which had often been the homes to families for many generations, abandoned to their new Arab owners. The refugees arrived in a France which was completely unprepared for them and which struggled to find homes and schools and jobs for them for many years to come.

Much worse, though, was the fate of the harkis, the native Muslims who had collaborated with the French Army and administration. Up to a quarter of a million Algerians worked with the French army, the ones who came under actual army discipline being called harkis. One of the (just) grievances of senior army figures was that the fate of the harkis wasn’t even addressed in the peace negotiations. Only about 15,000 managed to escape to France. The rest, over 200,000, were, in effect, left to the mercies of the F.L.N. which means that very many of thyem were tortured and murdered.

No-one knows for sure how many of these collaborators were murdered in the months that followed the French withdrawal in July 1962, but Horne quotes a few of the horror stories which later emerged. Hundreds were used to clear the minefields along the Morice Line by being forced to walk through them and get blown up. Many were tortured before being killed.

Army veterans were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut top pieces their flesh fed to the dogs. Many were out to death with their entire families, including young children. (p.537)

In some barracks French officers were ordered to take away the harki‘s weapons, promising them replacements, but then departing the next day, leaving the harkis completely unarmed and defenceless. Some French soldiers were ordered to stand impassively by while harkis were killed in front of them. As you’d expect, many French officers disobeyed orders and smuggled their Muslim comrades abroad, but nowhere near enough.

This book is absolutely packed with situations like this, cruel ironies of war and defeat, atrocities, torture and murder. 600 pages of horror – but reading it gives you an important – a vital – insight into contemporary France, into contemporary Algeria, and into contemporary conflicts between the West and Islam.

A Savage War of Peace

Sir Alistair Horne’s account was first published in 1977 and has long held the field as the definitive account, in English, of this awful conflict – although new studies have appeared throughout that period.

At 600 pages it is long, thorough and beautifully written. I’d read criticisms that it doesn’t give a proper account of the Algerian side, but there is page after page devoted to portraying and analysing the lead characters in the F.L.N. and to disentangling the hugely complex machinations both among the F.L.N. leadership, and between the F.L.N. and the other Muslim groups.

Horne quotes extensively from interviews he himself held with as many of the surviving F.L.N. leaders as he could track down. He explains in forensic detail the social, cultural, economic and political barriers put in the way of Algerians under French colonialism and the multiple unfairnesses of the French system, which led to so much poverty and grievance. When the violence gets going Horne is scrupulous in abominating the results of the terrorist attacks by all sides, and the execution of ‘traitors’ within the F.L.N. or to the civil war between Arab and Kabyle. But he accompanies these with clear-headed explanations of why each side adopted strategies of atrocity. It struck me as perfectly balanced.

Horne was a journalist in the lead-up to the war (working for the Daily Telegraph) and was in Paris researching his first book when the war broke out. He gives examples of the impact de Gaulle’s rousing speeches had on him and fellow journalists as they heard them. He was there. This gives him the invaluable advantage of being able to really convey the atmosphere and the mood, the psychology, the milieu, the feel of what is now a long-distant period.

As mentioned, Horne carried out extensive interviews with all the key players he could track down including – fascinatingly – surviving leaders of the F.L.N. and of the O.A.S. and the French coup leaders. He interviewed no fewer than five of the ex-premiers of France who governed during this stormy period. The text is littered with quotes from key players which shed invaluable light on the complex and long, long course of events. It also means he is able to give in-depth accounts by the main players of vital political and military decisions taken throughout the period.

Horne was himself a soldier who served during World War Two, and so manages to get inside the peculiar mindset of the soldiers in this war, from the foot soldiers on both sides to the higher ranks, the colonels and generals. He doesn’t view the conflict as an academic would (or as I would) as an abattoir, an unrelenting list of brutal murders and tortures – but rather as killings carried out in the name of understandable (if reprehensible) military and political strategies.

Speaking as a non-military man, as much more the liberal humanities student, from one angle the entire text – like the war – is a kind of exploration of the strange twisted notions of ‘honour’ which led men to throw hand grenades into dance halls, to assassinate schoolmasters, to slit the throats of gendarmes, to eviscerate pregnant women. You could make a list of the people – the generals and colonels – who pompously spout on about ‘honour’ and then correlate the massacres and murders committed by their troops. Something similar could maybe done to the F.L.N. who spoke about human dignity and smashed children’s heads against walls or slit open pregnant women.

I circled every mention of ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ I saw. So often they came just before or just after the description of yet more killing, bombing and knifing. Eventually I wished, as the narrator of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell To Arms does, that those old words – glory, honour, pride, dignity – could all be abolished, scrapped forever, thrown into the depths of the sea.

Horne’s style

I’m an English graduate. Words always interest me. Horne was very posh. The son of Sir Allan Horne, he was born in 1925 and sent to a series of public schools before serving in the RAF and the Coldstream Guards during the war. All things considered, it’s impressive that his prose isn’t more old-fashioned. It happily belongs to that post-war style of posh, correct English, grammatically correct but loosened up by the egalitarianism and the Americanism of the post-war years. His prose is a pleasure to read and to read aloud. As a tiny detail of this masterpiece of historical research & writing, I enjoyed the way he confidently uses rare and flavoursome words:

meridional Relating to or characteristic of the inhabitants of southern Europe, especially the South of France, in practice meaning hot-tempered

Says Jouhaud proudly [his disguise] gave him the air of ‘an austere professor, whom candidates would dread at exam time’, though, in fact, photographs reveal something resembling more the coarse features of a meridional peasant. (p.481)

contumelious – (of behaviour) scornful and insulting; insolent

[In the French National Assembly] one of Abbas’s fellow deputies had declared: ‘You showed us the way, you gave us the taste of liberty, and now when we say that we wish to be free, to be men – no more and no less – you deny us the right to take over your own formulas. You are Frenchmen, and yet you are surprised that some of us should seek independence.’ After this eloquent plea, he had been brought to order by the President of the Chamber in this contumelious fashion: ‘Monsieur Saadane, I have already reminded you that you are at the French tribune. I now invite you to speak in French there…’ (p.73)

Objurgation A harsh rebuke:

Through being in charge of the Cinquieme Bureau, with its potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare [Colonel Jean] Gardes had a powerful weapon and he now used it unhesitatingly to further the cause of francisation – regardless of the objurgations of [Delegate-General] Delouvrier. (p.354)

The Islamic world

Horne has some blunt and simple things to say about the Islamic world. Writing in 2006 he says:

In many ways the horrors suffered in Algeria’s own civil war do read like a paradigm, a microcosm of present-day Islam’s frustrated inadequacy to meet the challenges of the modern world, the anger generated thereby finding itself directed into lashing out against the rich, successful West. (p.18)

This has not got any less true with the eruption in 2011 of the Arab Spring revolts which, in most cases, led to brutal suppression (as in Egypt) or the kind of chaotic civil war to be seen in contemporary Libya or Syria. If you include the under-reported civil war in Yemen, itself a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the recent ostracism of Qatar by the other Gulf states, it’s not difficult to see the entire Arab world as racked by conflicts and crises which its own political and cultural traditions don’t seem equipped to handle.

European nations themselves are fragile – until a generation ago half of Europe was part of the Soviet empire; in my lifetime Spain, Portugal and Greece were run by military dictatorships. And as Horne’s book brings out, just as I was born (in 1961) France nearly experienced a full-blown military coup which could have plunged the country into civil war. Democracy is extremely fragile, requires deep roots, requires the ability to disagree with your opponent without wanting to cut their throat.

Neo-Malthusianism

My son (19 and studying philosophy) calls me a neo-Malthusian. He means that whenever we discuss current affairs I always come back to the sheer scale of human population (and the related destruction of the natural environment). When France invaded, the population of Algeria was 1 million. When the insurrection broke out in 1954 it was 9 million. When Horne wrote his book in the mid-1970s it was 16 million. Today (2017) it is 41 million. The country is lucky enough to float on a vast reserve of natural gas which should underpin its budget for generations to come. But all across the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan, huge population increases have put pressure on governments to supply jobs to young men, while at the same time all those countries are reaching the limits of their agricultural and natural resources (of water, in particular).

I don’t think a ‘clash of civilisations’ is inevitable; but I do think an ever-expanding population will provide the motor for unending conflict, and this conflict will be channelled into well-worn channels of racial and religious conflict, invoking the well-worn vocabulary of grievance, victimhood and justification (this doesn’t mean just anti-western violence: the conflict between Sunni and Shia will just get worse and worse, the proxy wars between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi will get worse; the plight of communities caught in the middle – the Kurds or the Egyptian Copts – will continue to deteriorate).

And various groups or individuals will accept the by-now traditional discourse that ‘It’s all the West’s fault’, that ‘There are no civilians; everyone is a warrior in the war against the infidel’, and so will be able to justify to themselves setting off bombs at pop concerts, driving a truck into a crowd of pedestrians, machine gunning sunbathers on a holiday beach, or storming into a popular market to stab everyone in sight.

All of these things happened during the Algerian War. And all of them are happening again. There are now five million Algerians living in France out of a total population of 67 million. Many of them descendants of the harkis who managed to flee in 1962, many are temporary migrant workers, and many are refugees from Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Many millions are crammed into squalid banlieus, suburbs of cheaply built high-rises and equally high unemployment, where periodic riots break out – the subject of Mathieu Kassovitz’s terrifying film, La Haine. France has been living under a state of emergency since the Bataclan attacks in November 2015. A massive deployment of troops and police was called up for the recent French elections. I shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a permanent state of emergency. Angry Muslims are here to stay.

The Algerian War has effectively crossed the Mediterranean to France… (p.17)


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Other blog posts about Empire

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

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