Rarely can a car accident have had such a drastic effect on the world of letters. It was early in the new year of 1960, on the long road between Provence and Paris. Two men were travelling in a now defunct make of car, a Facel Vega, then a powerful and swift motor vehicle of the day.
At the wheel was the eminent publisher Michel Gallimard, of the eponymous publishing house. In the passenger seat was one of Gallimard’s authors, the journalist, playwright, novelist and thinker Albert Camus. A little over two years before, in October 1957, Camus had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Camus hadn’t intended journeying by car from his house in the south of France to Paris. A return trip by train, with his wife Francine and teenage twins Jean and Catherine, had been the plan. But then Gallimard had suggested they drive up together because there was much to discuss. Chiefly, there was Camus’ new novel, working title The First Man, inspired by the author’s Algerian childhood. In the car with Camus was the handwritten manuscript, 144 pages towards completion.
It being 4 January, the weather was cold, the roads icy. On an extended stretch of straight and wide road, the car veered off and smashed into a tree. Camus died on the spot, Gallimard in hospital a few days later. In one of Camus’ pockets was the unused half of the return train ticket Paris – Provence – Paris.
Camus’ sudden death was a profound shock for the French and for the world of literature. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an obituary in which he summed up the influence that Camus had exerted through his life and words, noting, “Camus could never cease to be one of the principal forces in our cultural domain, nor to represent, in his own way, the history of France and of this century.”
Perhaps numbed by the tragedy, no one thought that the cause of the crash had been anything but the car going out of control. The why it had done so was not even conjecture; after all, the driver and his passenger could not be asked.
Eight years ago, however, the Italian poet and academic Giovanni Catelli sprang a surprise by suggesting that Camus had been assassinated by the KGB. As evidence, Catelli pointed to the discrepancy between the original Czech-language diary, Celý život, of Czech poet Jan Zábrana and its Italian translation. An entire paragraph was missing from the translated edition.
The missing words were: “I heard something very strange from the mouth of a man who knew lots of things and had very informed sources. According to him, the accident that had cost Albert Camus his life in 1960 was organised by Soviet spies. They damaged a tyre on the car using a sophisticated piece of equipment that cut or made a hole in the wheel at speed.
“The order was given personally by Shepilov as a reaction to an article published in Franc-tireur in March 1957, in which Camus attacked [Shepilov], naming him explicitly in the events in Hungary.”
Shepilov being the Soviet Union’s foreign minister and “the events in Hungary” being the Soviet invasion of October 1956 to quell the uprising there. Camus had dubbed the Soviet actions as the “Shepilov Massacres”, which would clearly have riled Dmitri Trofimovic Shepilov, but whether to bespoke murder is moot.
Nonetheless, the persistent Catelli has now turned his theory into a book, the French title of which translates as The Death of Camus, published in early December. Explosively, it suggests that Camus “reminded” the French “of the USSR’s cruel imperialism. Both the French and the Soviet governments would have benefitted greatly from silencing this unpleasant reminder … No proper investigation was carried out.”
At just 46, Camus had been snatched from the world. Whether his death was mishap or murder is less important than what is certain: the legacy of thought and word that he bequeathed. Arguably his greatest work is the book-length essay The Rebel (1953, translated from L’Homme révolté, 1951), from which come the following choice ideas.
“Finally capitalist society and revolutionary society are one and the same thing to the extent that they submit themselves to the same means – industrial production – and to the same promise. But one makes its promise in the name of formal principles which it is quite incapable of incarnating and which are denied by the methods it employs. The other justifies its prophecy in the name of the only reality it recognises and ends by mutilating reality. The society based on production is only productive, not creative.”
“Then we understand that rebellion cannot exist without a strange form of love. Those who find no rest in God or in history are condemned to live for those who, like themselves, cannot live: in fact, for the humiliated. The most pure form of the movement of rebellion is thus crowned with the heart-rending cry of Karamazov: if all are not saved, what good is the salvation of one only?”