The centenary of the French writer and journalist Albert Camus takes place next year. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, the famous left-wing activist died in a car accident in 1960 at the age of 46.
The author of “The Stranger” and “The Fall” was born in Algeria and was part of the African-born French community loosely referred to as the pieds noirs (black feet). Coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Algeria is this year, but in France the subject is still controversial in the extreme. It was a particularly bitter war of independence, involving grotesque massacres on both sides. Essentially, the colonists themselves feel betrayed for having surrendered Algeria even after the war, as far as they were concerned, was already won. The people in France tended to look down on the pieds noirs as somehow inferior French citizens – a mongrel race. Finally, there were the Algerians who were content with French occupation, who worked with the colonisers and who consequently had to flee the country once the new regime took over. Many of them were settled in the South of France in the area to the west of Marseilles, where they tended to be looked upon and treated with some suspicion and derision by locals.
The whole affair is still red hot – so much so that it is virtually impossible to get anyone who lived the experience personally to talk publicly about it.
Camus died just a couple of years before the end of the Algerian crisis, but it’s a measure of how controversial both he and the political boiling pot that he lived in were when even his centenary celebrations/commemorations have already embarked upon a roller coaster of controversy.
Over the last few years, the plan has been to have a special exhibition marking the centenary of Camus in the context of the regional capital of Marseilles being European Cultural Capital in 2013. The man chosen to head the project is one Benjamin Stora – a historian who has specialised in the Algerian War and who many believe was close to the liberation rebel group FLN.
Last May, word came through that the exhibition has been cancelled. On the 31st of July, the exhibition is back on again, this time with a new man in charge – the philosopher Michel Onfray, who wrote a biographical essay on Camus.
So what happened in the meantime? Ideological disagreements? Personality clashes? Political arguments? Undoubtedly all of the above…
It seems that all was not well from the start in this play involving three principal strong characters and a few supporting roles. The original choice was not unanimous. Catherine Camus, the daughter of Albert Camus who owns the moral rights pertaining to her late father’s estate, is said to have been unhappy with the historian for not having furnished her with a precise list of the items necessary for the exhibition. In short, she let it be known that she felt that Stora was not sufficiently engaged with the project. Moreover, the word around Aix-en-Provence was that the choice of Benjamin Stora went down very badly indeed amongst the affluent pied noir community, particularly as election fever was in full swing at the time and the outgoing right-wing mayor Maryse Joissains-Masini was not inclined to disenfranchise such an important voting block.
For his part, Benjamin Stora didn’t hide the fact that he intended shining the light on the different aspects of Camus’ life: Resistance, death penalty and, of course, the Algerian War. Not much room for peace and compromise between such subjects, you might say.In May, when the exhibition was cancelled, Catherine Camus denies having precipitated this decision, but she has been vocal with regard to the methods used by the organisers: “For a year now, I haven’t had any news. We are on a deadline. I need to know what documents they need and what other ones I could offer them,” she said in a statement to the AFP (Agence France Presse).
The latest twist in the tale is that of the appointing of Michel Onfray, without, it appears, the prior knowledge of Benjamin Stora, who declared himself “stunned” to have learned of the news through the press. Meanwhile, Michel Onfray announces straight after a meeting with the town council that “We agreed to wait until September to inform the press, primarily so that, by way of courtesy and respect, I could inform Benjamin Stora personally.” Strange but true.
In any case and despite the twists and turns of the story so far, the exhibition is scheduled to open in Aix-en-Provence on the 7th of Novemer 2013 – the date of the birth of Albert Camus. It will be entitled “Albert Camus. Un homme révolté” (a play on the words “revolutionized” and “repulsed”) and will take place under the auspices of Marseilles’ year as European Capital of Culture.
Camus’ association with the area is strong. His daughter lives in an old farmhouse thirty kilometres from Aix in the Luberon – an area made famous by the entertaining Peter Mayle best-sellers “A Year in Provence” and “Toujours Provence“. Catherine Camus’ father bought the house a few years before his tragically short life came to an end as a passenger in a sports car driven by his editor. In his briefcase was the unfinished manuscript of “The First Man“. His dream house, it appears, was paid for by the generous cheque he got in 1957 from the Royal Academy of Sweden.
If you’re interested in discovering more about the writings of Albert Camus, you can order the following on-line: