Magazine article The Spectator

Post-War Feuds and Dilemmas

Magazine article The Spectator

Post-War Feuds and Dilemmas

Article excerpt

CAMUS AT COMBAT : WRITING 1944-1947 edited by Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, with a foreword by David Carroll Princeton University Press, £18.95, pp. 334, ISBN 0691120048 . £15.16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Albert Camus was an exceptional man who lived in interesting times. His parents were pieds-noirs -- French settlers in Algeria. His father died at the battle of the Marne and he was raised by his mother, an illiterate cleaning lady. Encouraged by inspired teachers, he won scholarships to a lycée and then university in Algiers.

He published his first book at the age of 24, and worked as a journalist, first in Algiers and later in Paris. At the outbreak of the second world war, ill-health exempted him from military service. He worked as a reader for Gallimard, and wrote a classic novel of existentialism, L'Etranger, and a philosophical essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Both were published in 1942.

In the autumn of 1943, now aged 30, Camus joined the Resistance and wrote for the underground newsletter, Combat.

After the liberation of Paris, Combat became a newspaper with Camus its editor.

Between August 1944 and the paper's demise on 3 June 1947, he wrote 138 editorials and 27 articles which are now published with scholarly annotations by Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi. Journalists, Camus wrote, are 'historians of the moment' and here we have an invaluable source for anyone interested in the moral complexities of political life in post-war France.

The war continued after the liberation of Paris, but it was the hitherto quiescent armed forces of Vichy France that chased the Germans out of France while the 'heroic' Resistance remained behind to jockey for power and pursue a ruthless settling of scores. At first Camus supported this purge (épuration) in the name of justice: those who had collaborated with the Nazis and committed atrocities against fellow Frenchmen -- in particular the infamous milice -- must be called to account and, when found guilty, sentenced to death. Camus' adversary on this issue, the Catholic novelist François Mauriac, held that mercy took precedence over justice; and, as the purge degenerated into an orgy of revenge, Camus changed his mind. 'Prisoners are snatched from their prisons and shot because they were pardoned . . . The word "purge" itself was already distressing.

The actual thing became odious. The failure was complete.' In some of his leaders, Camus talks in lofty philosophical abstractions of the kind favoured by the French, but he also considers many concrete issues such as the fate of pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic authors Robert Brasillach and Lucien Rebatet. …

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