The Death of Camus

Scholar and teacher, WILLIAM BITTNER, Who is currently Fulbright Professor at the Free University of Berlin, is the author of THE NOVELS OF WALDO FRANK and is at work on a biogr aphy of Edgar Allan Poe. Mr. Bittner was in France at the time of the death of Albert Camus and has twice since retraced the author’s journey from Lourmarin to Paris.

A FEW minutes before two o’clock on the afternoon of January 4, 1960, Madame Choquart of Villeblevin, a village eighteen miles east of Fontainebleau, drew her ancient Peugeot to a halt at the stop sign before entering Route Nationale Number Five. The highway at that point runs nearly three miles in a perfectly straight line, bordered with tall plane trees — a classic example of France’s beautiful but somewhat impractical highways.

To Madame Choquart’s left the road was clear; off to her right an old man was chugging along on a motor bike, and behind him, coming at a good rate of speed, was a large and luxurious-looking car. As she watched it, the car, which she now realized was moving at grande vitesse, seemed to take to the air, wobble crazily on the road, then leap to the right. With a tremendous crash it struck the sturdy trunk of one of the trees and, scattering parts, among them the grille and one front wheel, slewed around and slammed sidewise against the next tree.

The silence that followed the two crashes was broken only by the sound of the engine of her own car and an increased whine as the man on the motor bike put on speed. Then a voice called weakly from near the wreckage, a woman’s voice, and by the sound she seemed to be calling for a dog.

Traffic always picks up on French highways at two o’clock, the end of the traditional two-hour lunch period, and before long several more motorists had appeared and stopped near the wreckage scattered about the grassy roadside. One person hurried off in quest of the police and an ambulance. Two women, who apparently had been tossed from the back of the car in its flight between the two trees, were injured and bleeding, one of them still vaguely seeking her dog; the driver, also thrown clear, was unconscious. But the passenger in the right front seat was dead. After striking the first tree the battered car had swung in such a way that it struck the bole of the second tree squarely on the right front door, killing instantly the only one then still in the car, the Nobel Prize-winning author, Albert Camus.

Although the news spread quickly, details of the accident were scarce and for the most part unreliable. Morning papers the following day featured hastily dished-up tributes to Camus, speculated briefly on the cause of the accident, and reported that Michel Gallimard, driver of the car, was unconscious in the hospital at Villeneuve-laGuyard and that his wife and daughter, the other passengers, were not severely injured. Camus’s body was being sent to his family in the south of France.

By the next day, reporters had followed the body to the starting place of Camus’s last journey, and in the absence of any newsworthy statement from his widow, interviewed the neighbors. Camus’s own careful driving was emphasized, and it was reported that his custom, in traveling to Paris, was to drive leisurely to Aix, where he took the train. Since a one-day drive from the Riviera to Paris is not at all out of the ordinary and mention was made in the very first bulletin that Gallimard ‘s car was a Facel Vega, capable of tremendous speed, the impression made by the press was that Camus had reluctantly been talked into accompanying the Gallimards the morning of the accident in a mad dash for Paris, that they had covered the four hundred miles to Sens by lunchtime, and that after eating in a “renowned hostelry" they had rushed on to disaster. Photographs of the wrecked dashboard, with the clock stopped at 1:54, the odometer reading 29,700 kilometers, and the speedometer stuck at 145 kilometers an hour, substantiated the impression.

After Camus’s funeral the story was dropped, save for a few lines mentioning the death of Gallimard after he had been moved, in a last-minute effort to save his life, to a larger hospital near Paris. Some commentators in private expressed the charitable view that it was a mercy he did not have to live on in the role of the man who killed Camus.

Police and private agencies have studied the wreckage and the marks on the highway, but while they ponder over conclusions that will be called official, and probably even long after the last dossier is filed in the archives, copy-hungry littérateurs will continue to compare Camus ‘s death with that of his hero in The Stranger. This parallel of a life cut short by circumstances that irrationally result from a man’s impulsive association with people less innocent than he is based on the assumption that Gallimard drove his family and Camus four hundred miles in four hours, and that his recklessness was even more irresponsible because of the bad state of his tires. The truth, as truth often can be, is less dramatic but more mysterious.

THE morning of the first Sunday of 1960, the holiday was close to its end. With the money from his Nobel Prize, Albert Camus had bought a villa in Lourmarin, a region of natural beauty and even climate, north of Marseilles. There he spent every holiday. His modesty and friendliness made him well liked in his village, as his manner — he looked, as someone once said, like a Japanese Humphrey Bogart — was beloved beyond the boundaries of France.

When he strolled through the town that morning of January 3rd with his train ticket to Paris in his pocket, Camus stopped at the local garage, where the proprietor had been trying to convince him to turn in his old ‘traction-avant’ Citroën for the sleek new model, shaped like a streamlined turtle, powerful and comfortable. Camus had some days before tried out the new car, but it had not appealed to him. The garageman nevertheless had made his point; Camus was nearly convinced that he should get rid of his gas-eating old beast in favor of a new car. Power meant nothing to him, for he disliked driving at great speed; the sixty kilometers an hour (38 mph) to which speed is limited in most built-up areas seemed quite enough for him, although he had no objection to going faster when someone else was driving.

It was a car of more conservative design, the Peugeot 403, that the author was discussing in the garage when he was hailed by Michel Gallimard, nephew of his publisher, whom he had not known to be anywhere in the vicinity. Gallimard with his wife and daughter had set out that morning from Cannes, on the Riviera, on their way back to Paris after the New Year’s holiday. They had detoured through Lourmarin to pick up Camus and take him with them.

Camus was delighted to see them; indeed, Monsieur Baumas, of the garage, recalls that encountering Gallimard was the peak of a morning in which Camus, always a man of good spirit, was particularly joyful. It was a perfect southern day, the bright blue sky enlivened by high fleecy clouds, the air mild with the promise of spring, in great contrast to the brutal cold and snow of a few weeks before. Yet, when invited to accompany the Gallimards to Paris, Camus declined, explaining that he always went by train, and besides had already bought his ticket; but he walked out to Gallimard’s car to greet the two women, and with a new car on his mind, he was interested in taking another look at this one.

Gallimard was driving a Facel Vega, the fastest and most expensive car made in France today. Powered with an American Chrysler engine, it reflects an effort to continue the tradition of the great French automobiles like Bugatti and Talbot Lago, while adapting them to our time of soft springs and easy driving. In the charts of tire pressures that hang in every French garage, the Facel Vega is the sole make that not only requires different pressures front and rear, depending on how many passengers are carried, but also has separate mention that the recommendations are good only “up to 160 km/h” (100 mph). Beyond that speed the manufacturer has special directions, intended, apparently, for racing drivers who take special pains over tires.

Gallimard was well experienced in driving the car. This was the second Facel Vega he had owned, and he had already run it 18,000 miles. Moreover, experience had made him cautious (his first wife died from injuries suffered in a motor accident), and at the end of 13,000 miles he had replaced the tires. He had gone out of his way to enjoy Camus’s company on the trip, and urged him to come along. No one, it seems certain, thought of danger, for their intention was to make a leisurely two-day drive of what is customarily a day’s journey, eating at pleasant restaurants and stopping before dusk at a comfortable hotel.

Thus, after some persuasion, Camus gave in, just as any of us, planning to return from a holiday four hundred miles from home, might accept a lift from a friend. He was not, like his hero in The Stranger, eager for any distraction at all, but driving with congenial company seemed more pleasant than riding a train alone for nine hours. Moreover, the cuisine of the French National Railways is not what it used to be, and meals in a dining car or from a seat tray contrast sharply with the offerings at the many outstanding restaurants in the Rhone Valley. Between Lourmarin and Paris are five of the eleven restaurants in France that the critical Guide Michelin labels “worth the journey”; and other fine restaurants abound.

So Albert Camus was offered the seat next to the driver, and they set out. The secondary road from Lourmarin along the chasm of the Durance River, as far as its intersection with Route Nationale Number Seven, below Avignon, is winding, but a good road for France, where even a main highway can tax the skill of a fast driver. There are many exhilarating straight stretches where one can surge ahead with as much security as on any road in the world and without fear of speed traps, but even the high-speed highways of France pass through many towns, large and small, where motor, bicycle, and foot traffic reduce the pace to a crawl.

EVEN on the highway, one’s average speed is always much lower than the speedometer reading on clear stretches would suggest. One sometimes wonders if the French ever abandon a car, not only because of the rarity of automobile graveyards, but also because of the relics chugging along the roads, seldom exceeding thirty miles an hour, even going downhill. Bicycles abound, sometimes blocking one full lane, since, illegal or not, it is more sociable for two to ride side by side. Motor bikes, from ordinary bicycles with a tiny one-cylinder motor attached by a roller to the front wheel to full-fledged motorcycles, claim their share of the road; and as time goes on, more and more cyclists graduate, with not much change in their driving habits, to the two-horsepower Citroën, a car that looks as if it had been made out of roofing material by a clever child and will do sixty-five or better on the level or downhill but often has trouble reaching thirty-live on an upgrade.

Thus, one idles along on narrow streets, curves, and busy highways behind slow-moving traffic, and in the straight stretches one tries to make up time. It was not late in the morning when the Gallimards and Camus left Lourmarin, but by the time they had circled the walls of Avignon and reached Orange, only fifty miles on their way, it was time for lunch.

In the afternoon they continued on the straight three-lane route up the Rhone, winding through Montélimar and Valence, running straight and wide, with few villages to maneuver, to Vienne, home of La Pyramide, the most famous restaurant in France. But at Vienne, 190 miles along their route, it was too early to stop for the day. They skirted Lyons by the bypass but did not cross the river on the main route. Instead, they took the first cutoff and followed the eastern bank to a little town called Thoissey, with no distinction but a hotel of sixteen rooms that contains one of the fifty-seven two-star restaurants in France.

The Chapon Fin in one more day would close for its month-long annual vacation. It is famous for creamed capon, frogs’ legs sauté, and dessert pancakes, and since it is in the heart of the Beaujolais, a few miles south of Mâcon, its wines are naturally superb. There the Gallimards and Camus spent the night. In the morning they breakfasted on coffee and croissants, paid the bill (less than fifteen dollars for the four of them), and were on their way again.

The whole of the previous day they had gone only a trifle over two hundred miles, a quite moderate average which one can easily make without exceeding and rarely reaching one hundred kilometers an hour; they could have done it, although not so comfortably, in a two-horsepower Citroën. On the fourth they made a little better time, probably because Monday is a good day to travel. It is, for many French shops, a holiday, yet it is free of the Sunday drivers who are still a menace on French roads. After they crossed the Saônc at Mâcon and traveled up the Quai Jean Jaures on Route Nationale Six, they drove one hundred eighty miles before stopping.

Skirting the railway at Tournus, through Chalon-sur-Saône, they wound up into the hills to Saulieu and passed the door of the Côte d’Or, one of the eleven best restaurants in France. And at Avallon they turned into the Rue Carnot and went on toward Paris instead of continuing to Monsieur Hure’s Poste restaurant. By a picturesque but narrow, curving road they reached and skirted the center of Auxerre, crossed the Yonne at Joigny, and drove on to Sens, four hundred miles from Lourmarin, five hundred eighteen from Cannes, for an average of less than forty-five miles per hour while they were traveling.

The Hotel Paris et Poste in Sens is a beautiful and comfortable place, in sight of the Cathédrale St. Etienne and on the main highway between Paris and Burgundy. Its cuisine has won two stars from the Guide Alichelin, with special mention of its Burgundian snails, grilled sausages, and skewered fowl. But it is best to eat lightly when traveling, and considering that the noonday meal is the main one in France, the two courses, dessert, and coffee, accompanied by a bottle of Beaujolais and one of mineral water shared among the Gallimard s and Camus, were very modest. Even so light a meal takes, in a good restaurant, the best part of an hour, however, and Gallimard may have been impatient when, after one o’clock, he started up the Rue du General LeClerc. He surely gave the tires no more than a glance. Was the left rear inflated to the thirty-four pounds required to carry four passengers at a speed of up to one hundred miles an hour? But since, before leaving Sens, he had the tank filled with gasoline, the attendant surely would have noticed had the tire seemed unusually low.

North from Sens, Route Nationale Five curves into St. Denis, then runs straight to Villeperrot, where it kinks and is crossed by an overhead pass; and after Pont-sur-Yonne it wavers around some towns and passes through others. Then, outside Champigny-sur-Yonne, it enters into a straight, old, but quite smooth stretch, bordered with massive plane trees. There Gallimard pressed down the accelerator and took the center of the road.

AS RECONSTRUCTED by journalists for the French magazine L’Automobile, two features of the road, the massive trees and a concrete curb at the side of the road, made international tragedy out of what might have been just another flat tire. For some sixty yards after the left rear tire blew, the rim of that wheel cut into the asphalt. Gallimard fought a winning battle to keep the car on the road, and at least part of the time he was braking. But the right front wheel entered a drainage channel crossing the curb nearly five yards from the tree, and the car was pulled along with it. The impact spun the car into the next tree with such force that the engine and gearbox flew out, and the frame curled around the tree until the right

front wheel nearly touched the rear, with the door beside Camus at the center of the bend.

From pictures in the French press of the speedometer stuck at 145 kilometers an hour, most people have assumed that the car was traveling much faster when the tire exploded; and since, to cause such damage, the car must have been traveling well over Gallimard’s usual speed the previous day, it seems reasonable that he was driving too fast. But life is not a detective story in which the victim’s watch faithfully stops at the moment of violence. If the impact was severe enough to tear the gearbox, to which the speedometer cable was attached, from the car, it could have sent the needle in any direction.

Moreover, it is easy to assume in this case a speed of one hundred miles an hour on a few miles’ straightaway not far from the crowded suburbs of Paris if one starts with the premise that the entire trip from Lourmarin was done in one morning at an average of ninety or more miles an hour; but how explain it in view of the leisurely rate at which the journey was actually traveled? Did a good lunch give Gallimard too high spirits? Did he lose his temper over the stubborn and thoughtless bicyclists returning to work after their lunches in Champigny or the Chaumonts? Had there been a particularly slow truck driver or an excruciatingly arrogant woman wheeling her baby buggy down the middle of the road? These are all common enough events to explain why Gallimard, after four hundred and fifty prudent miles, suddenly became reckless.

In the numerous articles about Camus following the tragedy were many references to the uselessness of his death, the utter senselessness of it, as in the death of his hero Meursault in The Stranger. But Camus was no stranger; he understood the world he lived in and risked his life on the highway with more consciousness than do most of us every day. If he had been killed, as he well might have been, in the Resistance, it would have been meaningful. But by being the gentle creature who was Albert Camus, seeing friendship clearly enough to obscure the dangers of living in the twentieth century, he died as any less thoughtful person might. He, more than anyone else, pointed out the gamble that is involved in living in the twentieth century, and though the events that took his life could have brought about the meaningless death of a nobody, they happened to be equally appropriate — and just as effective — for the death of a real somebody. And, in the infinitely apt French language, la mort de quelqu’un can mean either.