A Russian Plot? No, a French Obsession

How absurd.

What better response to the news that, a half-century after Albert Camus’s death, an Italian scholar claims that the car accident that took his life was not an accident at all, but instead the work of the K.G.B.? According to the account, a well-known Czech poet confided to his diary that he had learned that Camus, a consistent and courageous critic of Communism, died after Soviet spies punctured a tire of the car he was traveling in, which then swerved off the road and wrapped itself around a tree.

It may be surprising that no such rumors existed at the time. In the bleak atmosphere of the cold war, the incredible seemed all too credible. The Soviet Union had recently tested its first atomic bomb. The Communist Party, loyal to Moscow and claiming the allegiance of the working class and intellectuals, was one of the largest in France. Few doubted it when the prominent philosopher Roger Garaudy predicted that “the 20th century will go down in history as the century of the victory of Communism.”

Conspiracy theories abounded in this hothouse atmosphere. Communists accused the government of agreeing to let the Coca-Cola Company turn the facade of Notre-Dame Cathedral into a billboard. The government arrested a Communist leader, Jacques Duclos, whose car contained two pigeons — carriers, the police claimed, for flying messages to Moscow. That Duclos, whose stomach remained French even while his heart had gone over to Moscow, meant those pigeons to go no farther than his dinner table was, of course, overlooked in the passions of the moment.

It would have been perfectly normal, in that context, for a rumor of Soviet malfeasance to flare once news of Camus’s death flashed across France.

But instead, most people latched on to a different contemporary obsession à la française: fast cars and spectacular accidents.

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, a deep preoccupation with cars throbbed through French popular culture. When novelists, musicians and film directors were not busy using the car and road as metonyms or signifiers, they were instead busy dying, or being maimed, in real cars on real roads. The “French James Dean,” the novelist Roger Nimier, who once spoke of changing “ink into gasoline,” predicted he would die on a highway and fulfilled this forecast in a spectacular accident in 1962; Françoise Sagan, author of “Bonjour Tristesse,” nearly said au revoir la vie after she demolished her Aston Martin in 1957; the adventurer André Malraux’s two sons died in a car accident in 1961. Even Roland Barthes, who compared the Citroën DS to a Gothic cathedral, was eventually taken down in 1980 Paris by a drab laundry van run amok.

By the 1960s, France’s yearly toll of traffic fatalities dwarfed those of comparable countries. It was in the midst of this piston-driven devastation that the sporty Facel Vega, driven by Camus’s close friend Michel Gallimard, veered off the road. Who needed Moscow to explain the event? An engine with too much horsepower on a road designed not for cars, but horses, sufficed.

“There is grim philosophical irony in the fact that Albert Camus should have died in a senseless automobile accident,” an article in The New York Times following his death began, “victim of a chance mishap.” But to those Camus left behind, death by car was not exactly senseless. While his contemporaries were turning to religion or ideologies to escape the absurd, they were also turning to, well, cars. Going fast — going too fast — in slim cars with seductive names like Citroën’s “Goddess” seemed to offer a ticket to eternity, and to many onlookers, a high-speed death seemed a sensible, almost poetic, end for the era’s brightest stars.

In its allusion to the absurd nature of Camus’s death, The Times got it only half right. A death, Camus noted, is not absurd or meaningless because it results from chance or a mishap, but instead because we refuse to accept the very possibility of senselessness. We insist upon meaning, even when we invent or impose it. It is our confrontation with the universe, not something inherent to the universe itself, that leads to absurdity. “The absurd,” he insisted, “depends as much on man as on the world.” It occurs when one combines the world’s silence with our need for understanding.

And it can occur at any moment, even or perhaps especially in cars. “At any street corner,” Camus warned, “the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” When a friend warned him about driving on highways, he replied, “Don’t worry, I hate speed and don’t like automobiles.” Owner of a rarely used Citroën, his attitude to speed matched his attitude to religious or ideological faith: they were false methods of relieving ourselves of the weight of our lives. Life, he believed, precisely because it is absurd, is our most precious and weighty possession.

When the police reached the wrecked Facel Vega, they found Camus’s briefcase flung several yards from his broken body. Inside was the unfinished manuscript for his autobiographical novel, “The First Man.” In its pages we discover neither faith nor Facel Vegas. “Life,” he wrote, “so vivid and mysterious, was enough to occupy his entire being.”

As we near the centenary of Camus’s birth, we should listen to him and ignore the cloak-and-dagger theory now spackling the Web. Life, thank the silent heavens, holds mystery enough.

By Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the University of Houston, Honors College, and the author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life.

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