The Meeting That Never Was




1.

ONE DAY in February 1945, in Paris, George Orwell waited at the café Deux Magots, where he was to meet Albert Camus for the first time. But Camus, suffering from tuberculosis and exhaustion — because of which he was currently on leave from his editorship of the resistance newspaper Combat — didn’t show up. They would never again have the chance to meet each other. Five years later, Orwell died, in England — from an illness related to his own tuberculosis.

This may very well be one of the great missed opportunities in 20th-century European letters. But although Orwell and Camus were two of the most intriguing political and literary figures of their time, they are rarely considered in relation to each other, and when they are, it is usually not to any great depth. There are superficial similarities between them that tend to distract from looking for deeper affinities, albeit buried beneath significant antimonies. Although, politically and intellectually, they drew many of the same conclusions, these were, more often than not, arrived at from very different starting points, or via different routes. And that is, ultimately, why Orwell and Camus are so interesting to consider together. In a sense, the life and work of each man acts as an independent variable to confirm the truths and the doubts revealed by the life and work of the other.

Even their similarities, if prodded gently, reveal telling differences. Take, for example, the most iconic, albeit the most superficial, similarity between Orwell and Camus: their obsessive cigarette smoking. Orwell rolled his own cigarettes, from the cheapest shag tobacco he could find — the type used by the British working class. Camus smoked Gauloises, a prepackaged, unfiltered cigarette, very popular amongst the French intelligentsia and artistic community. For each man, their preferred cigarette was a symbol for the world they tried to inhabit, but which was never really their home. For Camus, it was the French intellectual scene, a far cry from his poor Algerian origins. For Orwell, it was the British working class, very different from his middle-class upbringing, his public schooling, and his service in the Imperial Police. Each cigarette they smoked was both an act of solidarity and a calmative against not entirely fitting into their chosen worlds.

They entered each of these worlds as writers, however. But they had very different approaches and attitudes toward writing. They both considered writing as a vocation. Yet Orwell also saw it as an occupation. For him, to be a writer meant earning a living from your published work. This is why Orwell early on set himself a goal of writing and publishing one book every year. It is also why he wrote so many articles, and did so many book reviews (and later film reviews, even though he hated doing so). His freelance writing was to support his book writing. And his book writing was to support his living.

Camus also made a decision early on regarding his own career. But he felt that writing was not an occupation. It was not something to earn a living from, and so he sought out other employment. In his youth, he was struck by the romantic argument that money tainted art. But as he got older, and his romanticism faded, he worked more out of necessity. His university education was geared toward him becoming a schoolteacher, but his tuberculosis made him ineligible for the role. He had tried various odd jobs, both during and after his university study. He was a meteorologist assistant, for example. An uncle even wanted him to take over the family butcher shop, and to teach him the trade. But Camus eventually fell into journalism. Even here the writing aspect was always only a part of other more menial tasks, like typesetting, or more laborious roles, like editing and proofing or seeing someone else’s work through to print.

Orwell and Camus also approached their own writing differently. Orwell was only able to work on one project at a time. So when he had reviews to write, or a series of commissioned articles to complete, he would put aside his book manuscript, sometimes for months at a time. Even on those rare occasions when he did have a job — such as in the mid-’30s, when he briefly worked in a London bookshop, or when in the late ’30s he and his wife Eileen opened a village grocery shop in Hertfordshire — he made the job fit around his writing, and always saw it as something secondary. Running a grocery shop didn’t, for example, stop Orwell from traveling to Northern England to research his book on working-class life, or to Spain to fight against the fascists. But when a job became all-consuming — such as when he worked for the BBC during the war, and then as literary editor of Tribune — his own writing all but stopped. Starting in 1933, Orwell published one book every year up until 1939. His next book, Animal Farm, was not published until 1945. He would look back on these years in between as wasted.

During and after the war, Camus worked as a newspaper editor at Combat but also as a book editor at Gallimard, where he curated his own series (publishing, for the first time, writers such as Simone Weil and Violette Leduc). Still, Camus didn’t let his day job get in the way of his own writing. His illness had taught him that time was short, and so he didn’t waste any of it. Unlike Orwell, however, Camus would work on several projects at once. Despite his journalism, and essay writing, Camus tended to develop what he called “cycles” of work, based around a common theme. His aim was to write a novel, a play, and a book-length essay to make up each cycle of work. Although the reality never entirely matched the plan, he kept to this method throughout his life. At the same time that he was working on his novel The Stranger, for example, he was also writing his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, and working on the play Caligula. Meanwhile, the seeds of his next cycle were already being sown in his notebooks, and rehearsed in his journalism and essay writing.

Part of the reason for these different attitudes and approaches to writing may be due to their different social backgrounds. For Orwell, that background was middle-class, old Etonian — even when he rebelled against it he was still inculcated by the attitudes that came with it. He had seen several of his classmates — such as Cyril Connolly — go on to become writers and editors of literary journals and newspapers, and so he was never in any doubt that a literary career was not something he could pursue. His five years in the Burmese Police were, he later said, partly an attempt to actively avoid becoming a writer — as if it was always inevitable.

Camus, on the other hand, came from very poor, largely illiterate, working-class French Algeria. There was hardly anything inevitable in Camus’s becoming a writer. Growing up, there were no books in the house, and no privacy. During the school holidays, he worked with his uncles and older brother in a wine-barrel factory. His older brother didn’t go to high school, but went instead to work full-time with their uncles. Camus was supposed to follow suit, but an intervention from a schoolteacher, Louis Germain — and later the encouragement of a high school teacher and then university lecturer, Jean Grenier — made Camus see new possibilities. But even here, these possibilities extended mainly to the goal of becoming a high school teacher, and the need for a steady, honest job. Writing was certainly a possibility, but it was always something besides, something you did after work hours. For a working-class family in 1930s Algeria, writing was not considered legitimate work.

Tuberculosis affected Orwell and Camus in very different ways. Orwell was often sickly, and his illnesses were always lung-related. From early childhood he had bouts of chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, and influenza, often resulting in hospitalization. In September 1938, when he was 35, he went to French Morocco to recover from his first official bout of tuberculosis, although an older tubercular lesion was also found on his lungs. He became acclimatized to illness early on, to the extent that he didn’t let it get in the way of his more adventurous activities. He fought in Spain in 1936, for example, where he was shot in the throat. It was not until the Second World War that tuberculosis stopped him from enlisting. Even then, he threw himself into the home guard, and later — at the time he was supposed to meet Camus — worked as a war correspondent.

Camus contracted tuberculosis when he was 17, much younger than when Orwell became aware of his illness, but older than Orwell in his having to cope with illness in general. It therefore came as more of a shock to Camus when he was first diagnosed. Despite the poverty of his childhood, Camus was a robust and active child, playing soccer and swimming in the ocean. But tuberculosis, during the 1930s in French Algeria, was effectively a death sentence. Camus only received basic treatment because his father had died fighting in the First World War, which made the Camus children eligible for free medical care. The severity of the illness restricted his activities. He was unable to enlist to fight in Spain during the civil war in the mid-1930s, and later, at the start of the Second World War, he was again unable to enlist, despite repeated attempts.

Tuberculosis shaped Camus’s life more so than it did Orwell’s. The latter often treated his illness as an annoying aside, something he acted in spite of. It helped that his brother-in-law, Laurence O’Shaughnessy, was a leading thoracic surgeon and attending doctor at the sanatorium where Orwell would often stay in the late 1930s. Although it could be argued that Orwell’s pervasive pessimism — especially in his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, written when he knew he was dying of tuberculosis — could, in part, be due to his own sense of mortality, illness never really became a prominent subject for his writing (his essay “How the Poor Die” being a notable exception).

Camus, on the other hand, constantly referred to tuberculosis in his writing, both explicitly and implicitly. In the original version of The Stranger, for example, the protagonist dies from tuberculosis. Although by the time he reworked the material into The Stranger, he had removed overt references to the illness, the mood pervades. The description of Meursault on the beach, for example, moments before shooting the Arab, was the same as his description of tubercular fever found in an earlier draft of the novel — but also the same as in his own notebooks, when describing his own experience. One of the earliest existing prose pieces by the young Camus, from 1933, soon after his first stint in hospital, is a piece called “The Hospital in a Poor Neighbourhood.” Like Orwell, even in his own suffering Camus becomes aware of the suffering of others, and the cumulative effects of poverty and illness on the mind:

Early in his illness, the man had found himself prevented from working, weakened, with no resources, and in despair over the poverty that had settled on his wife and children. He had not been thinking of death, but one day he threw himself beneath the wheels of a passing automobile. ‘Like that.’

When Camus wrote of the question of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus, it was not therefore a theoretical or rhetorical problem he was raising, but a practical and personal one. Later, in The Plague — Camus’s fictional equivalent of Nineteen Eighty-Four — the pervasive metaphor of illness is used to describe the same totalitarian atmosphere that Orwell described in his own novel. The etiology of the plague in Camus’s novel is conspicuously ambiguous, however, although the symptoms are remarkably similar to those of his own tuberculosis.

 

2.

February 1945 was a significant moment in the life and work of both Orwell and Camus, regardless of them not actually meeting. Even had they done so, it is unlikely they would have been aware that their individual actions over the previous months would have great consequences for each of them. The previous February, Orwell had finished Animal Farm, but was unable to get it published, because of its literary style, its political implications — even because of a wartime paper shortage. It is the novel that, when finally published, would make him immediately famous across the world. But by the time he was supposed to meet Camus, the novel remained in manuscript form, its potential unknown, even to Orwell himself.

Camus was already famous for The Stranger (1942). But since late August 1944, his renown had steadily grown, as he was also famous for being the editor of Combat. Since the liberation of Paris in late August the previous year, when Combat began publishing openly, the fame Camus had previously known as a novelist had been compounded by his journalism: he was now a public intellectual. Yet his general exhaustion, the liberation and subsequent purge of collaborationists, had taken its toll on Camus’s already weakened health. It was in January 1945 — the month before he was supposed to meet Orwell — that the most significant event occurred, although it was not considered so at the time. Even Camus needed a longer period to reflect on its significance.

Camus was initially in favor of the purge trials, but he quickly became disillusioned by the arbitrariness of their application. The turning point came when he was asked to sign a petition to commute the sentence of Robert Brasillach, a notorious collaborationist journalist. After a sleepless night on January 25, 1945, Camus signed the petition. It was not successful, however, and Brasillach was executed. It would not be until November the following year — in a series of eight articles published in Combat under the title “Neither Victims nor Executioners” — that Camus would publicly write about the ideas that were born from this moment, particularly to do with his rejection, on principle, of the death penalty. This series would rehearse the basic arguments that Camus would later expand in his book The Rebel, completed in 1950 — several months after Orwell’s death — and published in 1951.

For Orwell, the most significant event occurred in March 1945, the month after his failed meeting with Camus. It is perhaps the reason why they never managed to reschedule. Orwell was also ill at this point, and in March he entered a hospital in Cologne. The seriousness of his condition is accounted for by his writing, for the first time (on March 31), instructions for his literary executor. What he didn’t know at the time, but found out almost immediately afterward, was that two days earlier in England, on March 29, his wife Eileen had died undergoing routine surgery. When he found out, although still deathly ill, he hurried back to England. The death of his wife numbed Orwell, and he threw himself into his work. By April, he had returned to Europe to continue his war correspondence, but by this stage the Allies were already into Germany and Austria, with Orwell trailing behind.

Meanwhile, Camus had also left Paris. He was already back in Algeria, picking up his pre-war investigations and criticisms of the effects of colonialism. He had already published a series of articles in Algeria in 1939 on this topic, and now he returned for a series of articles that would be published in Combat in 1945. Later, while Camus had completed and published The Plague, and was hard at work on what would become The Rebel, Orwell was already in Jura, Scotland, working on his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four — and dying.

In August 1945, Animal Farm was finally published to instant acclaim. Orwell would later send Camus a copy of the French translation of the novel — interestingly, in the French version, the name of the pig, Napoleon, was changed to Caesar, so as not to hurt French sensibilities. Camus, writing The Rebel at that time, would have been amused, had he known.

 

3.

Although Camus was already famous in France for his work from the early 1940s, it was his post-war work — beginning with the publication of The Plague — that brought him international renown. Orwell became internationally famous at about the same time. It is from the 1950s onward that the reputations of both figures were truly established. But such reputations — often disproportionate to the work in question — are almost always based on misunderstandings and oversimplifications. For Orwell, this process largely occurred after his death (January 21, 1950). Camus struggled against his own growing reputation, often in vain, throughout the 1950s, until his own death on January 4, 1960.

Even here, in these misunderstandings and oversimplifications, a comparison between Orwell and Camus is worth pursuing. Their reputations have been secured, largely through the imposition of a false binary over each of their work, with one half being brought narrowly into relief against the attempted suppression of the other half. The dividing line is between their fiction and their nonfiction, their art and their politics: Camus is seen as a great literary figure, but a poor political thinker, while Orwell as a great political writer, but a poor literary figure.

What is ultimately compelling about these men, however, is that they are both consummate literary and political writers. The two aspects of their work — the literary and the political — cannot be pitted against each other. It is the balance between the two that is responsible for the creative force behind each man’s work. By reconsidering Orwell and Camus in relation to each other, the prominent aspect of each can be used to rehabilitate the suppressed aspect of the other.

Both rehearsed their literary and political thinking throughout the 1930s. Orwell’s thinking evolved more publicly in various book reviews, as well as articles and books. Camus rehearsed his ideas more privately, in his notebooks and unpublished essays, but also in the occasional published book review (in Algeria). It was not until The Myth of Sisyphus was published (1942) that his mature ideas on aesthetics would become known, albeit largely ignored. What is essential to note is that, for both men, these ideas, both literary and political, were developed in unison, and were forged in the act of writing, and in response to the same climate of political and social unease.

Although Orwell became famous for his final two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, their reputation is built on the political message they carry. And to get at that message, the literary and artistic aspects of these works have been pushed to the side. The retrospective appraisal of his pre-war books holds up his nonfiction works (The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia) and downplays his novels (A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air), except when (as with Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days) they can be mined for autobiographical and social or political import. His political journalism and essays are seen as the core of his thinking, and Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as popular illustrations of these ideas.

But Orwell himself, very early in his career, argued against this style of reading literature. In one of his first book reviews, in 1930, for example — on Lewis Mumford’s book Herman Melville — he argues that such interpretation (an “unpleasant but necessary word”) is a “dangerous method of approaching a work of art. Done with absolute thoroughness, it would cause art itself to vanish.” Reducing a work of art to an allegorical message, he said, “is like eating an apple for the pips.” In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus also argued against reducing novels to what he called a “thesis-novel, the work that proves, the most hateful of all, […] the one that most often is inspired by a smug thought.” For both men, a novel is not supposed to tell the reader what to think, but rather to create the conditions through which the reader can experience thinking for themselves. This idea became the creative spark that fired also their political imaginations, especially their opposition to totalitarianism.

Throughout the 1930s, both Camus and Orwell saw the problem of the contemporary novel in terms of the tendencies toward either formalism or realism. On the one hand, empty formalism focused on technique, on art for art’s sake; on the other, social realism or naturalism revealed the world, but without any structure, or by attaching a simplistic morality to the work. Both men recognized the merits of each, but also the absurdity of allowing each aspect to dominate a work of art.

For Orwell, the two most influential books throughout the 1930s were James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. He argued, both publicly (in reviews) and privately (in letters), that Ulysses perfectly used various formal techniques to examine, for the first time, both the outside and the inside of the ordinary man, and to bridge the gap between the “intellectual” and the “man-in-the-street.” Tropic of Cancer focused the reader’s attention on the brutal and often ugly facts of everyday life. But Orwell also felt that both books went too far in each direction — the formalism of the former, and the brutal naturalism of the latter. He strove to develop his own style that joined the best of both, while jettisoning the worst. Incorporating the political into his writing — thinking about the political in literary terms — is what allowed him to strike a balance.

This is one of the often missed points of his otherwise well-known essay “Politics and the English Language.” Although he explicitly states that he is not examining the “literary use of language,” he is still looking at the use of literary language in political writing. The whole focus of the essay is to examine the use of imagery and metaphor, and the misuse of cliché and abstract language — the way that politics uses language to corrupt or prevent thought, and the way we can rejuvenate our language in order to allow and clarify our thinking.

Moreover, the reason Orwell wasn’t looking at the “literary use of language” in that essay is that he had already done so in a previous one, “The Prevention of Literature” — which, in many respects, provides the context and the conditions for understanding more clearly the argument in “Politics and the English Language.” (The two essays were written almost in conjunction with one another in late 1945, soon after Orwell and Camus were supposed to meet.)

In this earlier essay, Orwell makes the explicit link between literature and totalitarianism, and shows how a politics that tends toward totalitarianism not only reduces the capacity of literature to be created and read, but also that totalitarianism achieves its own goals, in part, through the very process of preventing literature from being created and read. The reason for this, Orwell argues, is that literature is concerned with increasing consciousness, free thought, the imagination, all of which are anathema to totalitarianism. For him, literary thinking is inextricably linked to intellectual honesty. “At some time in the future, if the human mind becomes something totally different from what it is, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.” For Orwell, reading a novel for its allegorical message, while ignoring its literary context, is a form of intellectual dishonesty. For Camus, such a reading is inspired by a “smug thought”: “You demonstrate the truth you feel sure of possessing.”

This unity of the literary and the political in Orwell’s work is central also to his other well-known essay “Why I Write,” where he explicitly states: “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” The essay includes an often cited passage, used to supposedly highlight his political writing at the expense of his literary writing: “looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” But this ignores a previous, qualifying statement from the same essay: “But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.”

The context for these passages is created by the main argument of his essay. Here Orwell examines four motivations for why writers, in general — and himself in particular — write: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. “I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth [the political],” he adds. It is worth noting that one aspect for which Orwell is renowned — his focus on “things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity” — is, for him, the definition of the historical impulse, and not, as may be assumed, his political purpose.

It was, indeed, the historical context that Orwell found himself in that forced him, albeit against his nature, to become political. But it was his literary thinking — from which his intellectual honesty evolved — that forced him to consider his historical context so clearly, so as to become political. It is for this reason that Orwell, on occasion, referred to himself as a “literary intellectual.”

This self-description, and the argument behind it, aptly applies also to Camus. In a 1951 interview, for example, he said:

What, in fact, is the aim of every creative artist? To depict the passions of his day. In the seventeenth century, the passions of love were at the forefront of people’s minds. But today, the passions of our century are collective passions, because society is in disorder. Artistic creation, instead of removing us from the drama of our time, is one of the means we are given of bringing it closer. Totalitarian regimes are well aware of this, since they consider us their first enemies. Isn’t it obvious that everything which destroys art aims to strengthen ideologies that make men unhappy?

And yet, where Orwell is praised for his political judgment, albeit based upon a denigration of his literary imagination, Camus is praised for his literary works (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all), but, in the process, he is denigrated for his political thinking — often dismissed as a noble but vague humanism; admirable, but not worth taking seriously.

However, by the time most of the French intelligentsia embraced Communism in the late 1940s and ’50s, Camus had already joined and been expelled from the Communist Party (the Algerian branch). At a time when many others — such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre — were being seduced by Communism, Camus was already aware of its theoretical contradictions and practical impossibilities. His experiences during the purges of the mid-1940s showed him that today’s victims can easily become tomorrow’s executioners. His own political thinking — which, like Orwell’s, was grounded in intellectual honesty and concrete experience — developed early, through his growing up in poverty in working-class Algeria. What Orwell learned only slowly, and from the outside, about poverty and working-class culture, Camus knew firsthand, from the root source.

Camus sharpened his political sensibilities through his journalism, which forced upon him the practice of keeping an open mind, of collecting the facts for himself, and then thinking through their significance and implications. Take, for example, his 1939 series of articles on the drought and famine of the Kabylia region of Algeria. The lyricism of Camus’s prose is often cited, but what is ignored are the dozens of pages full of painstaking detail, facts and figures, and reported conversations with those affected, the attempt to examine the environmental, the social, the cultural, the colonial, the economic, and the political aspects of the situation. Nearly two decades later, these pieces were collected together with Camus’s other writings about Algeria. Covering more than eighty printed pages, his preface notes, however, that “pieces were too long and detailed to reproduce here in their entirety, and I have cut overly general observations and sections on housing, welfare, crafts, and usury.” These articles are the equivalent of Orwell’s investigation into working-class life, published as The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). When they were first published in June 1939, the political and media uproar led to Camus’s blacklisting in Algeria and his self-exile to Paris. Needless to say, he was not blacklisted for his lyricism.

In a series of articles published in May 1945 in Combat, Camus examined the changing political situation in Algeria, based on his previous series of articles in 1939, and showed how it had shifted for the worse. More than a decade before the French intelligentsia would see colonialism and the Algerian situation as an “issue” worth thinking about, Camus was already warning that the political reality on the ground was leading the country into self-destruction. His practical solutions — suggested in 1939, updated in 1945 — and his early criticisms against French colonialism all went unheeded.

In his journalism, Camus was also focused on domestic French, European, and international politics. A constant refrain in his Combat editorials and articles — written in the course of facing day-to-day political and social struggles — is the criticism that what is lacking in contemporary politics is a sense of “imagination.” Like Orwell, Camus saw the imagination as essential to forcing an individual to see the concrete reality beyond the words and ideologies of his day. Here is but one example, from an editorial on August 30, 1944: “Thirty-four Frenchmen tortured and then murdered at Vincennes: without help from our imagination these words say nothing. And what does the imagination reveal? Two men, face-to-face, one of whom is preparing to tear out the fingernails of the other, who looks him in the eye.” There are numerous other examples in Camus’s journalism. They are the equivalent of Orwell’s famous line: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me” — of which he, too, has numerous other, lesser-known examples in his own writing.

But each of these tiny moments of detail is the outcome of a more fully developed imagination. Such imagination is the lynchpin between the political and the literary aspects of the work of both Orwell and Camus. For Orwell, this political imagination is associated with “decency.” Camus also spoke of “decency” in his journalism, but, for him, it was associated mainly with an attitude of “modesty.”

Much of the development of Camus’s political thinking, culminating in The Rebel, is based around his opposition to all forms of modern nihilism, whether they came from the right or the left. But even here Camus has a unique perspective on what nihilism is: “A nihilist is not one who believes in nothing, but one who does not believe in what exists.” It is precisely the same criticism that Orwell leveled against totalitarianism: “Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.” Most commentators focus on the first part of this statement, and ignore the implications of the second part. This is from the same essay in which Orwell rehearses an image used so powerfully in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “So long as physical reality cannot be altogether ignored, so long as two and two have to make four […].” And the essay in which this appears? “The Prevention of Literature.”

Camus’s equivalent to this essay appeared as a later chapter in his political work The Rebel. There he described how the roots of rebellion — and its inextricable belief in limits, predicated upon what exists, and its preservation — were the same as the roots of art. For Camus, as for Orwell, the separation of the two aspects of human experience, the political and the literary, is the first sign of the decadence of each. Camus writes:

The trial of art has been opened definitively and is continuing today with the embarrassed complicity of artists and intellectuals dedicated to calumniating both their art and their intelligence. We notice, in fact, that in the contest between Shakespeare and the shoemaker, it is not the shoemaker who maligns Shakespeare or beauty but, on the contrary, the man who continues to read Shakespeare and who does not choose to make shoes — which he could never make, if it comes to that.

 

4.

So what would have happened had these two men actually met in 1945? Les Deux Magots was a popular café and meeting place for Parisian writers and intellectuals. In 1928, when Orwell was down and out in Paris, fresh out of the Burmese Police, he thought he saw James Joyce there. Now here he was seated at that same café, wearing a British Army officer uniform, standard for a war correspondent. He was in France to write articles about the liberation for The Observer and the Manchester Evening News. Camus would have been in his usual suit and trench coat. They would probably have spoken in French, Orwell being better at French than Camus at English. They would have smoked, albeit different cigarettes.

Orwell was 10 years older than Camus, but Camus was often at ease with older male figures, perhaps because he never knew his father. One of his most significant male relationships throughout the late ’30s and early ’40s was Pascal Pia. He was the same age as Orwell. Pia introduced Camus to the newspaper world, and found him work in Paris. He was part of the resistance, and worked with Camus, as a sort of political mentor, at Combat. André Malraux was another figure Camus admired and became friends with. He was two years older than Orwell and Pia. Malraux was perhaps closer to Orwell in sensibility, a literary man who liked action. He also took part in the Spanish Civil War, and he liked to wear military dress, like Orwell during this period as a war correspondent.

Orwell had arranged the meeting with Camus, ostensibly on the basis of the latter having been the editor of Combat during the final months of the war. In an article Orwell was researching at the time — published in the Manchester Evening News on 28 February, 1945 — about the French newspaper scene, Orwell cited Combat as one of the leading “Left-wing Socialist” newspapers that was still able to retain some of its critical power amidst the rising status quo and censorship of post-war Paris. Orwell was probably thinking of the likes of Camus when he wrote: “But the experience of the occupation has produced in large numbers a new type of journalist — very young, idealistic and yet hardened by illegality, and completely non-commercial in outlook — and these men are bound to make their influence felt in the post-war Press.” So they would have probably spoken about the occupation and the liberation, and about the press, about censorship and paper shortages.

Had the conversation gone off topic, had they spoken about other than immediate things, it is likely that they would have spoken about Spain. Orwell’s 1938 book Homage to Catalonia, about his experience of the Spanish Civil War, was soon to be published in a French translation. Camus had an abiding affiliation with Spain. His mother was Spanish. He was also currently having a love affair with María Casares — a Spanish actress, the daughter of Santiago Casares y Quiroga, the prime minister of Spain during the military uprising in 1936, which started the civil war. Camus would have been interested to hear about Orwell’s time in Spain, and especially about his being shot through the throat. Orwell would have been interested to hear, via Camus’s close contacts, current news of Spain.

But they would perhaps not have spoken for long, or about many of the topics discussed here. Orwell and his English reserve, Camus and his Algerian pudeur, would have seen to this, at least at their first meeting. Coffee over, cigarettes snubbed out, they would have shaken hands and then gone their separate ways, but ever in the same direction.

¤

Matthew Lamb is the founding editor of Review of Australian Fiction and the current editor of Island.


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