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"As soon as I laid eyes on Catherine, tiny, in a black and white patterned skirt, big beige bubble coat, large black knit cap set haphazardly on her head, sad eyes a bit magnified by glasses, I felt like rushing up to her and giving her a big bear hug. But in Paris, people don't hug friends, nevermind complete strangers with a weird gleam in their eye and big bags from staying up half the night reading L'Etranger and trying to listen for the silence of the world behind drunken singing voices, garbage trucks and the howling wind. Yeah, uh oh, here comes a Camus fan."

Danielle Egan interviews Catherine Camus, daughter of the Nobel Prize winning author


Prepping for the conference on Albert Camus in Paris, I stayed up late reading my old battered copy of The Outsider. It was the only book I brought all the way from Canada for my new life in the city of lights. Reading it for maybe the tenth time in my life was like returning to an old neighbourhood, some things look the same and some things look very different. Like always though it felt like it could have been written yesterday stylistically, culturally and personally. You never outgrow a great work of art.

The two day event, titled "Albert Camus et le mensonge," (Albert Camus and Lying) was hosted by The Centre Pompidou and featured speakers from universities all over Europe. About ten minutes into the first presentation, "Albert Camus, une ecriture de la Verité," I realized I should've hit my French language textbooks instead. I was totally lost. Luckily on day two, among the swarms of etudiants camusiennes in cargo pants and rumple-suited professors, I met another lost-looking soul named Catherine Camus.

As soon as I laid eyes on Catherine, tiny, in a black and white patterned skirt, big beige bubble coat, large black knit cap set haphazardly on her head, sad eyes a bit magnified by glasses, I felt like rushing up to her and giving her a big bear hug. But in Paris, people don't hug friends, nevermind complete strangers with a weird gleam in their eye and big bags from staying up half the night reading L'Etranger and trying to listen for the silence of the world behind drunken singing voices, garbage trucks and the howling wind. Yeah, uh oh, here comes a Camus fan.

She looked like Camus to me, particularly the droopy sad intensity round the eyes and mouth. "I look more like my mother," she said.

When Catherine's mother Francine Camus died in 1979, Catherine became the executor of her father's estate. Every publishing request, including theatre adaptations from college students, photos of Camus alone or with his family, and even love letters to his many mistresses, pass through Catherine for her approval. It can't be easy being the daughter of a legend but even more difficult the child of a legendary Don Juan. But thanks to her, we have The First Man, the 1995 publication of his unfinished autobiography. And we read all those love letters in Olivier Todd's "Camus: A Life," which included pash notes rushed off just prior to leaving his family's vacation house on Rue Camus in Lourmarin for Paris. He never made it back to the arms of any of those women, dying in a car crash, age 47, with an unused train ticket in his pocket.

Favourite writers are like your favourite relative. You hear all the inside gossip and it just makes you like them even more. Unlike your parents they won't punish you when you're bad, they spoil you rotten every time you open one of their books and they are always on the ready for a good frank open conversation; in your head anyway! But when you meet their real kids you realize they're in your blood, sweat and tears only in spirit. And that's probably not a bad thing.

In broken French, I persuaded Catherine Camus to sneak out of the lecture 'Du Nihilisme au Silence Totalitiare,' for a smoke and an interview.

3AM: How do you think your father would feel about all these scholars and students, all these people sitting around in a dark room all day discussing and debating his philosophies?

CC: I speak in French, yes? I will speak slowly. I do not particularly like symposiums. A symposium on Camus is a lie. In my opinion, Camus' position concerning the lie, has rarely been dealt with. However, it is denounced and exposed in all his work. I do not judge people who are participating here. They are doing their work in a place in which they feel comfortable. Personally, a symposium is not my place. I think that university students who study Camus should come at the content from the outside, not from the point of university research. That can be a bit disembodied. There is a sense that something is lacking, life and vitality. All to dissect one single thought. Just one! Open a book. A book is a harmonious unit. But, in a symposium , one does a partial reading on whatever theme, it automatically loses life and vitality,because life is a totality, a whole entity. It is a process. So, that's the problem with a symposium. It is very rare that a small part of a book can be discussed without loosing the soul of the whole.

3AM: One of the speakers on the podium yesterday even lost consciousness. He nodded off during another presentation.

CC: Yes? [Laughs.]

3AM: All the speakers at this conference are European. Do you speak with many Arab scholars or Arab students? Particularly Algerians?

CC: No, I don't know anything about Algeria. I went when I was a little girl, but a lot of talk. I don't want to go. Everybody is dead for me. For my family.

3AM: Did you know your grandmother?

CC: Yes. I knew her. She didn't speak very much and she was deaf. We spoke with our hands.

3AM: How old were you when your father died?

CC: 14.

3AM: Had you read any of his books before he died?

CC: One. Caligula. When I was 12. He was very surprised. I told him it's fun, it's funny. He told me, funny ? Yes funny.

3AM: Did you read it later and think it was less funny?

CC: Yes and no. I feel always funny. I saw other things that weren't funny.

3AM: Editing The First Man must have been difficult personally. How long did the process take?

CC: It took so long, 5 or 6 months, to be published because I took over the management of my father's work in 1980 and it took me time to learn the trade. It was a huge job involving lots of correspondence. I had to decipher three notebooks. I worked like a dog, I didn't lift my head. I was exhausted. [Catherine notices an ash-can.] We can smoke!

3AM: You are his state executor. Is your brother still alive? [They are twins.]

CC: [Catherine rips the filter of her cigarette and puts it in a black cig holder.] Yes and no. My brother never talk about himself. There are many things I knew. I knew everything of what The First Man speaks. But I never speak of my brother. He don't want.

3AM: Your mother wanted to publish The First Man in the 60s but the climate wasn't right. Other philosophers turned away from his because of his anti-communist beliefs and his desire for peaceful ways to settle the disputes among French and Algerians. But I think they might have been attacking him for personal reasons. That they felt scorned by him.

CC: Scorn is for them, not for Camus. He wasn't scornful. Neither am I.

3AM: Yes, that's what I meant, I think. Have you ever wanted to be a writer?

CC: No. I would like to write songs. It's a dream.

3AM: Do you keep a journal?

CC: No. No time.

3AM: What are you working on now?

CC: I don't know. I have many works to do but I am very tired. I don't know how many years without holidays. I have a family, a private life and every woman understands that: work and then house.

3AM: Do you have any assistants in your work as Camus' executor?

CC: No. I am alone. And my friend since one year. We are planning on doing films of L'Etranger and perhaps La Peste. Perhaps.

3AM: Have you already chosen scripts? Will you be approving the scripts?

CC: No scripts chosen but I read the scripts and I can say no, because it's too far from my ideas. I don't like theatre, I like film. We get many scripts for theatre adaptations but not for film scripts. Have you written a script?

3AM: No. Yes. In my head! Your situation must be amazing but it also must be a burden.

CC: Les deux. Both.

3AM: What do you like to do?

CC: I was a lawyer. Administrative lawyer because you have to defend people against state. But I had no time for doing. My mother died very young.

3AM: Do you think that you would have worked with your mother on your father's works and his legacy.

CC: Yes. But I think it was more difficult for her. She was a wife and I am the daughter. I think if made a mistake, everybody makes mistakes, so for me, it's my father, he did not everything right with me, okay, I made a mistake. For her it was much more difficult.

3AM: What do you mean mistake?

CC: You can fail. Everybody fails.

3AM: This is probably an impossible question but, have you learned more from him from his books or from your experiences with him?

CC: I am first and foremost his daughter. That is super intellectual. When you lose a person you love, this person stays with you. I like his books, nothing more. Nothing more. I just take life as it comes. I don't have a mission.

3AM: What is truth to you?

CC: Liberty. Freedom. And love

3AM: This is an especially good time to be examining the subject of truth and lies around the political situation with the Middle East.

CC: Right now, I don't see more truth. It's very sad. I don't know. It seems the only truth is money and I think money is a lie. It's very sad.

3AM: You have children?

CC: Yes, they are old. My son is in perfume - the nose - my son makes perfume. My daughter is a lawyer.

3AM: Have they ever wanted to be writers?

CC: No, happily. But kids are not our property. They are free. Let them free and…it doesn't matter. You should do what passes in your mind. Freedom is a responsibility and I think it's important to teach that to your kids.

3AM: Who are you reading right now?

CC: Tony Hellerman [she laughs]. Ethnological thrillers. He's an American writer. It's easy to read just now.

3AM: My favourite book of Camus' is L'Etranger. I've read it many times. Again yesterday.

CC: I read it just once.

3AM: Which is your favourite book of your father's?

CC: The Fall. I don't know why. I don't know.

The conference is letting out and Catherine's friends want to go to lunch. We shake hands and exchange addresses. Again I suppress the desire to hug her.

On the walk home, I think about truth, lies, responsibility and freedom. The Fall is about a lawyer haunted by the image of a drowning woman whom he didn't save. In real life the drowning woman was his wife Francine, who tried to live with his numerous affairs but eventually had a nervous breakdown. Francine said, "You owed me that book." Camus agreed. I wonder why given his belief in freedom and liberty, he thought he owed her at least the symbolic idea that he left her to drown. He didn't lie about his affairs. He didn't believe in monogamy any more than he believed in god. But I think he believed in love which is a responsibility and a freedom but not always an easy mix. Love, like truth, comes in all different shades.

I remember this paper I wrote on existentialism. My teacher gave it back with an F. She'd underlined true and truth wherever it appeared in the essay, probably about twenty times, with a question mark beside each. She wanted to know what I meant by truth. I still can't answer that question because truth like love is subjective. Truths are fictions. In life, I think honesty and dishonesty are more graspable and humane. Anyway, I have an Etranger movie script to write. And a letter to my parents.


Danielle Egan is a writer and journalist living in Paris. She eats a lot of cheese, collects rejection letters from fiction agents and publishers for her first novel and is now also working on a coffee table book called Love Letters from Agents and Publishers.

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