When Albert Camus said on the evening of December 12, 1957, “I have not yet given my opinion about Algeria, but I will if you ask me,” he was making an offer that students at the University of Stockholm could not refuse. Two days earlier, Camus had become the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Algeria, the setting for his world-famous novels The Stranger and The Plague, as well as his place of birth, was the site of an escalating colonial war. What’s more, in February 1956, Camus had resigned from his editorializing at L’Express and imposed upon himself a public silence about the conflict, having failed in a series of articles and meetings to convince either French officials or members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (fln) of the virtues of dialogue and the need for a civilian truce.
So even if an Algerian man hadn’t asked Camus that December night why he neglected to sign petitions on behalf of Algerians and then insulted him, the writer’s opinion was bound to be newsworthy. Amid interruptions, Camus asserted, “You are in favor of democracy in Algeria, so please be democratic now and let me speak . . . . Let me finish my sentences, because the meaning of a sentence often isn’t clear until it ends.” After citing his credentials as a journalist who had once been forced to leave Algeria for defending Muslims and stating that while publicly silent he had not ceased to act, Camus said, “I have always condemned terror. I must also condemn the blind terrorism that can be seen in the streets of Algiers, for example, which someday might strike my mother or family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” When Camus ended that sentence, he neither knew that its meaning was unclear nor that his words on the matter would be so quotable as to become in effect his last: In 1960, while riding from Lourmarin to Paris with his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, he died in a car crash at the age of 46.
Ever since Le Monde published the sole account of the exchange, the oft-called “famous” or “controversial” remark has been open to interpretation. Its weighing of one life with the principled fate of many has been attacked as a cowardly stance on colonialism—rendering him reminiscent of the youngest Nobel recipient, Rudyard Kipling—and defended as a humanist’s nuanced critique of terrorism. It isn’t surprising, then, that the Stockholm incident is revisited in two new books, Camus’ Algerian Chronicles, edited and introduced by Alice Kaplan and translated by Arthur Goldhammer, and A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, by Robert Zaretsky. What is surprising is that Kaplan and Zaretsky both present an alternate version of events that was recently endorsed by the editors of Camus’ Complete Works, based on the testimony of Camus’ Swedish translator, who heard the controversial words differently: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” This straightening of the record, more clearly a refutation of a single definition of justice, isn’t the only likeness the books share, and, read in tandem, the one fills the other out. The concise biography gives backstory to the life Camus led over the 19-year period that his Algerian essays span, and the journalism in Chronicles is a very useful frame for that engaged life. To grasp what Camus meant in Stockholm, it’s necessary to understand his intellectual and moral development as spelled out in his readings of Greek tragedy and his writings for Combat, a French Resistance newspaper, during and after World War II.
There’s an earlier anecdote about Camus that neither of these books mentions—although Zaretsky discussed it in a previous work, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life—that foreshadowed his stand on Algeria. After recanting his support for the purge of Nazi collaborators during the postwar trials in France, in some cases having called for the death penalty, Camus ran into an old friend in late 1946. The friend had just joined the Communist Party at a time when doing so meant explaining away Josef Stalin’s gulags. As recorded in his notebook, Camus said:
“Then you’ll be a murderer.”
“I’ve already been one,” the friend replied.
“I too. But I don’t want to be any more.”
“You were my sponsor.”
That was true.
“Listen, Tar. This is the real problem: whatever happens, I shall always defend you against the firing squad. But you will be obliged to approve my being shot. Think about that.”