Friends in High Places

The Double Life of Albert Camus


in Ideas • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


It’s November 1943 in occupied France. Albert Camus, barely 30 years old, has just arrived in Paris. He is living a double life.  

By day, he is a burgeoning literary star, whose novel The Stranger (1942) has exploded onto the French literary scene to rapturous praise. He is working for his publisher, the famed Gallimard, surrounded there by the elite of French letters. He has been introduced to the intellectual power couple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and will soon form a powerful friendship with the duo. Life is good for the young upstart writer who is already being placed next to Hemingway and Voltaire in the literary pantheon.  

By night, he is an engaged resister, working for the Combat resistance movement under the pseudonym “Bauchard.” Right now, he is contributing to the physical production of the organization’s newspaper and writing the occasional article but in a year’s time he will be its editor-in-chief. With each clandestine issue published, he is risking his life; by the war’s end, friends and colleagues will be arrested, deported, and killed. Life is dangerous for the young resister, who is meeting weekly in the cramped backroom of a concierge’s apartment.   

These dual identities, ostensibly disparate from one another, are in fact inextricable. Indeed, the separation between Camus’s literary and resistance personas was deliberately manufactured by practicality — the need to be discrete in the face of a very real and overhanging danger during the Occupation — and both halves enjoyed the symbiosis. The “singular prestige” that Raymond Aron described Camus as enjoying post-Liberation was predicated upon public knowledge of his dual roles as writer and resister. “Camus, the author of The Stranger” and “Camus, the resister,” as Sartre later put it in his otherwise intensely antagonistic response to Camus’s The Rebel of 1952, represented two sides of the same coin: “the admirable conjunction of a person, an action, an oeuvre.”  

The linchpin to this oeuvre? His network. For not only were the identities of Camus the author and Camus the resister the same, but so too were the circles they moved in. To wit: the former enjoyed the aid of well-connected confidants who helped place a precocious Algerian-born talent within the sightlines of the movers and shakers of the French world of letters. And by virtue of his connections to that world, he was also on the periphery of resistance milieus. During the war years, they were oftentimes one and the same, and tracing the interconnected and intersecting maneuverings of literary and resistance circles, reveals the transversal, and indeed confluent, lines of relations that helped propel Camus to the zenith of French literary life.  

Camus was born in 1913 to a family living in poverty in the multiethnic, working-class Belcourt district of Algiers. He grew up without his father, who was killed in WWI, and with an invalid mother. He attended high school on scholarship and his ambition in life, before his tuberculosis diagnosis at the mere age of 17, was to teach. This upbringing is a far cry from the typically bourgeois backgrounds of the French literary class. Literary Paris was a world replete with Normaliens (students and alumni of the prestigious École normale supérieure) and the privileged denizens of the Left Bank, where the heavyweight intellectual institutions lie beside the great cultural institutions. It was also socially proximate — a tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone. A pied-noir such as Camus, raised in the outskirts of empire far from the shining lights and cultural orbit of Paris, would have been left on the outside looking in.   

How did he begin to penetrate the manifold divides that separated him from the literary establishment?  

Enter Jean Grenier. Appointed professor of philosophy in 1930 at the Grand Lycée of Algiers, where Camus attended, his impact on the young student was immediate. He recognized an eagerness to learn in Camus and quickly became a mentor figure to him (Camus would refer to Grenier as “my master” throughout his life). Crucially, he also brought with him substantial connections to the Republic of Letters. By the time Grenier arrived in Algeria, he had worked for Gallimard’s prestigious literary and cultural review, the Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF), then the heartbeat of the Parisian literary scene, and was beginning to be regularly published by them (four times alone in 1930). He was also in regular contact with the review’s writers, and connected to a number of influential literary circles; among personal friends, he counted the authors Louis Guilloux and Henry de Montherlant, both of whom would later correspond with Camus.  

For an outsider such as Camus, Grenier offered the first glimpses of a way into the elite circles of French literary life. He also gave him his first publishing opportunities. By 1932, Camus had published four articles written in class in the local monthly review, Sud. Moreover, he mentioned Sud and his young, upstart student to his friend Max Jacob, an influential poet and painter. By the summer of that same year, Camus and Jacob would begin a correspondence, putting the 19-year-old in personal contact with a famous and established writer. Grenier also introduced Camus to Edmond Charlot, another one of his students and an aspiring publisher. They met for the first time at Grenier’s home and established a relationship that would see Charlot publish Camus’s early play, Revolt in the Asturias (1936), as well as his first two books, Betwixt and Between (1937) and Nuptials (1939). Already, Grenier’s connections were helping the young Camus bridge the gap between himself and the literary elite.  

This gap would continue to shrink by virtue of Camus’s relationship with the well-connected Pascal Pia (Pierre Pascal Durand). Ten years Camus’s senior, Pia had arrived fresh from mainland France to serve as the editor-in-chief of the newly-formed Alger-Républicain, a leftist newspaper with ties to the Popular Front government, and later its afternoon edition, Le Soir-Républicain (formed in 1939). Pia brought with him serious literary bona fides and connections. He had worked for an assortment of politically diverse journals and had also worked with a number of influential figures, such as the authors Louis Aragon and André Malraux (Camus’s hero), both of whom he counted among his friends, as well as Gaston Gallimard, the head of his eponymous publishing house and Camus’s future publisher.  

So by the time Camus was prepared to publish what he was calling his “cycle of the absurd” — the concurrently written The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Misunderstanding — he had options. He first turned to Charlot in 1941, hoping to publish “the absurds” in one volume. Charlot, for his part, did not have the money to publish a book that large, and moreover believed Camus should publish in France for greater impact. Here, Pia’s connections were vital. In Lyon after the Fall of France and already working covertly with the French resistance, Pia was still in regular contact with his literary colleagues. He showed poet and rising star Francis Ponge the manuscripts of The Stranger and Caligula, and later sent André Malraux copies of all three “absurds.” Malraux, in turn, sent the manuscripts directly to Gaston Gallimard with an enthusiastic recommendation, and it is likely that he also showed them to the author Roger Martin du Gard. Then-NRF editor Jean Paulhan, with whom Camus had begun a professional correspondence in early 1941 (thanks to Pia), also read them, and it is he who brought The Stranger to the Gallimard reading room, where it was voted to be published.  

By the time Camus arrived in Le Panelier in the mountainous Haute-Loire region of mainland France in 1942 to recuperate from a tuberculosis flare-up in high altitude, Gallimard had published The Stranger to effusive praise, and its companion essay on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, was soon to follow. The Misunderstanding wouldn’t be published until 1944, but it was clear by 1942 that the young Algerian had announced himself as a fresh new voice in the Parisian literary scene. In Camus’ own estimation, his connections were vital to his rather instantaneous success. To Grenier, he wrote: “I have been helped by chance and by my friends. Pia and Malraux did it all.”  

It was only natural then, in the aftermath of 11 November 1942, when the Allied landing in North Africa and subsequent German Invasion of the French Free Zone left him stranded from his homeland, that he should turn to his connections. The well-informed Pia was most crucial here, as his resistance activities kept him abreast of the latest developments. Of notable importance was the issue of income: Camus had none. To this end, Pia contacted both Malraux and Paulhan respectively, who in turn, made Gaston Gallimard aware of Camus’s situation; it was eventually decided to provide Camus with a monthly stipend. Faced with uncertainty, his tentative hope at this time was to eventually make his way to Paris. In pursuit of this, he had put feelers out on acquiring a pass that would allow him to travel between the Zones of occupied France. He did so, through the connections of Janine Gallimard (the wife of Gaston’s nephew), whom he had befriended during a brief work sojourn in Paris in 1940. 

It was during this time that he would begin to progressively ensconce into the French resistance: among the many figures Camus was to meet in the aftermath of November 1942, almost all were involved in literary milieus in some capacity. There was the eccentric, Nietzsche-loving priest Father Raymond-Léopold Bruckberger, who was a personal friend of the Gallimard family and was introduced to Camus in early 1943 when he visited the Gallimard office in Paris for the first time. There was also Pia’s friend Francis Ponge, who made Camus’ acquaintance in person that same month. The two quickly became close, and it was through Ponge that Camus was to meet Catholic moralist René Leynaud, who was an unpublished poet and former journalist for the Lyonnais paper, Le Progrès.  

Concomitant to their literary involvements, were their resistance activities. It was not uncommon in occupied France for individuals to wear many hats, some secret, and nowhere was this more the case than with resisters: Pia was well ingrained within the Combat resistance movement under the codename “Renoir” as the deputy to Combat regional leader Marcel Peck; Bruckberger was in close contact with Combat executive Claude Bourdet; Ponge worked resistance activities for the Communist resistance in Lyon; Leynaud worked intelligence for the Combat movement; a mutual friend of Ponge and Leynaud’s, Michel Pontremoli, was active in the Jewish resistance.  

In close proximity to these individuals, Camus was impressed by their shared intellectual curiosities, their tenacity, and above all, their activism. He expressed to Grenier his admiration, comparing his new friends to great, albeit eccentric, figures from the annals of history: “I have been around people as remarkable as Luther and Xavier de Maistre, Paracelsus, and Clovis Hugues.” 

Camus’s growing proximity to resistance activism was consequently accompanied by a growing sense of momentum to do something. He could easily look to the activities of his friends to see the efficacies of engagement. This was perhaps most apparent in his friendship group of Leynaud, Ponge, and Pontremoli. They regularly met at the home of Leynaud’s sister on the Rue Vieille-Monnaie (today known as the Rue René Leynaud), where their topic of conversation would range from philosophy to literature to even a staged reading of Camus’ play The Misunderstanding; more significantly, the location was commonly used as an occasional place of refuge for passing resisters, a detail not lost on Camus. 

He also saw the life-or-death stakes of their activism. Through Ponge, Camus learned that Pia was being hunted by the Vichy police and Gestapo, and had fled to Switzerland as a result. To Grenier, he reflected on the state of such tensions, which he viewed “with agony.” This, coupled with his own hardships, brought him to the realization of the necessity of resistance and thus the precipice of direct action. “I know now what the homeland is,” he explained to Grenier. “But it took suffering for me to recognize it.”  

This growing propulsion toward active engagement reached its zenith in the form of a false identity card dated May 20, 1942. Reading “Albert Mathé: Born in Choisy-le-Roi and living in Epinay-sur-Orge,” this card confirmed that Camus was active in the French resistance in some capacity in the Haute-Loire region. Now active in the resistance, he practiced the cautious terseness of resistance cognoscenti in his writing. A letter to Ponge dated that same day is perhaps most illustrious of Camus’ adherence to the proverbial “less is more.” Describing a recent “appearance in Lyon,” he made tacit reference to seeing Leynaud, writing that he had spoken with “L.” Caution was perhaps advisable; in reality, he was at none other than the resistance house on the Rue Vieille-Monnaie. Intimate with the modus operandi of resistance members, Camus now acted accordingly.  

His immersion into the more organized facets of resistance continued as his network of contacts continued to expand and overlap as the year progressed. Additionally, the overlap between his burgeoning literary and resistance personas continued to become increasingly intertwined. Through Ponge and Leynaud, he was introduced to René Tavernier sometime in the early half of 1943. Tavernier directed the wartime literary review, Confluences, but was also a deeply committed resister; in fact, since early 1943, he had been sheltering Louis Aragon and his wife Elsa Triolet in his Lyon home after they had been forced to go underground. Equally important, was the fact that Tavernier’s home had become a meeting place for the growing Comité National des Écrivains (CNE), the literary publication of the Front National (the Communist resistance) that Aragon headed. At the time, Aragon sought to use the publication to utilize pre-existing networks that already existed under the subversive (meaning pro-resistance) literary publications in the South of France in order to link together a field of politically diverse and geographically disparate (in both the Northern and Southern zones) intellectuals – despite its obvious affiliation with the Communist party. As the year progressed, the CNE coordinated and consolidated its respective field of active intellectuals, Camus and a network of artists all working for Gallimard among them.  

There were also crossovers of Camus’ respective friend groups. After having spent the early weeks of September at the Dominican convent at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence as a personal guest of Father Bruckberger, Camus brought together Bruckberger and Leynaud in a stopover in Saint-Etienne. In his introduction to the 1947 posthumous collection of Leynaud’s poems (Leynaud would disappear in June 1944 and later be confirmed executed by the Gestapo), Camus remembered this rendezvous as bringing together the eccentricity “of an energetic and rebellious Dominican” (Bruckberger) and the more channeled morality of an individual “who could only have estrangement from the prudent forms of Christianity” (Leynaud). Here, Camus actively worked to connect different facets of his ever-expanding network, playing the role of facilitator as Pia and many others had done for him.  

By October 1943, Camus had finalized plans to move to Paris, having received a job offer to work in the Gallimard office as a reader. At this point, he maintained the double-identity endemic of resisters: in Camus’s case, this was burgeoning literary figure by day, engaged resister by night. The Stranger had won universal acclaim, and the subsequent publication of The Myth of Sisyphus had won him plaudits across literary and philosophy circles. This included Jean-Paul Sartre, whom he had met briefly at the premiere of the former’s play, The Flies, and who hailed Camus as a force to be reckoned with. They would soon be spotted at cafes in the Latin Quarter, debating philosophical tenets and even discussing the production of what would become Sartre’s No Exit (he wanted Camus to play the lead).  

Thus, the overlapping of Camus’ literary and resistance profiles, besides being inextricable from one another, were also mutually beneficial. As he became more immersed in one, so did he in the other. In fact, this overlap was crucial to his being considered for more serious resistance work. When Pia returned to France in August 1943, having smuggled himself through the border, he was recommended to Combat leader Claude Bourdet as the natural choice to edit the Combat movement’s newly reconfigured clandestine paper due to his extensive journalistic experience and serious resistance credentials. Bourdet desired to expand the paper’s range into the cultural domain (this was especially the case in the wake of the CNE’s growing popularity among writers). Pia, in turn, recognized that Camus would be perfect for such a project, and recommended him to Bourdet for an open position within the paper’s production team. It didn’t take much to convince Bourdet that Camus was the man for the job. Besides being impressed with Camus’ own journalistic experience and political background, his literary credentials were crucial as well: Bourdet was greatly impressed by The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus.  

With his star rising, Camus had reached the threshold of active resistance. This was evident in his appearance at the plenary meeting of the CNE in late October 1943, where he was surrounded by some of France’s most illuminary literary figures, including a delegation from the Gallimard network headed by Jean Paulhan. Indicative of the continued importance of his networks, it is rather significant that he should bring along with his contacts from the period, Bruckberger.  

Within just a few short weeks, Pia would bring him along to a Combat meeting and introduce him to the small team heading its paper. The concentric social circles in which he dipped his toes had finally coalesced. Camus the writer and Camus the résistant were one, and the dual celebrity he would enjoy in the postwar years was cemented by the overlap between these personas. It’s often said it’s about who you know and what connections you have. Camus’s diverse networks would put him on the path to the heights of fame in postwar France, where he would dominate, if only for a brief moment, the intellectual pulse of a France rejuvenated by the Liberation.•


Jake Levine is a writer whose work has been published in The Journal of the Oxford University History Society and Kronos Magazine. He currently resides in Jersey City, NJ.