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The Extract: 'The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus'

After his friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre had turned to bitter rivalry, Albert Camus found peace in rural Provence. It was not to last...

Albert Camus's friend and publisher Michel Gallimard (along with Ringo Starr, Ava Gardner, and the King of Morocco) owned an unusual, expensive, and elegant car. One advert described it as "the fastest 4-seater sports coupé in the world". It had a 360 horsepower engine and was capable of up to 240 kph.

The car was a Facel Vega. The Vega began, in 1954, as a two-door but in 1956 Facel developed a four-door model, with a bigger engine and rear-hinged doors – known as "suicide doors", because it would be relatively easy to open them at speed and fling yourself out (and were popular with gangsters of the thirties because they enabled you to dispose of people with style). The sporty, speedy two-door Vega had its own problems. Michel Gallimard, for example, had some anxieties about the rear left wheel, which had a tendency to seize up. And there was known to be a lot of freeplay in the Facel Vega's steering. The mechanic who repaired Gallimard's said: "This car is a coffin on wheels." In the first week of January 1960, Camus was due to take the train with his wife and family. He already had a ticket. Then Gallimard offered him a lift in the Vega.

Over the winter, Camus had been living and working in the Provençal village of Lourmarin, between Aix and Avignon. Here he was as contented with life as he had ever been. Aged 44, he quoted Nietzsche at the age of 43: "My life is at this instant at its meridian."

Here he felt at home, mingling with poets (René Char, an old friend from the war days) and footballers (members of Lourmarin United). Lourmarin was in France but out of it. It belonged to the vague and vast "South", the Mediterranean civilisation that Algeria too was part of. The "Nordic" (especially Paris) was for Camus the land of the cold philosopher kings, of Descartes and Jean-Paul Sartre and the symbolic, while the savage "South" was the realm of instinct and passion and well-being. Camus was always desperate to leave Paris in the rear-view mirror, almost like a fugitive, a man on the run.

For most of 1959, far from Paris, Camus was working away on his semi-autobiographical novel, The First Man, in the loft room on the second floor, which he had converted into a study. He didn't work feverishly like Sartre, "rushing" night and day, but he was assiduous: he could sit for hours at a time, recalling key experiences, struggling to reformulate them, just as he used to stare at a clock or practise doing nothing, trying to imagine all the time that writing was just like swimming in the Mediterranean.

Everything reminded him of his homeland, the vineyards and the mountains. That one thing could be like another, that one being could resemble another – a metaphorical principle – underlay all his thinking. For Camus in this last phase of his life, Algeria represented the primal state: it was pre-literary; it was truth. Everything that came afterwards was already removed from the truth. Truth was something that one had to return to, to recover. Perhaps it was also the "one thing" that could never be fully expressed.

It would be too narrow to say that – like some intellectual foreign legionnaire – he was trying to forget. Much less that he was specifically trying to forget Sartre. But it is clear that he was trying to go back to before Paris, to before 1943 and the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the "society of signs". To recover everything that had been lost along the way. Arriving in Lourmarin from Paris on 28 April 1958, Camus lingered outside, soaking it all in, embracing the countryside and the sky and the evening: "Grey sky. In the garden marvellous roses weighed down with water, as delicious as fruit. The rosemary is blooming. Go for a walk. In the evening the violet of the irises even deeper."

Perhaps, like an antithesis of Sartre, Camus was always a Zen-inclined poet of nature at heart. So we find him, for example, enjoying – so simple – the "rustle of the grass" beneath his feet. Or hymning the wisteria. Or lizards. "I love the little lizards," he wrote, "as dry as the stones they run along. They are like me, all skin and bone."

The key word in this quasi-haiku, to my way of thinking, is the word "like": Camus – perhaps it is the silent alter-Camus, the Camus that is not Camus-the-writer – found it easy to identify with lizards, with wisteria, with abstract patterns in the foliage or the ocean. To see the "family resemblances" (as Wittgenstein would say) – a coefficient of relatedness – between himself and other beings; to understand one creature as a simile of another. It is only when it came to other human beings that there was more of an issue.

When Camus asked himself what he shared in common with others, he came up with different answers at different times: a feeling of being alive, the night, the sun, stars, oxygen, grass beneath our feet, desert, sea. But it seemed as if he only half believed his own argument. The one common denominator, the universal, that Camus really seriously believed in is death. Still afflicted with tuberculosis (he had to learn to breathe through only one nostril) he was often preoccupied with thoughts of death, but rarely just his own. In Lourmarin, in September 1959, he calculated how many people were dying at any time, around the planet.

"He died instantly." It is a phrase often used, about Camus for one. But it is an idea that Camus himself derided and rejected, notably in "Reflections on the Guillotine": nobody died instantly; death was always a long drawn-out affair. He was always guessing at it, imagining, living it. He thought (as Sartre once had) of the condemned man in a novel of Faulkner's who recognises his guilt and is resigned to death. The prisoner on death row, again, was a dead man walking, which is how Camus tended to see himself and why he identified so readily with the condemned. He – like Stendhal's hero, Julien Sorel; like his own, Meursault – found himself at home on the scaffold. He even got his daughter to hop into a big chest they kept in the loft to see what it looked like being in a coffin.

And yet, for all his dark, doom-laden thoughts, now – at the end of the 1950s – he felt more intensely alive than ever. On the brink of attaining immortality, or at least a sense of eternity in the everyday. If only it were possible to attain absolute truth in one's very being. To be, without ambiguity or equivocation, and enjoy the kind of intensity Sartre too once dreamed of: "The lie is a form of sleep or dream, like illusion. Truth is the only power, effervescent, inexhaustible. If we were capable of living only on and for truth: youthful, immortal energy that is in us. The man of truth does not age. One more small effort of will and he will never die."

This was the "degree zero" state that he had sought when he was a student: the impossible, savage state of "being truth" that implies making war against oneself. Camus's answer was to split off the writing and attribute it all to his magic pen (just as a surfer speaks of his board doing the work for him, or a golfer of a club letting him down): "I am a writer. But it is not I but my pen that thinks, remembers or discovers for me."

Camus strained to juggle the savage and the symbolic. It was like a high-wire balancing act or one of his unfeasible yoga positions that could be sustained for only so long: "this precious vibration" alongside which "nothing else exists". And if he fell off? "If I can't stick to this discipline, given the way things are, then I accept I have to pay the price and be punished." This constant striving to attain truth or to be truth – perhaps that was all that truth could really be.

At other times, moodily wandering the countryside, Camus wondered if it was possible to love anyone. He had been reading Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago and he read it as not just, obviously, a love story – the relationship, torn by Revolution, of Zhivago and Lara – but a meditation on love: "this is the kind of love that expands to encompass all beings at once. The doctor loves his wife, and Lara, and others, and Russia. If he dies, it is from being separated from his wife, from Lara, from Russia and everyone else." The implication was that if only it were possible to love enough, then you would never die. It was a new theory of his: love – intransitive love – as a form of immortality. While Sartre was wrestling with Marxism, Camus was translating Groucho Marx's theory, "You're only as old as the woman you feel", into a more lyrical vein.

On Saturday 2 January 1960, having fired off a volley of love letters, Camus saw off Francine and the twins at Avignon railway station. Then he got back in the car and put his train ticket in his pocket (where it would later be found intact). He had his unfinished novel "Elements for The First Man", together with a copy of Nietzsche's Le Gai Savoir, in his briefcase. Michel Gallimard had persuaded him to drive to Paris in the Facel Vega.

Albert Camus died after a road accident on 4 January 1960.

This is an edited extract from 'The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus', published on 6 June by Simon & Schuster. Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University © Andy Martin