Charting the amazing love life of the amorous existentialist

Vanessa Thorpe discovers the secrets of the eternal outsider, Albert Camus
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"I did not write a book about Albert Camus' love life," insists the French biographer Olivier Todd over the line from Paris. "Even a telephone directory wouldn't have been long enough for that!"

But whatever Mr Todd may claim, his diligent study, published in a truncated English translation on Thursday, of the celebrated Gallic author and playwright reveals for the first time details of many unknown and illicit affairs. So many, in fact, that it is now clear the man who wrote the existential modern masterpieces L'Etranger and La Peste - The Outsider and The Plague - was at least as committed a swinger as he was a left winger.

Drawing on previously unpublished private letters collected over five years, Albert Camus: A Life demonstrates there was never any shortage of Bohemian young women keen to be associated with the good-looking Nobel Laureate who, along with his friend Jean Paul Sartre, had become a living intellectual icon.

In one amazing episode towards the close of the book, Mr Todd shows how Camus wrote emotional love letters to three different mistresses on consecutive days during the same family holiday.

"To say I have surprise and admiration," says the biographer of his subject, "does not do justice to Camus in this area."

The extraordinary sequence of letters comes from the last months of the writer's life. On 29 December 1959, Camus wrote to a young artist and model identified by Todd only as Mi.

"This frightful separation will at least have made us feel more than ever the constant need we have for each other," wrote Camus. "I knew it before and I know it even better now. I bless my need and I await you, full of force and passion, yes, I await you, my beloved and ardent one my little girl, dear lover!"

On the 30th he wrote to his long-time, and perhaps greatest love, the beautiful Spanish actress Maria Casares. "I send a cargo of tender wishes, and may life splash up inside you all year long, giving you that dear expression that I've loved for so many years, but I love your face when it' s worried or any other way. See you soon, my superb one, I'm so happy at the idea of seeing you again that I am laughing as I write it... I kiss you and hug you tightly until Tuesday when I can start all over again."

The next day, 31 December, he wrote to another, younger actress, Catherine Sellers saying: "But now I am returning and glad about it, so see you Tuesday, my dear, I'm kissing you already and bless you from the bottom of my heart."

The first of these lovers, the mysterious Mi, still lives in Paris and agreed to be filmed for a BBC2 documentary about the writer, shown last night.

She was 21 when Camus met her in a cafe, two years before his life was cut short by a car crash. He had invited her over to his table and impressed her with chat about Piero della Francesca.

In turn, Mi had a rejuvenating effect on Camus, who was suffering at this time from panic attacks as well as recurring bouts of tuberculosis. She took him swimming and she even went to football matches with him, something Mr Todd says the writer regarded as very modern and exciting.

Camus was married twice but he does not seem to have been able to regard either marital relationship as central to his sex life. He once wrote to his second wife, Francine, explaining his attitude: "You are my sister," he argued. "You resemble me, but one shouldn't marry his sister."

From early on, indeed even as he planned his wedding to Francine, Camus managed to handle his mistresses with equally perplexing affectionate excuses. In a letter to lover Yvonne Ducailar he simply skirts around the issue of his forthcoming marriage.

"When all this mud and clouds will pass, I think I'll see more clearly... I'm foundering and expressing all this very badly, but it's simple enough to say that I'm happy when I feel your presence in my life... I can never write often or much, but I want you to trust me, and I want to press you against me."

Whether friends or lovers, Camus' intimate circle was mostly female, as he admitted to another lover, Lucette Meurer, in a letter from1938.

"People attract me in so far as they are impassioned about life and avid for happiness, which is perhaps why I have more women friends than men."

He went on to suggest that a friendship between a man and a woman always contains "something equivocal, a double game, that falsifies feelings at their source, which I think is because few men manage to clearly understand their desires, to know where they begin and end".

Camus' lovers seem to have understood that he was committed to his wife Francine, a nervous and depressive woman, on whom he based the character in La Chute - The Fall - who throws herself into the Seine.

As he wrote to Catherine Sellers, his attitude to his sexual partners was always far more ambiguous and changeable. "All my life when someone has become attached to me, I've done everything to make them back off."

'Albert Camus: A Life' by Olivier Todd is published by Chatto & Windus