How Albert Camus found solace in the absurdity of football

The French philosopher proclaimed that the only way to live was to revolt relentlessly against meaninglessness. So why did he love such a ridiculous game, asks MM Owen

Wednesday 10 April 2019 12:23 BST
Posing for a portrait in Paris following the announcement of his Nobel Prize triumph in 1957
Posing for a portrait in Paris following the announcement of his Nobel Prize triumph in 1957 (STF/AFP/Getty)

On 16 October 1957, Albert Camus was eating lunch at a restaurant in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter. Partway through the meal, a young man from his publisher’s office appeared. The young man dismissed the waiter, and informed Camus of what had just been announced on the radio: he was receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature.

One week later, Camus was interviewed on French television. However, the author and his interlocutor weren’t sat in a comfy studio, discussing the power of the written word. They were sat in the Parc des Princes, among a crowd of 35,000, watching Racing Club de Paris host Monaco. The black-and-white footage is preserved on YouTube. Wrong-footed, the Racing keeper reacts slowly to a deflected cross, letting the ball bobble inside his near post. We cut to the stands, where Camus – looking more than ever like a softer-faced Humphrey Bogart – is asked about the keeper’s blunder. He implores us not to be too hard on him.

As far as I’m aware, this is the only time that a fresh recipient of the Nobel Prize has been interviewed at a football match. (That this registers as incongruous, vaguely comical, is in part the topic of this essay.) Thanks almost entirely to a much-circulated misquote – “all that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football” – Camus’ fondness for the game is well-known. But this fondness was more than a passing wistfulness, or a single throwaway aphorism. In 1959, less than a year before he died, Camus told another interviewer that, along with the theatre, the football pitch had been one of his two “real universities”. In football, one of the greatest French authors of the 20th century located the most potent and valuable forms of consciousness. In the game’s drama of the flesh, he felt himself witness to the fullness of life, in all its pathos, and all its saving graces.

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