Late on a January afternoon, after a six-hour drive from Algiers, I arrive in Oran, a city of one and a half million near the Moroccan border. The narrow street where Camus and Francine lived during his Algerian interlude is lined in faded-white buildings. Camus often whiled away the hours at the nearby Brasserie la Cintra on an avenue flanked by date palms. High above the city looms the Murjajo, a stone fortress constructed by Oran’s Spanish conquerors, who ruled here between 1509 and 1708, when the city fell to the Ottomans.
Despite the city’s history and vibrant multi-ethnicity, Camus disparaged Oran as “the capital of boredom” and disliked the seedy dockyards and industrial works that separated the city from the Mediterranean. Camus was unemployed, debilitated by tuberculosis and appalled by the surge of anti-Semitism under the Vichy regime. More than 110,000 Algerian Jews lost their French citizenship. A close friend of Camus’ was fired from his job as a high-school teacher, the words “French citizen” replaced by “native Jew” in his passport. “The return to Oran, considering the conditions of my life here, is not a step forward,” he wrote a friend in 1941. But, says Todd, Camus also found much to love about the city. “The Spanish character of Oran meant a lot to him,” he says. “The Spanish architecture, the way people ate, the way they lived, reminded him of the part of him that was Spanish.” “He loved and hated the city at the same time,” Todd says.
Camus lived with Francine in Oran for 18 months. In August 1942, they traveled back to France, where Camus recuperated in the mountains from a relapse of tuberculosis. Francine returned to Algeria and Camus planned to join her. But in November, the Allies invaded North Africa; Camus was stranded in France.
Outraged by the Nazi occupation, he became editor in chief of the resistance newspaper Combat. He and the other editors—including Sartre, André Malraux and Raymond Aron—produced articles denouncing the Nazis, and secretly printed 185,000 weekly copies on clandestine presses in Paris. It was dangerous work: Camus had one close call in 1943, when he was stopped by the Gestapo and managed to dispose of a layout copy of the paper before being searched.
During the war, Camus also began working on what many regard as his masterpiece, the allegorical novel The Plague, a meditation on exile, occupation and resistance. Set in Oran, the fable unfolds with an outbreak of bubonic plague that kills hundreds of people a day and forces authorities to seal the gates to prevent the pestilence from spreading. The contagion, like the Nazi occupation of France, brings out both venal and noble qualities in Oran’s populace. One character profiteers by selling contraband cigarettes and low-quality liquor. Camus’ heroes, the physician Bernard Rieux and the journalist Raymond Rambert, courageously tend the sick and dying. Both are cut off from the women they love, but place a sense of moral responsibility over happiness. “In its calm and exact objectivity, this convincingly realistic narrative reflects experiences of life during the Resistance,” declared his 1957 Nobel Prize testimonial, “and Camus extols the revolt which the conquering evil arouses in the heart of the intensely resigned and disillusioned man.”
Camus, too, was afflicted by, as his character Rieux describes it, “those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.” But he was serially unfaithful to his wife during their long period of separation. Francine reunited with her husband in Paris after the German defeat. The Plague was published, to great acclaim, in 1947, two years after the birth of the Camus twins, Jean and Catherine, in Paris. Camus’ relationship with Francine remained rocky, but he developed a close bond with his children. “He was full of life, he laughed a lot, he was down-to-earth, he was a real father,” says Catherine, who recalls with deep affection her trips back to Algeria in the 1950s with her father. Catherine says that her father “didn’t communicate any idea of his importance,” even after winning the Nobel Prize. It was only after his death that she began to understand his significance to the world.
After my return to Algiers, I make my way to a hilltop overlooking the bay, crossing a plaza to the Martyrs’ Monument: three concrete palm fronds that soar to 300 feet, encasing an eternal flame. The bronze statue of an Algerian freedom fighter stands at the base of each giant frond. This colossus commemorates the conflict that erupted here on November 1, 1954, when National Liberation Front (FLN) guerrillas carried out attacks on gendarmeries. Nearby I visit the Military Museum, which traces the conflict through blood-curdling dioramas of ambushes by mujahedin and torture chambers run by the French military.
Camus had often demonstrated his opposition to the abuses of the colonial system, from his exposé of the famine in Kabylia to his May 1945 investigative trip for Combat to Setif, site of an anti-French protest by Algerian veterans that had triggered a massacre by French forces. As the war escalated, he looked on with horror at attacks against civilians by French ultranationalists and the army. But while he was sympathetic to the idea of greater autonomy for Algeria, he was also disgusted by FLN bombings of cafés and buses and rejected demands for independence. In 1956 he arrived in Algiers with the hope of arranging a truce between the FLN and French forces. “Camus came as a figure of great moral authority, granted to him by his status as a writer, his role in the Resistance and his editorials in Combat. But the idea that he could alone effect change is exaggerated,” says Alice Kaplan, a Camus scholar at Yale University who edited a new anthology of Camus’ Algeria-related writing, Algerian Chronicles.
The visit was a humiliating failure. The two sides had passed the point of reconciliation, and even supposedly neutral Algerian leaders who escorted Camus to meetings were working secretly for the FLN. Besieged by shouts of “death to Camus” from right-wing French zealots in an Algiers meeting hall, Camus returned to France, shaken.