A Fortnightly Review.
The Death of Camus
by Giovanni Catelli
translated by Andrew Tanzi, foreword by Paul Auster
By MICHELENE WANDOR.
Car crashes can be the stuff of mystery: Princess Diana, Jackson Pollock, James Dean, even, perhaps, Marc Bolan. This glancingly-structured monograph pursues the case of Albert Camus, writer and political radical, aged 46 at his death. Camus had longstanding criticisms of the Soviet Union, vociferously protesting after the 1956 invasion of Hungary, supporting Algerian independence, opposing Franco.
The crash happened on the way back to Paris, after Camus’ get-together with his publisher, Michel Gallimard, and Gallimard’s wife and daughter. A leisurely drive, a night’s stopover, dinner, wine. Next day, four of them in the car, which skidded, Camus killed outright, Gallimard died sometime later; wife, Janine, and daughter survived. There is footage of a crumpled vehicle, a burst tyre. Plenty of opportunity on the journey for sabotage, if such there was.
The scene is set for a detective story/political thriller. The opening chapters are short, sometimes poetic, vivid, trailing possible clues and questions. As I read it, I expected Hercule Poirot to appear at any moment, twirling his moustache, gathering the cast together to solve the mystery, to point out the culprit, who is then turned over to the police. More appropriate, perhaps, would be John Le Carré, with his knowledge and insights into Soviet espionage and the role of Dmitri Shepilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs, known to be hostile to Camus, because of the latter’s political beliefs.
Enter Giovanni Catelli, not quite Magnum PI, or Columbo: an Italian writer, who accidentally lit upon what may provide the solution to the mystery. In a Prague bookshop he buys Celý život, the memoir of Jan Zábrana, ‘the Prague man’ (Le Carré peeks from behind a bookcase), a socialist, poet, and translator (into Czech) of Allen Ginsberg and others.
In Zabrana’s memoir are a couple of sentences, detailing a car accident in 1960, and suggesting that Soviet Intelligence may have been responsible for the burst tyre, which led to Camus’ death. Shadows of a Greek tragedy: the Fates decree that Catelli may be the man to bring the truth to light.
Catelli is suddenly at the centre of the picture, half way through the monograph. He meets Marie, Zábrana’s widow, and some backstory unfolds: Zábrana knew Boris Pasternak, and wanted to translate Dr Zhivago, which had been rejected for publication in the USSR. A copy was smuggled out and published in Italy in 1957, by Feltrinelli. Shades of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, refused publication in the UK, and published in Italy in 1928 and France in 1929.
Marie worked as an editor, and she set out to get a copy of Zhivago for her husband. She pawned a brooch to get the money, and bought a Russian copy in Bologna. Feltrinelli granted translation rights, and Zábrana translated it in 1967-8. Then, everything was on hold because of the Prague Spring, and, sadly, Zábrana died before it was finally published in 1990.
We rejoin Le Carre and Len Deighton: Catelli gets mysterious phone calls from anonymous men. He meets one in a café, and they have a cryptic conversation, which implies a strong warning not to investigate too much. Another phone call, and a rendezvous is arranged with a man who doesn’t turn up. Catelli is about to go back to his hotel, when the man arrives with a white envelope, containing a photograph of our hero. Clearly, he is being followed. And if so by whom?
Catelli first aired his suspicions, based on Zábrana’s book, in 2011 in Corriere Della Sera. It is clear where Catelli’s sympathies (and, perhaps, politics) lie. This may be why the longest chapter in the book (about ten pages) details the KGB’s actions during Camus’ lifetime. The next longest chapter is right in the middle of the book, where Catelli meets Marie. Arguably, this latter could have come much earlier, to help clarify the narrative, which is also punctuated by lengthy quotes from Camus’ letters, speeches and articles. However, the other tiny chapters, with leading clues, hints and promises a narrative, which plays out by gradual degrees, and speaks of a poetic and dramatic imagination which teases us just as the author was challenged by his quest. The book’s structure reflects and betrays its relative inconclusiveness.
That’s why I have had to call in so many detectives, amateur and professional real and fictional. Like Catelli himself, none of these have been able to peer into the shadows and discern any confirmation of the evidential hints and political suspicions. Following the example of that fantastic television series, New Tricks, I offer readers some old case notes:
- Albert Camus died in a car crash in 1960.
- Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but, under pressure, declined it. He died in 1960.
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally published in the UK, after a court case, in 1960.
- I am considering calling in Miss Marple.
Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright, short story writer and the curator-author of Four Words. She has also written a critique of Creative Writing — The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Palgrave). Her new poetry collection, Travellers, will be published in 2021.