For the past few weeks, I’ve fixated on a collection of primary source material that reads like a tidy work of epistolary fiction. It’s a big book, nearly 1,300 pages, transcribed from original letters, postcards, and telegrams sent between the French philosopher and writer Albert Camus and the Spanish French actress Maria Casares between 1944 and 1959. It’s too heavy a book to bring on the subway, so I downloaded the electronic version on my phone. My camera roll is now nearly a hundred screenshots of exchanges in French between the two lovers. The book was published in France by Gallimard and has not yet been translated into English.
The romance of Camus and Casares is richer, if not sadder, when considered alongside the narratives of each of their work. There is an eerie doubling of life and art. Absurdity is the only certainty, and this is confirmed over and over again by coincidence and chance.
The two first met on June 6, 1944, the storied day the Allied forces landed in Normandy. Both were involved in the production of Camus’s play The Misunderstanding (Le Malentendu), which was being staged in Paris at the Théâtre de Mathurins. Preproduction, Camus brought Casares to an evening hosted by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (The latter remarked on the young actress’s beauty and confidence.) It is said that that evening, the two began their love affair—Casares twenty-one, Camus nine years her senior. Their fling ended abruptly when Camus’s wife, the mathematician and pianist Francine Faure, returned to Paris from Algeria after the Occupation.
Afterward, Camus took over as editor in chief of Combat, the underground newspaper of the Resistance, and his wife gave birth to twins, Catherine and Jean. Meanwhile, the in-demand Casares was cast in two of her most memorable roles, as a long suffering wife in Les enfants du paradis and as a jilted lover in Les Dames du bois de Boulogne. Four years to the day after their first meeting, on June 6, 1948, Casares ran into Camus by chance on boulevard Saint-Germain. Their correspondence then continued uninterrupted for the next twelve years.
In nearly nine hundred exchanges, the two relay details of their day-to-day with lighthearted playfulness. I wanted to cut out the lines from the early letters to see how they matched up with those a decade later in the affair. From the start, Camus assures Casares that little has changed, either in his feelings or in the city where they crossed paths a second time. He relays time-honored Parisian annoyances. Casares, always on the move for roles, pokes fun at the toxic smell of French fries throughout Belgium. Still, she finds time to detail her quotidian, which includes dozens of cigarettes and caring for her father and her kitten, Quat’sous. Sometimes the notes are short, a quick hello before she goes to sleep, dashed off “between spaghetti and grapefruit.” Other times, they are quite long, filled with questions and updates. Casares often asks after Camus’s children. There is no denial of the situation.
“You’d like this house, the smell of the nights. It’s quiet in the evenings,” Camus writes to Casares. In a separate note, he sends a sprig of thyme from the local mountains. “I am writing to you in the middle of a beautiful storm,” he says at one point. “There’s thunder, lighting, and rain. I passed the day playing with Jean and Catherine.”
Camus is aware that his marriage is an obstacle. “This unfortunate love is not what you deserve,” he tells her. “I found with you a life force I’d thought I lost,” he writes another time. “[You are] the only being that has given me tears.” He is aware of his words and sometimes rereads the notes before sending them. “I’m tired and afraid to continue in this tone. This only to tell you the color of the day and my thoughts. It is heavy and hot. A day for silence, nakedness, shady rooms, abandonment. My thoughts are the color of your hair. Monday and a few days thereafter, they will be the color of your eyes.” And later: “I write your name in the night, Maria, dear.” Camus, too, is always busy. He talks of Sundays filled with writing, even when he feels it is nearly impossible. Casares encourages him.
“I love you,” she says. “Write, write. The days are long and difficult. I need your letters to live. Sleep. Lie down.” She asks for his opinion on projects, and he responds with equal respect for her work.
“Your letter, my beauty, was a little sad. How can I help? Your loyal companion is there. You know that,” Camus writes. He closes one note with: “A crown of kisses to the queen of dreams.” He praises her performances. “Yes, you can be happy, you are great, a very big actress.”
In the volume’s introduction, Camus’s daughter, Catherine, notes that Casares’s spelling and language mistakes have been corrected in the transcription. Perhaps a little character is lost without them. It was Catherine who purchased the correspondence from Casares after her mother’s death in 1979 and brought the book to Gallimard.
A few pieces of name-stamped stationery are reproduced as facsimiles in the book, a drawing here and there. Messages that were sent as telegrams appear dated and in all caps. I would have liked to have seen more of the facsimiles, the aura captured in each lover’s own furious handwriting. At the end of one letter, there is a note that Camus included a drawing of a sun. I would have liked to see it. At the back of the book is typed-out evidence of Camus’s sense of humor: four silly letters he pretended to write on Casares’s behalf in search of a summer rental. One reads, “Madame, two words: I’m hot and dirty, but I’m not alone. So: the beach, water, two rooms, wood, and for nothing—or almost.”
As time passes, there is little palpable written worry that their love has faded, that the usual contempt or familiarity has taken hold. Perhaps this is due to the suspended illusion of long-distance love. “I hold you like the first time,” Casares writes. “I love your heart and all that you are … When I think of us it seems absurd to not believe in eternity.” Camus’s wife, aware of his brutal affairs (Casares was not the only one), suffered from depression and tried to kill herself in 1954.
In the letters, desire is sustained through fragments, concentrated moments spent together mythologized during those apart. In their memories, those moments grow more elastic, more mythic than any day-to-day relationship could ever be.
One thing changes over time: in later letters, Casares no longer pleads with Camus to write but offers gentleness instead. “Live like you’re always wanted. If you don’t feel like writing, don’t do it. You know enough that now we can’t help but repeat ourselves.” She asks him to send her a note that his laziness is going well, even a single word. “I’ll know just what I need to know. And on my side, I’ll do the same.” She repeats in later letters that she’s already said everything to him, that she can’t imagine life without him, but that she has to. She’s resigned to his absence, through which he will always be present for her. “That’s it. Whatever may come, you are forever in all my life,” she tells him.
Camus’s last letter announces itself as just that: “Good. Last letter. Just to tell you that I arrive Tuesday … Soon, my Superb.” He tells her that when they are reunited on Tuesday, they will begin their romance anew, start over.
Their correspondence ends here.
Days after sending his “last letter,” on January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car crash. As the story goes, there was a train ticket in his pocket. Casares lived on another thirty-six years. She died the day after her seventy-fourth birthday, at her country home in France.
The resonances between life and art continued: a year after Camus’s death, Casares reprised her role as the Princess, the female face of death, in the final installment of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy. In the play, there is a love triangle between the Princess, the poet, and his wife, the pregnant Eurydice. The story is set in a dreamlike postwar Paris.
Stephanie LaCava is a New York–based writer and the founder of Small Press Books.