Camus and His Women: A Story of Love, Disease and Death

The protagonist Clamence in Camus’ novel “The Fall” confesses, “To love many women means to love none.” To Camus’ admirers, this rings of the “patient” Camus’s own admission and condemnation of the so-called romantic feelings he harbored.

In Camus’ elegiac tale “The Wedding,” the soulful Algerian revealed his inner turmoil.

When fourteen or fifteen years old, Camus was a boy fond of wearing white socks. At the time, clad in shorts and grinning with two dimples alongside teammates on the football team, he posed in various stances. But lurking in his smile was much mischief: he would often don a newsboy cap to look cool, peek under women’s skirts, and even forcibly kiss girls.

Misfortune befell this wayward boy when tuberculosis struck him at seventeen before he could finish his first preparatory year in medicine. He endured bouts of coma, fatigue, and bloody coughs. Without treatment, the doctor predicted he would not survive beyond two years. Thus began his familiarity with the hospital and regular artificial pneumothorax treatments. During convalescence, Camus borrowed copiously from his uncle’s collection, and this spiritual nourishment helped mold him into manhood. He took to wearing three-piece suits and brilliantining his hair. Upon reading Grenier’s “The Island” at twenty, Camus grew passionate for writing. Reading, beauty, and writing – these became the young man’s weapons to battle his pulmonary disease.

Further trials awaited Camus as he progressed in life – a kind of mental anguish more harrowing than any physical malady and impossible to dispel: his wife Simone, a beautiful woman who contracted illness from dysmenorrhea and morphine addiction. Enslaved by drugs in the summer of 1936, she sold her body to a doctor for a fix. Camus left her the next year. Long after their separation, he continued mailing Simone books on treatments for addiction but never added a word. This clearly festered as a profound “disease” in Camus’s heart. As he expressed, “Sometimes I blame myself for losing the ability to love. Maybe that’s true, but I can still pick out people to care for, sincerely and completely, no matter what they do.”

Does God know when someone falls ill?

Camus wrote in his diary, “A woman who cannot love is a nuisance. She knows nothing about it. You have to live with such a woman and keep silent. Or sleep with other women and make do.” I want to live with her.” This extreme view of women provoked his second wife Francine Faure to retort fiercely upon learning of his plan to create a work about women: “If you don’t have any ability to love, how can you talk about it?”

Indeed, after ending his marriage with Simone, Camus soon discovered the delight of befriending women. He saw them as confidants, revealing his every secret – his work, ideals, maladies, and worries of failure. Genuine and fragile, he turned to the women in his orbit for comfort to soothe his battered soul and refuge for his aching body. For a time, Camus inhabited the “home on top of the world” in Algeria’s mountains. While living an idyllic life by the sea with three women, he conceived the play “Caligula” and the novel “The Stranger.” He transcribed that absurd yet relaxed, happy feeling into his correspondence with the women, an almost naked candor in his words.

In the fall of 1937, Camus brought Francine into his lofty “home.” Francine had large, dark eyes, elegant legs, and a love of piano – even more alluring to Camus was her steady, humble, gentle temperament. Moreover, like Camus, she too had lost her father early in the First World War. Francine’s family puzzled over why she lived with a divorced, penniless tuberculosis patient without work. To gain their favor, Camus dressed up as a prince charming for a formal wedding in 1942, resolved to submit to the voluntary marriage.

With Francine by his side, Camus set to work on his “Absurdist Trilogy” – “The Stranger,” “Caligula,” and “The Myth of Sisyphus.” But soon he chafed under the restraint and grew distracted. He complained to his wife, “I don’t know how to write anymore.” Indeed, several women then captivated him deeply, and he agonized over his marital contract with Francine.

Camus seemed ill-suited for male company by nature. His legendary feud with Sartre is well-known. After arriving in Paris in 1944 as an exile, Camus met Sartre and Beauvoir at the famous Café de Flore and quickly grew enthralled. The atmosphere and lights of the Café de Flore at night enchanted the artistic youths. When inspired, Sartre would crouch under a cabinet conducting an orchestra while Camus played military marches on pot lids or danced bullfights. The two also planned to jointly launch a magazine after the war. But later, due to political disputes, their friendship, like Mars colliding with Earth, came to an abrupt end.

The same transpired with Pascal Pia, Camus’s journalistic collaborator during hardship. Pia formerly cared for the ailing young man like a father, sending books and food and providing for his living expenses. But by 1946, their nearly ten-year companionship also entered winter. Later Pia excoriated Camus’s “The Plague” and “The Fall.” He even maligned Camus as unworthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In those days Camus felt isolated in a wilderness, forlorn and dejected: “I am the poorest and most dispossessed person in all of life.” Beauvoir, who knew Camus, expressed blunt envy: “Camus was deeply fascinated by women when he was enjoying himself.” He would casually halt on the street, cigarette butt in mouth’s corner or ear. To women this seemed sexy, defiant and…enticing. Moreover, like the legendary Spanish philanderer Don Juan, Camus excelled at romancing women. He would purse his lips and smile, ensnaring mature, restrained women one by one. They willingly proffered the warmth, care and loyalty he desperately craved.

Camus’s affairs with these women almost all followed the same pattern: from feverish ardor to more lasting intimacy – he often wrote letters to the women in his life, musing when they would “get together for fun.” He regularly declared his feelings to his close friend Mamanin until her death. And most painfully for his wife Francine, even after their marriage Camus and Maria loved each other for 15 years!

Maria was the daughter of the Spanish Republic’s Prime Minister before the Civil War. She shared Camus’s burning passion for music. Camus’s friends claimed: “The relationship between Maria and Camus was boundless and rapacious.” Maria understood the exiled youth, admired the North African who strove to safeguard the old world while constantly exploring the new, and felt even sorrier for the great writer trapped in the Algerian War’s ambiguities of truth and justice. Thus she idealized Camus as “father, brother, friend, lover and son.” She professed: “I have never truly grasped this man, but one thing is clear – I love him dearly.” Such impassioned ardor was enough to incinerate Francine’s heart to cinder. Camus’s affection became her scourge, and she sank into frightening depression. After Christmas 1954, she attempted suicide. A few months later, she leapt from a height and shattered her pelvis. Camus had no choice but to commit Francine to a psychiatric clinic, then returned home himself, tearing his hair in anguish through the dark night. That winter, at Francine’s family’s urging, Camus moved from their Rue Madame apartment to a temporary place near Champs-Élysées. In a letter to Mamanin, Camus wrote: “This past year, the universe of ‘family’ has destroyed my body’s cells one by one.”

Sometimes marriage seems so unbearable, like being cloistered in a lightless room too long – the body may grow used to the engulfing darkness, yet a depressed heart always yearns for light.

In December 1957 Camus and his lovely wife Francine appeared at his Nobel Prize ceremony. Francine watched Camus elegantly navigate receptions, luncheons, dinners, press conferences, and photo sessions with professional photographers preceding the award. Then Camus announced to the world: “Francine has endured the torment caused by my work, and deserves to stand with me in this moment of triumph.” Camus’s acceptance speech was grave, sincere, brimming with emotion, even moving the King of Sweden.

On January 3, 1960, Camus, who once averred that “dying in a car crash is a stupid way to perish,” met his accidental death in an automobile accident. On the funeral morning, the lengthy cortege wound slowly along the serpentine road toward the cemetery on the town’s outskirts. Among the mourners walked Francine, moving feebly and mechanically. Through sobs she recalled how Camus had uncharacteristically spoken of his wish to be buried at Lourmarin after death when they last met at Christmas. She later learned Camus had penned final

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