SPINNING TOP: LIFE AND DEATH IN INTELLECTUAL FRANCE‘What remains is the future.’ Max Jacob
On the fourth of January 1960, Albert Camus was killed when the convertible Facel Vega his publisher Michel Gallimard was driving skidded on a bottle top in the extreme depths of
J-P Sartre described the accident as ‘Le scandale, absurd… C’est l’abolition de l’ordre des hommes par l’inhumain’ (France Observateur, 1960). He added that Camus and himself would never be the same age. If that seems obvious, as Sartre was eight years older, think again. The author of Being and Nothingness meant that he always thought he’d die first, and Albert would catch up. The rather forced ‘melancholy truce’ made with his ex-friend in France Observateur suggests he’d much rather Camus was writing his obituary. But not yet, of course.
Thirty-nine members of the Academie Française agreed it was sans sens, senseless, though the accident happened near Sens. The dissenting voice was Jean Cocteau, who lisped ‘going over the top is surwheelism’. So much for intellectual life in France and, indeed, the Facel Vega, the Concorde of French cars. Camus’s death proved to be its titanium scrap on the piste, runway. The safer model produced in his wake didn’t take off, and the factory closed in 1964.
The stopper was reported to be a bouchon de fil, a wiry cork. Reasonably enough, journalists concluded it was from a brandy bottle. Albert had lent his name to a cognac out of kindness to a branch of his family in financial difficulty. Classic Camus is a top of the range tipple, hors prix for the workingman. Sartre mocked him, ‘Mauvaise foi, ou peut-être mauvais foie’, bad faith or maybe bad liver. But by then they were no longer talking to one another. Camus had told Le Monde, ‘Sartre thinks I am an existentialist, but I am not’. J-P in his latter years admitted to Juliette Greco that he wouldn’t mind a wine called after him, as long as it was red. The wine industry has not honoured his wish. There is lots of Domaine Satyre, but no Domaine Sartre.
When Camus accepted the Nobel Prize in 1957 (seven years before Sartre refused it), his financial affairs were in a mess. Before, he had always lived on an overdraft, and so money worries were left to his bank manager to sort out. Now advisers flocked around him, and his chosen one involved him in speculations which he probably knew nothing about. For instance, a cork forest in
According to Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Danny the Red, who now leads the Greens in the European Parliament), Sartre’s final argument with Camus was not about lending his name to a fancy brandy. It was that his Nobel capital funded a new development in the bottling industry, the promotion of screw tops. Why Sartre took such exception to this business was sentimental, rather than ecological. Towards the end of his life Simone de Beauvoir confided to her journal how J-P loved to hear the pop when you cracked open a bottle of champagne. ‘When I said ‘how childish, mon vieux’, he defended himself. ‘It makes me think of the Revolution. As long as there are Cork Cooperatives in the environs of Marseille, it is not dead.’
Sartre’s coded remorse in his France Observateur obituary is full of praise of a rather faint kind, and a cosmic rage against an accident that deprived him of a headstrong humanist (‘humaniste têtu’) he could argue with on equal terms. He must have suffered, economising on his disdain for comrades given to bad faith. But he was influenced at the time by the Talmud’s ‘Death atones for all’.
The details of Camus’s death can be questioned. Could it be that the brandy top is a cork and bull story due to a misreading of the telegram sent by the gendarmes to his family? Bouchon for roadblock was picked up as bouchon, bottle-stopper. The car hit the barrier and toppled over and the two friends, Albert and Michael, were killed. One way or another, the Facel Vega ran into the future, which for me is the weeping willow tree, which was planted later on the spot where the car ended up. For bouchon could mean not just a closure, but also writer’s block. His last book, Le Premier Homme, was not going too well. Or so Camus thought, which is why The First Man would, had he lived, been the masterpiece it isn’t.
Classic Camus 1960 remains a collectors’ item at brandy auctions. It is recommended to add two drops of flower essence. The label has a quotation, unattributed. ‘It’s useful sometimes not to remember what isn’t important.’ The wiry cork is stamped with in cognac veritas.