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Birth of a Friendship
In 1946, Jean Sénac — barely twenty years old and a virtually unknown burgeoning poet — publicly acknowledged his indebtedness, if not his affiliation, to Camus, the author of Noces [Nuptials]. This "little essential book" was one of Sénac's most important discoveries, appearing in lyrical echoes and sensual resonances throughout his own work. His gratitude was expressed through poems he dedicated to the writer whose texts he had reviewed many times over the years. As a literary critic, Sénac displayed a great knowledge of Camus's work, which exemplified for him "dignity, French literature and Algerian concern for mankind."
His admiration for the other local writers, whether European or Arabo-Berber — most of whom grew out of a declining Algerianism as well as the fast-growing École d'Alger — was just as strong given that "our profoundly human culture has solidified and continues to solidify Algerian and French fraternity." Furthermore, Sénac was in contact with most of the writers who had represented the two literary schools of colonial Algeria, in a post–World War II Algiers that had kept an aura of "the capital of French literature in exile." This "Algiers" is where Sénac had settled after his release from the air force (where he had been conscripted as a volunteer from October 31, 1944, to March 6, 1946). Whether part of the Association of Algerian Writers, assembled around Jean Pomier and his review Afrique (for example, Edmond Brua, his first teacher), or gathered around publisher Edmond Charlot and his bookstore Les Vraies Richesses (with Emmanuel Roblès, Jules Roy, Gabriel Audisio, etc.), these writers — all of them admiring friends of Camus — were either close friends of Sénac, encouraging him in the art of writing, or those he frequented in the literary and artistic circle founded in June 1946, "Le Cercle Lélian."
It was upon the insistence of artist and painter Sauveur Galliéro, a mutual friend he saw frequently starting in 1946, that Sénac decided to contact Camus. It was nevertheless Claude de Fréminville, thankful for Sénac's long article on his novel Buñoz, who recommended that he contact directly the famous publisher and writer in Paris. In a letter he writes to Camus on June 16, 1947 — while hospitalized at the Rivet Sanatorium* (today called Meftah) for a serofibrinous pleurisy on the left lung — Sénac fully reveals his personality: that of a man who draws a subtle self-portrait in his writing, speaking almost exclusively of himself, even when it's concerning the other.
In his letter to Camus, Sénac fulfills a long-repressed desire, and expresses among other things his admiration for the writer's work and for the poems of Blanche Balain. "I love and I speak of those that I love, of what I love," he writes, thereby giving the guiding principle of his critical aesthetic: to speak only of works by Algerian writers, many of whom will become his friends — in short, to write about the words of his own people. Psychology as the foundation for critical freedom is nothing new. For Sénac, this practice became a paradigm that he could temper but not control, especially concerning Camus when he attempts to separate the man from his writings.
In this letter, Sénac also sends to his famous recipient a photograph of the "little poet from Oran, today in a sanatorium," reading Noces in bed ("Ah Camus, thank you for that little book"), as well as poems that display a constant search for technique in the form, which he hopes, even "demands," will receive the severe critique he expected from the majority of his other correspondents (writers, review editors, publishers, etc.). He hopes that his own texts will provide Camus with a "little sun and fervor from Africa, from our home," since "we are proud in Algeria ... of [the writer's] added fame" following the recent Prix des Critiques award for his novel The Plague.
Sénac received a response from Camus on June 24, 1947, which he describes in his personal diary as "a beautiful and affectionate letter that warms my heart." He goes as far as replicating its first sentence in a letter he sends to Blanche Balain. That first "Camusian" correspondence is in many ways a strong testimony since it already reveals the nature of a friendship that was immediately born between the two men. Camus, as usual, responded on NRF [Nouvelle Revue Française] letterhead. His letter was nevertheless mailed from Panelier (HauteLoire), where he was resting with his family after the publication of The Plague in early June 1947. "Few letters have touched me as much as yours," he writes, as though to a "younger brother" with whom he shares three crucial traits; whereas in his letter Sénac ironically had questioned: "Affinities between him and me? Impossible!"
The first common trait was a community of the land: "What comes from there is always dear to me"; Camus, who had always been generous in heart and mind with the men of Algeria, seen as human beings no matter where they came from, adds "we are all brothers over there."
Second, the two men were tacitly complicit in their disease, which Camus had acknowledged ("It's an illness that benefits Algerians. In ten years it has allowed me to produce the work of two men"). Underlying this statement, as a corollary, is the recurrent idea of death and suicide, the "only serious philosophical problem" according to Camus in his preliminary critical essay The Myth of Sisyphus; "a wrenchingly avid contest" Sénac writes in his masterpiece, Avant-Corps [Forebody]. Death would always be present in their works and in their lives, which for both began in November and ended prematurely at the age of forty-six, a coincidence that will confound both their friends and enemies. Strange destinies, unrelated at first, of a tandem that rested nevertheless on so many common traits: the same happy childhood spent in poverty under the sun and in working-class neighborhoods (Belcourt in Algiers and Saint Eugène in Oran); mothers with similar backgrounds, both originally Catalan of Spanish blood, both having worked as cleaning ladies, but also so different in temperament (silent in the case of Camus, who never benefited from her influence; a fervent and garrulous Catholic in the case of Sénac, who inherited both traits). Finally, an absent father leading to a historical and a personal quest, in vain for the orphan born under the star of death (Camus was barely a year old when he lost his father, who died from his wounds during the Battle of the Marne, on October 11, 1914), and for the natural son born under the star of anonymity (Sénac never knew his father).
The last subject, where the two men converge, was paradoxically religion. "Christian anarchist doesn't bother me," says Camus as an agnostic who subtly differentiates himself from atheism. As for Sénac, his initial faith, a crucible for his poetry and for his struggles, would evolve over the years towards a form of Christianity without the Church, or even skillfully sacrilegious agnosticism (a "god without the formula").
Even though "he wasn't keen on poetry," Camus immediately became interested in Sénac's verse and remains one of its most illustrious critics. After reviewing several of his texts, he adds: "Your poems are not bad" and "you have talent, for sure."
Lastly, Camus shares more personal information concerning his work, which he views — as usual — as work in progress ("I have barely begun to know my language"), or his private life (his plans to visit his mother in the fall). Autographing on a separate sheet of paper, he promises Sénac to have his publisher send him a copy of The Plague. Promise kept, since the poet mentions it in an article published on July 8, 1947: "Albert Camus: A great writer born in Oran."
The article is notable for its literary chauvinism, sometimes deliberately regional and fabricated (Camus wasn't born in Rivoli, a precinct of Oran), sometimes exact and legitimate ("Camus has just devoted his first novel to his native land"). This was a perceptive insight on The Plague, for Camus saw Noces as an essay and The Stranger as a narration.
The article reveals, most importantly, that "Camus's beautiful work, The Myth of Sisyphus, would soon be followed by an essay on The Rebel." One wonders how, in the summer of 1947, Sénac knew of an essay that was still a project in the lengthy formal process common to all of Camus's works. The answer would further reveal Sénac's familiarity with the writer's work, through mutual friends mentioned earlier and the many articles he read on the author.
Soon after, on September 30, 1947, Sénac contributes another article on Camus. He immediately corrects his mistake concerning the author's birthplace, after receiving some information from Emmanuel Roblès, which he repeats almost textually. Following an overview of Camus's major literary and philosophical works, with large extracts, Sénac insists on the "Algerianism" of Camus. Despite the latter's universality, in the "surgical precision ... of a modern sensibility" faced with chaos and the Absurd, Sénac nevertheless believes that Camus remains the "North African literary leader," as "all of his books reveal the latent presence of an Algerian temperament, and the image of man fashioned by our sky, our land, dispenser of riches without giving lessons."
Sénac sees in this writing a literary regionalism even though it acquires a global audience thanks to Camus. The latter will nevertheless express some reservations concerning this vision of literature, as did the other members of the École d'Alger. Finally, in his article, Sénac mentions a forthcoming movie adaptation of The Plague with Jean Gabin as leading actor. This factual piece of information, while premature, is surprising since Camus first mentioned it on November 15, 1947,and refuted it on November 28 in an interview with Emmanuel Roblès at Radio Algeria.
This first epistolary exchange (referred to above) was the beginning of a sustained correspondence between the two men, even though it wasn't regular. Camus, who was still on vacation in Panelier, "was glad to receive" another letter from Sénac, which he responded to on July 13, 1947. His wholehearted reply contains vital information on his projects. Again he addresses the poet's struggle with illness: "I will be very pleased once I know that you are fully recovered and out of your little cloister." He also asks him if he needs "anything," having read "in the newspapers that people over there were malnourished and that there were incidents." That last point proves how much Camus was informed on In his response, Camus mentions his personal life (vacations, children) and speaks of three ongoing projects, two of which were significant:
1. An aesthetic theater, involving "the spoken and mimed transposition of the play Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe," which he dedicated to Jean-Louis Barrault. This play would become, as we know, the "total theater" of The State of Siege after the original idea was abandoned.
2. A trip to South America planned for spring 1948. After much deliberation, Camus ended up traveling to Brazil and Argentina only, in June and August 1949.
3. Again his plan to travel to Algeria in the fall in order to see his mother "who is old now." Camus did visit Algiers in October 1947, and was hoping to meet Sénac, but they apparently never saw each other given that the poet was still hospitalized at Rivet. Such an encounter would certainly have been mentioned in his journals, especially his Journal du sana [Sanatorium journal].
In this letter, Camus goes from "Sending you my fraternal thoughts" in his previous letter to "thinking of you, very affectionately." The lexical shift indicates a favorable evolution in Camus's feelings for someone who's become more than a simple correspondent: Sénac has gained a sympathy that will quickly turn into friendship.
The first long-awaited meeting between the two happened on or close to March 2, 1948, during the Sidi Madani Cultural Meetings [Rencontres culturelles de Sidi Madani] (near Blida) organized by the Algerian Service for the Youth Movement and Popular Education, held at "La Citadelle" Cultural Center.
Several references confirm this. First, a study by Jean Déjeux suggesting that Camus and Sénac met in Sidi Madani sometime during their respective stays: Camus from March 2 to 13, and Sénac from February 26 to March 4. What was only a hypothesis for the distinguished bibliographer and essayist on literature of the Maghreb in French [littérature maghrébine d'expression française] becomes a fact in an article published by Sénac in his own mimeographed review M and in his unfinished letter to Jean Daniel. In these documents the poet mentions his meeting with Camus, as well as the latter's participation in a discussion at Sidi Madani.
Finally, a third letter that Camus wrote to Sénac on April 7, 1948, upon his return to France, stating that he "was happy to have met him. Less so to be back in Paris, its labyrinth and its shabby Minotaur," habitual expressions from the author that take on here a significant tone. In this letter Camus again expresses his appreciation for Sénac's poetry: "You have the freshest and the most authentic talents." He valued Mesure d'homme, a collection yet to be published, and added this notable appraisal: "I have the greatest trust in you. There is in you a certain naiveté (like Schiller who spoke of the remarkable Greek naiveté)."
Camus ends his letter with "Faithfully," showing the appreciation that the two men now have for each other. The poet is overjoyed: the master indeed repeats the expression from Nuptials, "Greek insolence and innocence," to describe Sénac's poetry and way of life, an affirmation of the body's freedom despite a Christianity that "strives to suspend desire."
Sénac — still recovering at the Rivet Sanatorium, where he worked as the director's clerk and bursar — receives a fourth letter from Camus, sent from Paris on September 7, 1948. It's a response to Sénac's critical essay on Isidore Isou, the theorist of letterisme, who had "amused" him: "you are worth all the Isous in the world." Camus further clarifies his opinion of the writer: "All the provocations in the world can't give Isou any fame, or great talent. He will serve only his publicity, which is not the same thing," since "that kind of work isn't worth a penny." It is worth recognizing the critic's accuracy concerning a writer whose fireworks, coinciding with the publication of The Plague (1947), were quickly forgotten. In the same letter Camus returns to Sénac's poetry: "You're making progress on a difficult road: the right one." He expresses a few thoughts, reflective of his best writing, on a life that "is hard in France. At home poverty is easy. Here is it cold and unforgiving. Sometimes it can kill."
After leaving the sanatorium on December 1, 1948, Jean Sénac returns to Algiers. He lives with his Albertin cousins in Bab-el-Oued, and in the Casbah with Sauveur Galliéro. Perhaps he met Camus again, who was in Algiers later that month visiting his aunt, Acault, after her operation. This seems likely, since Sénac had a copy of Letters to a Young German with the autograph "to Jean Sénac, a little reminder of my formative years," dated 1948. Sénac would imitate theses letters many times in his own unpublished "Letters to a Friend," where he pities himself, unlike Camus who chastises.
Jean Sénac had started as sound director of a weekly literary show at Radio Algiers on December 3, 1948. On October 26, 1949, he announces to Camus that he will produce a show titled "Nuptials with the world: A poet of the joie de vivre: Albert Camus." Two main ideas are explored in these programs, which Sénac had already analyzed in his articles. The first one concerned Camus's philosophy, which celebrates pleasure in a country that "gives without holding back," while retaining a somewhat preoccupied lucidity. This intensity of life finds its expression in Camus's lyrical prose, even though he always denied being a poet. Referring to Camus's statement "I often have the (humiliating) impression that I understand nothing of poetry," Sénac suggests that "Algerians don't write poems; they are themselves a luminous summer poem." It's one of the poet's most recurrent premises: to live in reality is a triumph over literature. He concurs with the "Camusian" stance — so identifiable in his own poetry as well as in his literary and radiophonic writings — of the Algerian (European, or the French Algerian according to the terminology at the time) who remains speechless when confronted with the "invincible summer" and natural beauty. A second literary theme dear to Sénac is an "Algerianism" where Algeria is an eclectic ideal of continuous wants and desires. Camus is of course part of this "Algerianism."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Albert Camus, Jean Sénac or the Rebel Son"
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Guy Dugas,
Preface by the Translator,
PART I. From a Literary Father to an Impossible Father (1947–1954),
CHAPTER 1. Birth of a Friendship,
CHAPTER 2. Algerianism or École d'Alger,
CHAPTER 3. The Son Faces the Father,
CHAPTER 4. Towards a Political Literature,
PART II. Literature between Rebellion and Revolution (1954–1958),
CHAPTER 5. November 1954: The "Just" Fight or Terrorism?,
CHAPTER 6. The Civil Truce,
CHAPTER 7. From a Literature of Combat to the Nobel Prize,
CHAPTER 8. Sénac, Reader of Camus,
PART III. Correspondence and Radio Shows,
Jean Sénac and Albert Camus's Correspondence,
Two Shows from Radio Algeria, Produced by Jean Sénac,