Monday, January 4, 2010

Death of a writer

Half a century ago, on 4 January 1960, much of France was covered in snow... like today. A celebrated French writer, Albert Camus, was returning to Paris in a Facel Véga sports car driven by his editor, Michel Gallimard. On the rear seat of Gallimard's powerful automobile, his wife Janine and her daughter Anne were accompanied by their Skye terrier. They had left Lourmarin in Provence on the previous morning and stayed overnight in a small inn called the Chapon Fin at Thoissey, in the valley of the Saône, to the north of Villefranche. After Sens, the road was generally straight, and bordered by plane trees... like today, except that the road was narrower at that time, and there were trees on both sides.

Heading westward towards Fontainebleau on a damp road at about 150 km/hour, Michel Gallimard suddenly lost control of his automobile at a place called Petit-Villeblevin. It zigzagged, left the road and wrapped itself around a plane tree. Camus died instantly, and Michel Gallimard succumbed to his wounds six days later. The two women survived miraculously, but their dog Floc had disappeared.

The following three images of the wreckage have been extracted from a silent news film [display]:

At that time, I was a 19-year-old computer programmer with IBM in Sydney. I had read English translations of three or four books by Camus, including The Myth of Sisyphus (which I still have with me at Gamone), and I was totally under the charm of this writer... whom I imagined, fuzzily, as an existentialiste, like Jean-Paul Sartre. It's not an exaggeration to say that one of the principal motivations for my initial pilgrimage to France in 1962 was the lure of the spirit of Albert Camus.

Since then, of course, I have been able to carry on reading Camus in his native language... which is essential in the case of such an author.

In the carcass of the sports car, a black briefcase held the unfinished manuscript of Le premier homme, an autobiographical text that was not edited and published posthumously until 1994.

In France, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting up by chance, in quite separate circumstances, with two of the closest friends of Albert Camus, both of whom were illustrious authors, now deceased: Louis Guilloux (a friend of Christine in her home town of St-Brieuc in Brittany) and Emmanuel Roblès (one of whose novels was published by Seuil at the same time as my book about artificial intelligence). Meanwhile, Camus lies buried in a simple grave at Lourmarin.

If Nicolas Sarkozy has his way, the remains of the writer will soon be transferred to the Panthéon in Paris... which is surely one of the silliest ideas that the president has ever imagined.


  1. Sad but beautiful and very moving story. Makes me want to return to my beloved France so much! I can't remember enough French to read in it as you are able to; lucky lucky lucky! I'll have to try to read the recommended book in a (poorer) English translation.

  2. Just took a look at your stats... my goodness, you have quite a few followers and visitors every day! I am so glad you kept your blog open. Happy New Year, William!

  3. Happy New Year, Catherine. The English translations of The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger (also published as The Outsider) are very good. The posthumous book is rather arid, for the obvious reason that Camus didn't live long enough to finish it.

  4. Wherever did you find those pictures William?

    The rear lamps are quite distinctive: the car was a Facel Vega HK500.

    A very big crash indeed and reminds me of the photos of Mike Hawthorn's Jaguar after his fatal crash in January 1959

  5. @Paul: I've inserted a link labeled [display], just before the group of three photos of the the accident.

  6. I will have to "find time" (and when might this be?) to read these books... have heard about them all my life. If you recommend them, then they must be worth reading. Thanks!

  7. Thank you so much for the description of what happened. 150 km/t - a completely crazy speed on a narrow route-nationale, I wonder how the 2 women survived at all.

    Cams was also a favoirte writer of mine from early on. I just read his Nobel speech from Stockholm

    Here is a little video from his funeral


    *Steen, Copenhagen, DEnmark

  8. Thank you for the story. Just finished reading "The Stranger" and "The Pest" (in Dutch) and loved it, now started reading "Le mythe de Sisyphe" (in French). So well-known here in Belgium, yet I feel I am discovering a fascinating unexplored part of literature. (Similar to the discovery of Coetzee's "Disgrace" and "Youth" a while ago.) Regards from Ghent, Belgium!

  9. Nice to get a notice of this follow-up comment after so many years. Hope you are still going strong! Such interesting reading, again and again.