Lourmarin, on the old route nationale between Marseille and Apt, is routinely described as “one of the most beautiful villages in France”. It is the sort of place that appears in newspaper travel guides and large format picture books. Dusty blue shutters, bougainvillea in flower baskets, cobbled streets, terra cotta pan tiles. That sort of thing. Albert Camus, the ’57 Nobel Laureate, footballer and Existentialist – described by Life magazine as the “action-packed intellectual”, described by the French as “un homme engage” – had a house here.
Incongruous, perhaps, that such a rugged and austere and frankly fatalistic philosopher chose to live in such picturesque circumstances. Then, maybe it is not incongruous at all : Camus had been greatly influenced by growing-up poor in Algeria. This informed his principled morality, but maybe it also enhanced his appetite for undemanding pleasures. Certainly, an unbending philosophy which confronted the most disturbing enigmas of existence offered little solace. By contrast, Lourmarin offered a lot. With Camus and Lourmarin, absolute honesty met vertiginous prettiness. As a souvenir of this strange liaison, you can find a rue Albert Camus in Lourmarin today. It’s a busy tourist passage : Le Ratelier, 2 rue Albert Camus, is, for example, a popular pizza restaurant.
Le Ratelier did not exist in Camus’ day. Instead, his preferred restaurant was the old-fashioned dining room of the Hotel Ollier. It was here that Camus and his wife, Francine, entertained his publisher Michel Gallimard and his wife, Janine, their house-guests, for lunch on Saturday 2nd January, 1960.
The Gallimard reputation was based on the haut vulgarization of avant-garde thought. Besides Camus, authors included Sartre and Gide. Michel himself was a fine combination of leftishness and hedonism whose contribution to the publishing house was social and creative, leaving the business side of book manufacturing to a more practical brother. Still, this strategy of high-mindedness mixed with populism had made Gallimard the second largest publisher in France
Gallimard and Camus were close : it was a personal relationship as well as a professional one. They spoke often and a recurrent conversational topic between them was Camus’ distaste for long car journeys. Since a return trip to Paris was imminent, this was discussed at Saturday lunch. Camus insisted he much preferred the relaxation of the train from Avignon’s old gare central (not today’s out-of-town TGV stop). Cars made him nervous. Fast cars more so. It was the train that Francine Camus chose for her own journey to Paris.
Nevertheless, on Sunday 3rd January, 1960 Albert Camus the Gallimards together with their daughter Anne and Janine Gallimard’s Skye terrier, a dog called Floc, left Lourmarin for Paris by car. Somehow, Camus had been persuaded to travel by road. The evening before, perhaps as a result of a hangover after a big lunch, Camus had been reported looking unsettled and morose when he visited the local Renault garage in Lourmarin where he signed a copy of L’Etranger for its proprietor. The inscription says “To M. Baumas, who contributes to my returning frequently to beautiful Lourmarin”. This, as events showed, was an elegiac inscription. Camus would not return alive.
The car Michel Gallimard persuaded Albert Camus to travel in was a Facel-Vega HK500, the most outrageous French automobile folie. Gallimard’s was black with a beige leather interior and he had bought it from the factory in September 1957, a detail suggestive of a special commitment to the type and, indeed, to its flamboyant createur. The manufacturer, Jean Daninos had more than industrial credentials : he was comfortable in the creative world. Indeed, he rather sought it out. His brother was the popular humourist Pierre Daninos, author of Les Carnets du Major Thomson, the story of an ancien regime Englishman’s experiences coming to terms with modern French life which became Preston Sturges’ film “The French, they are such a funny race”.
The Daninos fortune was made from metal pressing fridges and contract supply of car bodies to the mass-market : dull, but lucrative, stuff. By 1954 Jean Daninos had made enough money to start his own car company. He chose the name Facel-Vega ; its debut that year’s Paris Salon de l’Automobile. Facel is an acronym of the family metal bashing business’ name (Forges et Ateliers de Construction d’Eure et Loire) while Vega is the second brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere. Like Camus and Lourmain, the name Facel-Vega was a nice conjunction of the matter-of-fact and the special.
The Facel-Vega HK-500 was gorgeously handsome and extremely luxurious : its interior was a world away from its contemporary, the Citroen DS. Instead of plastics and modernismo, everywhere was wood and leather. Every technical enhancement imaginable in the fifties was available : it was, for example, one of the first cars to be offered with a radio ‘phone. In artistic terms, the Facel’s bodywork was a startling mélange of French and American culture. These were, of course, the days before France had acquired a disdain for US culture. So, there was a Detroit-style wraparound windshield and plenty of chrome, there was a deeply dished steering wheel. There were even little tail fins and every other detail was artfully contrived as expressive, but, while huge, the proportions had an essentially French elegance. Aesthetically, the Facel has more in common with a Ruhlmann chiffoniere than a Cadillac.
It was an exceptionally heavy car and needed a huge imported Chrysler V-8 to move its gross 4000lbs : this strange combination of American brute force and French sophistication, de luxe pistonnage, attracted Picasso and Dean Martin as customers, as well as France’s leading literary publisher. In the year that Camus’ epochal La Chute was published, the 1956 Facel-Vega was fitted with an even bigger 330 cubic inch Chrysler “Hemi” engine. It was by an easy measure the fastest four seater car in the world. The American accent of the Facel-Vega would have seemed chic, not vulgar, in the Paris of the late nineteen fifties.
Jean Daninos had a keen eye for publicity and flirted with celebrities. He had made Stirling Moss a brand ambassador and gave him the use of an HK-500. Unlike Camus, Moss – not unexpectedly – preferred car travel to any other form and drove his Facel-Vega across Europe to his various racing commitments, image-building the while. Moss, familar these things, was nonetheless impressed by the enormous power of the Facel.
There is a not fully researched relationship between power, speed and sex. Jackie Collins was also the owner of a Facel-Vega. Writing to historian Martin Buckley to explain the fascination of this car Collins said “Getting behind the wheel of a Facel-Vega is like having great sex – you want the moment to go on for ever”. Camus was infamous for his helpless flirtations and epic infidelities. Did he sense in Michel Gallimard’s car some of these occult erotic possibilities ? Maybe, but they turned out to be short-lived.
The Facel-Vega management was aware of its own responsibilities in selling this potent, opulent and possibly even dangerous car. No-one now knows whether Michel Gallimard ever bothered to read the owner’s manual, but its advice to drivers is like a forensic analysis of the potential dangers of la vie en route :
“At high speed be careful :
to hold the steering wheel with both hands except when shifting gears
to keep as close as possible to the centre of the road
not to overtake on the brow of a hill
to reduce speed over the brow of a hill as a car might have stopped on the far side
not to look at anything else but the road
not to change the radio programme
not to smoke”
The distance from Lourmarin to Paris on the RN7 and RN5 is a little less than five hundred miles : a lovely sequence of Orange, Avignon, Lyon, Macon, Beaune, Chalon, Saulieu, Avallon, Auxerre, Sens, Fontainebleau and then the capital. It contains many brows and blind bends. Camus had commitments to meetings in Paris, but was in no hurry and the whole party was determined to eat well on the trip. They lunched at Orange, a quiet ville roman. The first night they stopped at Paul Blanc’s Chapon Fin at Thoissey, the sort of restaurant Michelin Rouge said, in its ineffably French hierarchy of categorization, “merite un detour” and, in the case of the Gallimard and Camus, a lay-over as well. They ate foie gras, a fricassee of chicken with mushrooms and crepes parmentiers. Camus did not sign the hotel’s livre d’or, but he did sign the official police registration card. It was the very last thing he wrote.
Paul Blanc later recalled that he thought Gallimard’s Facel, one of two he found in his car park that night, had a worryingly worn tyre. Whether he warned his customer is not known, but continuing the journey on Monday morning, Madame Gallimard later remembered that author and publisher had enjoyed a macabre (and predictive) conversation about the advantages of being embalmed. One of these advantages being that, after their demise, the stuffed bodies could forever remain in Janine’s salon for the benefit of her company. To this grisly proposition, Janine simply shuddered “Quelle horreur”. Distracted, perhaps, by the prospect of embalming, Michel Gallimard began to drive more quickly. Janie also remembered that this unsettled Camus who said to him “Hey, little friend, who’s in a hurry ?” Perhaps Gallimard slowed-down.
They next stopped in another two star Michelin restaurant, the Hotel de Paris et de la Poste in Sens, about 116km from Paris. Michelin says this is “a traditional inn with a provincial atmosphere”. Nowadays, the kitchen is busy “reinterpreting classic cuisine”. In Camus’ day, it was more cuisine de grande-mere : bourgeois, in other words. They ate boudins noirs aux pommes reinette and shared a single bottle of Burgundy.
The journey towards Sens continued along dead straight roads lined with the beautiful, but intimidating, arbres de lineage. The roads were quiet, but it was drizzling. Janine later recalled that in the moments before the accident she could remember no explosion or screech, although Michel Gallimard might have said “Merde !”. She did recall a violent wobble and the car leaving the road. They were near a roadside hamlet called Petit Villeblevin, a place of no distinction. Memory eradicated the accident herself, but the next thing she remembered was sitting in the mud, calling for Floc. The dog was never seen again.
Gallimard’s Facel-Vega hit one tree, then another, wrapping itself horribly, and with great force, around the latter. Newspaper photographs showed that the out-of-control car had ripped-up the damp tarmac road surface for about one hundred and fifty feet. The reports said the debris was scattered over a five hundred foot radius. Most of this debris was on one side of the road; the hot, but dead, Chrysler engine was on the other. The only witness was a camioniste who said he had a little earlier been passed by the distinctive car of Camus’ “little friend” traveling at about 150km/h, evidently – despite the Nobel Laureate’s preferences – in a hurry.
The women, sitting in the rear, were unhurt, but Camus was negatively accelerated through the Plexiglass rear window and died instantly of a broken neck when his head hit the rear deck. It took the pompiers two hours to release his body. Michel Gallimard was initially conscious enough to ask “Was I driving ?”, but died of a brain haemhorrage five days later. Bizarrely, the local doctor attending the accident was called Marcel Camus. As J.G. Ballard later said, there are no coincidences. But there are deep assignments. In Albert Camus’ bag investigators found a manuscript of Le Premier Homme, a school translation of Othello and a French translation of Nietzsche’s Frohliche Wissenschaft. Unbearably, his bag also contained the unused train ticket Camus had intended to use for his Paris trip with Francine.
What had happened ? Gallimard was an experienced driver with a reputation for speed. Jean Daninos much later claimed that his Paris service manager had warned Gallimard not to drive on worn tyres and reported the publisher saying “I’ll change them when I get back”. An old tutor of Gallimard’s, Rene Etiemble, prepared, in the French way, a dossier after the crash and found out from service records that a rear wheel on the publisher’s car had twice suffered seized bearings. If such a thing happened at speed on a damp road, the Facel-Vega would have gone hopelessly out-of-control. Etiemble claimed to have warned Gallimard “This car is a tomb”.
The heavy HK-500 was additionally liable to brake fade and its great weight led to several incidents when spokes on the handsome Dunlop wire wheels failed. These were consequences of Daninos’ industrial showmanship : for all its majestic presence and divine power, the Facel-Vega HK500 was not dynamically competent. The successful Belgian racing driver Paul Frere said “Daninos was not really an engineering man, he was more of a stylist”.
The crash was world news. Andre Malraux, the fabulpous French culture secretary, sent his chef adjoint de cabinet to represent the Republique at the crash scene. He was briefed to respect Camus’ world view and not allow any inappropriate religious interference or associations in the necessary processes. More practically, Daninos sent the American racing driver, Lance Macklin, acting as a consultant to Facel-Vega, to investigate the accident . Meanwhile, Camus’ corpse was at rest in the local Mairie. An Algerian journalist who paid homage at Villeblevin said “under the light of a naked bulb, he had the expression of a very tired sleeper”.
It took time for the authorities to find Francine Camus, who had been back at her teaching job in Paris for three days . She was eventually driven to the scene accompanied by a howling motor-cycle escort; the scene she eventually found at the Mairie she described as something from L’Etranger. In 1967 the Villeblevin authorities raised a monumental fountain in Camus’ memory. It is inscribed with some lines from The Myth of Sisyphus : “The struggle toward the summit itself suffices to fill a man’s heart”.
That a gastronomic trip of such felicity ended in a ridiculous disaster and the genuine absurdity of Camus’ own death was soon noticed. A man who boldly confronted extinction and the banality of existence, but who was scared of driving fast, was killed in a luxury car that was being driven too quickly. The New York Times wrote that it was a “grim philosophical irony” that Camus should have been killed by a “chance impact”. Had he not written that while “there can be nothing more scandalous than the death of a child” there can be “nothing more absurd than to die in a car accident”. The New York Times continued to explain that “the central theme of his thought was the proper response of the thinking man to the plight that is posed by the gift of life”.
Camus was often vague about time. After all, his most famous lines are “Mother died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday. I don’t know”. The dashboard clock of the wrecked Facel-Vega in which Camus so absurdly died read 1:54 or 1:55, people dispute. Anyway, Albert Camus is now back in Lourmarin, interred in the local graveyard. Absinthe grew over his grave at first, but was replaced by rosemary. The accent on Cimetiere goes the wrong way. His old comrade and then antagonist, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote a dark euology : “The Absurd might be that question that no-one will ask him now, that he will ask no-one, that silence that is not even a silence now, that is absolutely nothing now”.
Facel-Vega went out of business in 1964. The autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme was only published in France in 1994, Camus’ daughter being concerned that, at a time when her father’s reputation was already in decline, its questionable quality might compromise remaining esteem. Jean Daninos died in 2001. In 2009 Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the Pantheonization of Camus, that he should be re-interred under the dome of Soufflot’s Sainte Genevieve, beneath the magnificent inscription “Aux Grands Hommes”. But Camus’ son, Jean, said such grandiosity would be inappropriate as a memorial to the author of The Rebel. So, Albert Camus is still in Lourmarin. Sometimes people who visit the grave are reminded of that novelist figure in the Myth of Sisyphus who committed suicide in order to draw attention to his work. Others feel that life is absurd. Death even more so.