France Honors Camus, And Fights Over His Grave Site

French writer and philosopher Albert Camus i i

hide captionFrench writer and philosopher Albert Camus (shown here in an undated photo) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and died in a car accident in 1960. Debate is under way in France on President Nicolas Sarkozy's suggestion to relocate Camus' remains from Lourmarin, a small village in southern France, to Paris' Pantheon.

French writer and philosopher Albert Camus

French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (shown here in an undated photo) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and died in a car accident in 1960. Debate is under way in France on President Nicolas Sarkozy's suggestion to relocate Camus' remains from Lourmarin, a small village in southern France, to Paris' Pantheon.

France has been celebrating the life and works of writer and philosopher Albert Camus, who died 50 years ago this month.

But the commemoration has been fraught with politics after President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested moving Camus' remains from a small, southern village to Paris.

Camus' tomb lies in the tiny cemetery of the Provencal village of Lourmarin, where Camus lived briefly before being killed in an automobile accident in January 1960 at the age of 46. Last month, Sarkozy proposed that Camus be exhumed and moved to the Pantheon, the domed basilica in Paris' Left Bank, where the heroes of France are buried.

The idea emerged as France is busy remembering one of its greatest writers. An ever-present cigarette hanging from his lips, Camus' face has graced the cover of numerous magazines, while French television has featured made-for-TV movies and documentaries about his life.

Born in 1913 in French colonial Algeria, Camus grew up in poverty. His mother was an illiterate cleaning lady. His father died in the trenches of World War I.

One of Camus' teachers discovered his brilliance. In 1942, Camus' novel The Stranger brought him instant international acclaim.

Soon after, during World War II, Camus joined the French Resistance. He risked his life editing its newspaper, Combat. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957.

Albert Camus' grave in the southern Provencal village of Lourmarin i i

hide captionCamus is buried in the Provencal village of Lourmarin. The Algerian-born writer lived there at the end of his life and requested that he be buried there.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
Albert Camus' grave in the southern Provencal village of Lourmarin

Camus is buried in the Provencal village of Lourmarin. The Algerian-born writer lived there at the end of his life and requested that he be buried there.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

His biographer, Olivier Todd, says Camus is as well-remembered for his principles as he is for his writing.

"Camus had his own stands on Marxism and communism," Todd says. "Long before anyone else, Camus said that the big mistake of left-wing intellectuals in Europe was to stand against Nazism but to forget to stand against the other totalitarian movement — that is communism. And it took him a long time to be forgiven for that."

The existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre severed relations with Camus after his denunciation of Russian communism. Though he still considered himself from the political left, Camus was increasingly at odds with Paris' 1950s, Left Bank intellectual scene.

Like the heroes of his novels — who confronted society, injustice and death — Camus said he, too, felt like an outsider.

"Within intellectual society, I don't know why, but I always feel like I'm guilty of something. It seems that I'm always breaking one of the rules of the clan," he said in a television interview.

Now, it's the French president who has seemingly broken a rule of the clan.

Perhaps Sarkozy thought interring Camus alongside the likes of Victor Hugo and Voltaire was an honor that might please the French.

But the proposal has raised a storm of protest. Critics accuse Sarkozy of trying to co-opt Camus' image to give the president some intellectual sparkle.

Todd, the Camus biographer, says Sarkozy's idea is ridiculous.

"Camus himself wanted to be buried in Lourmarin, by the football team, which he was. I think Sarkozy, by suggesting that Camus should be removed, made a political calculation. He wants to make his mark in the histories of literature," Todd says. "But people are rather embarrassed by the whole Pantheon business. Sarkozy may have felt that he needed Camus, but Camus certainly doesn't need Sarkozy."

In the village of Lourmarin, church bells ring out above the tiny streets and dollhouse facades. Mayor Blaise Diagne says people there are attached to Camus.

"After all, he chose to come live here amongst us after leaving his native Algeria, and people are proud of that. Lourmarin sees itself as an open, tolerant place, and Camus is a part of that image," he says.

Diagne says even if Camus' remains are moved to the Pantheon, his spirit will always be part of Lourmarin. No one, he says, not even Sarkozy, can take that away.

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