Swimming Against Themselves; George Orwell and Albert Camus
By February, 1944, much of the worst fighting of the World War II was already over. The month before, in January, the Soviet forces had managed to finally expel the German occupation of the city of Leningrad, ending one of the longest and most brutal sieges in modern history, and the Allies had made major advances on Italy, ending with the horrifying landings at Anzio.
The following year, 1945, the Allies entered Western Germany whilst the joint Soviet-Polish forces entered Berlin itself. By the end of April, both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were dead, the Reichstag seized and the war itself almost over. It is essential to know that this is the background, and the global environment, to the infamous meeting between two men who were, arguably, two of the greatest minds of their time.
George Orwell and Albert Camus: The Meeting That Never Was
George Orwell and Albert Camus had arranged to meet at the Deux Magots café, in February of 1945. Despite their differences, perhaps even, in some small part, due to them, they were certainly two of the most unique and interesting literary and politically-conscious figures of the time. When these two are addressed together, they are largely noted for their differences. It is easy enough to compare the two based on their antimonies, but their similarities are in no way less interesting.
Their personal lives are largely the main area of concern when it comes to comparison between the two. The two of them were working towards something similar, but certainly through different routes, from impossibly different starting points. It might even be worth considering the two as polar opposites in everything but thought. The lifetimes and work of the two can be viewed as an inversed mirror image, pointing out the flaws, doubts and inherent truth revealed in each man and their bodies of work.
Moving Towards an Ideal: Cigarettes and Shapeshifting
As anyone interested in either literary figure will tell you, their incessant cigarette smoking was almost a hallmark of their lives. Looking at this habit shallowly might lead someone to deduce that the two, perhaps, had the same nerves, the same addiction and even developed the same habits to their lifestyles. However, looking at the evidence a little closer will reveal something much more profound and certainly more interesting when we try to nail down the history and personality of these men.
George Orwell’s Cigarettes
Orwell would roll his own cigarettes. Now, that in of itself isn’t too telling, but when you consider that he used the cheapest British shag tobacco he could get his hands on, this becomes much more indicative of his personality.
Here was an officer, and educated man and a literary figure, smoking the same kind of tobacco as the poorest of the proletariat would choose, the same tobacco as smoked by the lowest ranking Tommies in the British armed forces. This comes as a clear indicator as to his political viewpoints, as well as with whom his sympathies typically laid – even if we were to ignore his body of work.
Albert Camus’ Cigarettes
Camus, meanwhile, coming as he did from a poor background and only managed to achieve an education because of his natural aptitude for it (as can be seen from his semi-autobiographical works including The First Man), always felt like an outsider.
He was desperate to be seen as part of the literary, cultures intelligentista of Paris, in much the same way that Sartre was. So, when he smoked, he ignored the kind of shag his family would have smoked in Algeria, and instead chose to smoke Gauloises, a particular brand of pre-packaged, unfiltered cigarette which was particularly popular throughout the French artistic community.
What did Their Cigarettes Mean to Them?
Both of these men chose their cigarettes carefully, as a direct contrast to their past and upbringing. For Orwell, his tobacco was a way to show solidarity with the British working class, in stark contrast to his fairly comfortable middle-class upbringing, his public-school education and even his role in the Imperial Police force.
Camus, meanwhile, was looking to escape his working-class origins and find comfort in the literary scene of which his favoured cigarettes were an important part. They could both be said to feel uneasy in their worlds, having had to shapeshift from their upbringing and even their natural forms into something that they actually want to be. Their cigarettes were both an ingredient in their shapeshifting. To some degree, they could be said to hold this transformation together; a daily reminder of their ability to shift and change as required.
Camus’ and Orwell’s Consumption
Both Orwell and Camus were afflicted by tuberculosis in different ways. Orwell himself was, naturally, a sickly man by all accounts. His entire life, he was plagued by vague illnesses, aches and pains which seriously impacted his view of the world in negative ways. It is hardly a surprise that he became, by all accounts, something of a pessimistic person to be around, and it is clear in many cases that his attitudes were heavily influenced by his myriad illnesses. Although it is not presented in the clear way that Camus presents his illnesses, Orwell’s entire attitude is – at times – indicative of someone suffering from a thousand minor ailments, illnesses and irritations.
Camus, as I just mentioned, was far more overt in the role that his physical health played in his literature, philosophies and his entire outlook on life. Although ruggedly healthy as a young man, blessed with the natural healthy physique so common in the poor Algerian community at the time, when he was 17 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This diagnosis then went on to have a long-lasting effect throughout his life. For example, he often refused to go swimming with Simone de Beauvoir due to fears over his failing lungs. It was much more overt in his literary musings and prose style than that of his counterpart in this case.
His description of the almost fugue state that Meursault inhabits in L’Étranger bore a high level of similarity to his early descriptions of the symptoms prevalent from tuberculosis, of which he would have been intimately familiar. Of course, without the balance of Camus’ overriding absurdity (to my mind, I can’t recollect a single instance when TB created a mindset in which murder, even murder with something of a racial component, seemed appropriate).
Camus and Orwell Meeting Their End
It is almost ironic that the two should meet their ends in such alternative ways. Albert Camus, diagnosed with consumption at 17 and obsessed with the concept of his own illness throughout his life, would escape the clutches of his sickness whilst Orwell, who spent his life blatantly refusing to acknowledge even the concept of his own mortality, should succumb. It is hardly a surprise that the illness killed Orwell, ill through much of his life and certainly having suffered much throughout the Spanish Civil War, his time in the Imperial Police and whilst Down and Out in Paris and London. In fact, I would be confident in arguing that it was Orwell’s illness which gave his ultimate work, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, the desperation it possessed and reinforced the hopelessness which permeates the entire novel.
Camus, despite his twenty-year obsession with his own illness, was fortunate enough (if we are to measure fortune in such ways) to avoid the agonising end that Orwell met with some years previously. Albert Camus was killed in an automobile accident which he could have easily avoided. In fact, he had a train ticket in his pocket which would have enabled him to avoid the car trip altogether.
If only he had elected to travel with his family on the train, rather than rely on the skills of his publicist behind the wheel, he might have gone on to finish The First Man, his semi-autobiographical work about his childhood in Algeria, or his incomplete posthumously published novel A Happy Death. Perhaps it suits Camus – his death; to have something so normal, so mundane take away the life of a prolific philosopher, writer and essayist must have been preferable to the wasting disease which wracked Orwell’s last days.