Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson

Biographers and scholars of Sartre and Camus have been their accomplices. Some have drawn their relationship as brief and insignificant, looking at it primarily to anticipate its ending.
— Ronald Aronson, from the Prologue

The famed existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre first met in 1943 amidst the backdrop of the Second World War. Their first meeting took place in the lobby during the opening night’s procession of Sartre’s play The Flies. The two men were quick to size each other up and jovially found each other intelligent, charismatic and politically in sync.

Having a familiarity with each other’s works-Camus had even reviewed Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea-they both admired the other man’s stark philosophical and literary contributions to French-and eventually World-literature.

When writing about one, the other often infused biting remarks and criticisms within the prose of his praise, and it is here where author Ronald Aronson dogmatically dissects the lives of these enigmatic, sometimes tragic figures.

Their friendship was based upon behavioral contradictions inasmuch as it was built by intellectual similarities. Their political ideologies were influenced heavily by the post World War I fascism that gripped Europe in the form of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler (Sartre himself lived in Nazi Germany in the mid- to late 1930s).

Sartre grew to believe in an anarchic form of political revolution while Camus preached a passive approach to changing the war. It was this fundamental difference that would later serve to sever their friendship.

Camus & Sartre is beautifully written and manages to view the turbulent friendship through a fairly objective monocle. But the failings of this historical account of a monumental literary friendship comes not from the exhaustive research and crisp, fluid prose, but from Aronson’s inability to render the account in a non-partisan manner.

Aronson himself proclaims in the book’s prologue that “this Camus-Sartre biography is already a ‘revisionist’ history …”and, he goes on, “As an integral part of the history of the Cold War, the Sartre-Camus relationship demanded to be seen through partisan eyes.” While, for the duration of the book, we do get a fascinating, often objective account of their historic friendship, what we often find, in the subtext of the prose, is a leftist apologist hard at work, which detracts from the beauty and overall brilliance of this lavishly produced book.

Nit-picking aside, Aronson proves himself a formidable scholar and his book serves as an excellent primer to Camus and Sartre’s lives as well as their works, and it should go down in history as the definitive account of the tumultuous Sartre-Camus affair.

While their legends persist, Camus and Sartre’s respective oeuvres seem to be receding into the background and their immortality comes in the form of the men they’ve influenced. While Camus’s excellent novel The Stranger has become a staple of English Lit classes around the world, Sartre’s works have slowly toppled over and his philosophical musings has been brought to the forefront, effectively eclipsing his fictional literary endeavors.

With any luck, Aronson’s book will rekindle interest in these fallen giants’ bibliographies. At the least, its publication is a major literary event and should be placed on the top tier of literary biographies, equally-and even surpassing-more publicized accounts of authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

In the end a man’s life is viewed by its parts as well as its whole, and in this case the pieces that made up Camus and Sartre’s respective lives appear more intriguing and appealing when their greatest contributions-namely their literary contributions-are set aside. “Camus and Sartre,” wrote Aronson, “came to insist that there were only two alternatives … Camus’s rebel and Sartre’s revolutionary. But in choosing capitalist freedom or communist socialism, they in effect chose not only against each other but against themselves.”