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12 mars 2006 7 12 /03 /mars /2006 00:00

Interview of Herbert Lottman, American biographer

    Herbert Lottman is American but has been living and working in France for many years, as a journalist and a biographer. He is among others the author of a reference biography of Albert Camus. For Le magazine littéraire de Sciences Po, he explains the history of this biography and  tells anecdotes about the mythical Camus. Interview by Béatrice Roman-Amat.

 

 

 

Le magazine littéraire de Sciences Po: You have written biographies of very different figures of French History and literature, from Pétain to Colette.  Why did you choose to write a biography of Albert Camus in 1978 ? Is he a writer who had fascinated you for a long time ?

 

       H.Lottman:  Actually I wanted to write a biography of Flaubert and I had started accumulating facts. I’ve always be keen on Flaubert. At that time, a French publisher told me “We don’t want a book on Flaubert but we definitively need one on Camus”. There was no biography of Camus for several reasons. The main one is that Mrs Camus, the widow of Albert Camus, was sharply opposed to a biography, particularly since there had been plenty of women in Camus’life. The second one was that it was almost impossible for a Frenchman to write a biography of Camus because of his rivalry with Jean-Paul Sartre, which had deeply divided French intellectuals. A lot of intellectuals in Saint-Germain had found it “chic” (radically chic) to support Sartre  rather than Camus.

 Your biography is what we usually consider in France a typical Anglo-Saxon biography, which focuses on the facts. Were you sometimes tempted to do as if you were entering more deeply into Camus’ thoughts  and feelings, as for instance Max Gallo does when he writes Napoleon’s biography ?

 

 

             H.Lottman:   For ages, my model has been R. Ellemann, who wrote a marvellous biography of James Joyce. A biography must be something as complete as possible and the American biographies are always huge books, which is even excessive sometimes. I am sorry to tell that there are very few good biographers in France, even if the trend has been changing recently thanks to people like Olivier Todd. A lot of so-called French biographers imagine that they can invent things, dreams and thoughts of the figure they are writing about. But I worked as a journalist, no as a professor, for the biography of Camus. I met ordinary people who had been Camus’friends in Algeria and in France and spent a lot of time speaking with them. 

 Did you find it difficult to distinguish between Camus real life and the myths that surround him ?

 

 

        Paradoxically enough, this is not the accurate way to ask the question, because the real Camus was in a way more heroic than the mythic one. He was very modest and didn’t show off with the heroic actions he did. Let me tell you a short story about him. When he was in Algeria, he was expelled of the communist party because he didn’t agree with the injunctions coming  from Moscow demanding that the PC stopped its anti-colonialist campaign, because of the friendship treaty which had just been signed between France and the USSR. Camus thought that it was a treason towards all the young Arabs that had  quitted the party thanks to this political campaign against colonialism. He preferred to give up the PC, which could help him have his books and plays published and performed, than  to betray his own convictions. But he never told this to anybody, as far as we know.

 

        Likewise, very few people know that he reused to work for the prestigious magazine La revue française because it had been taken over by a pro-fascist editor.

 

         But on the other hand, France needed young heroes in the 1950s and was very eager to promote Camus to the status of mythical Resistant.

 You have written a 700-page-long biography of Camus. Do you think that there is anything left to discover for future biographers or have all the secrets been revealed ?

 

 

       Of course there are still things to discover about Camus. When I was doing research for this book, I met the Danish woman, who was Camus’mistress when he died in car crash in 1960,  and Gallimard’wife who lost her husband in the same accident. Both of them were opened sources but there is so much you want to know !  And I have always tried to remain pudique[1] while tackling Camus’private life.

 

       Moreover, Camus’love letters will certainly be published one day. I read some of them but I couldn’t quote a single line because their content belongs to the heirs, which are opposed to any publication. Letters or manuscripts that have never been published are protected by the copy right without any time limitation. But maybe things will change with another generation.

 Is the attitude of Camus’heirs an exception or is it a hardship that you faced while writing other biographies ?

 

 

        The Camus are particularly rigid on that point. When I wrote a biography of Colette, the members of the family let me quote the correspondence freely. They were relaxed about it, because there were no secrets.

  Personally speaking, what do you consider Camus’ most important book ?

 

        Personally, the book that I prefer is La chute, because it reflects much of Camus’ loneliness after his argument with Sartre. When he wrote  L’Etranger, he was not yet that much himself as he was later. He tried to write something striking for the readers. Camus had the ability to write beautiful fictions but he was too involved in the political life in order to be abstract. L’Homme Révolté, obviously, is important, since it tries to wake up  his contemporaries, to warn them against totalitarism.

 

 

Do you write or plan to write another biography at the moment ?

 

       I have just finished a biography of Modigliani[2], a very interesting and not well-known figure. As usual, I spent about two years on the book, but it was not easy at the beginning, because of Parisot , a specialist of Modigliani, who wrote several books on him, and tried to get me out of the sources. I simply ignored him. Anyway his books are quite bad and I wrote the first real biography of Modigliani !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] En français dans le texte

[2] Amadeo Modigliani, prince of Montparnasse, Calmann-lévy, 330 pages.

 

 

 

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