British writers are generally timid creatures. Like William Boot’s shy “questing vole” in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop they are rarely seen in daylight, shun the limelight, and get on with their blameless lives in placid obscurity. Signing an open letter to The Guardian protesting some injustice or outrage in a safely distant foreign land is the nearest that most come to a courageous commitment to a noble cause.
There are exceptions to this rule of course. JK Rowling’s recent stand against the extremes of the trans lobby is one example of a writer putting her head above the parapet, though it is arguable that Rowling’s vast wealth and celebrity makes her immune to the pressures that keep more impecunious or cowardly hacks in line with the prevailing orthodoxy.
In his later years, Nobel prize winner Harold Pinter abandoned the studied ambiguity of his early work for frenzied and increasingly deranged denunciations of his pet hates, usually the US, and there were few fashionable leftist bandwagons that he did not board. As with Rowling, however, Pinter’s riches and near godlike status made it easier for him to come out as an ageing rabid radical than it had been when he was just another struggling young writer. The same applies in spades to that other reliably anti-American old sourpuss John le Carre.
A rare English example of a writer who combined austere moralising in his work with a brave willingness to put his life on the line for his beliefs was George Orwell. Passing through Paris on his way to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell met a very different sort of writer, the American Henry Miller. The happy celebrant of individualism and erotic excess was unable to understand gloomy George’s readiness to risk his neck for a political cause, and tried to talk him out of it. Though unsuccessful in that, the author of Tropic of Cancer so impressed Orwell that he later devoted one of his best essays, Inside the Whale, to defending Miller’s quietist philosophy of experiencing and recording events rather than vainly trying to change them.
None of the trio had intended to be heroes but all three were destined to win the Nobel Prize
Three men working in France around the time that Orwell met Miller, exemplify a rare breed more common across the Channel than in sleepy old Britain: intellectuals who were not only prepared to hazard their lives for a righteous cause, but actively incorporated that extreme experience in their ideas and work. And each one of them was destined to win the world’s most prestigious award for their efforts: the Nobel Prize.
The cause for which the Irishman Samuel Beckett, the pied noir Algerian Albert Camus, and the French scientist Jacques Monod worked and fought for was the liberation of France from Nazi German occupation in the Second World War. None of the trio had intended to be heroes, and all three saw the war at first merely as an irritating interruption of their careers and private lives. Only after the fall of France in June 1940 when the cruelty of the conquerors, particularly the savage persecution of their Jewish friends, – and, in Monod’s case, of his Jewish wife and children – started to impinge on their lives, did all three become involved in Resistance networks.
Beckett, who had lived in Paris intermittently since the 1920s, doing secretarial work for his compatriot James Joyce and writing experimental fiction, was previously not particularly political, though he answered a request for writers’ views on the Spanish War with the one word response UPTHEREPUBLIC! He had, however, experienced the realities of Nazi rule during an extensive trip through Germany in the mid 1930s, and plunged into Resistance activity once Paris was occupied. As he told his biographer James Knowlson: “You couldn’t just stand with your arms folded”.
Though a citizen of neutral Ireland, Beckett joined a network code-named ‘Gloria’ run from London by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). His work, about which he remained typically secretive and dismissive (‘Boy Scout stuff’) consisted of liasing between London and other agents, and translating their reports from French into English. For two years, Beckett remained in his adopted city, risking arrest, torture, deportation and death.
In August 1942, the Gloria network was betrayed for money by a renegade Catholic priest, Father Resch, who was later shot for his crimes. Many agents were arrested, and the survivors – including Beckett and his French wife Suzanne – scattered. They fled to a remote village in the southern Vaucluse region, where Beckett worked as a farm labourer while continuing his Resistance activities – storing weapons for the Maquis at his home. At the end of the war he was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance in recognition of his courage.
Albert Camus was totally focussed on his literary career when the war swept him up. A layout man on the popular Paris Soir newspaper, and excused military service as a TB sufferer, he spent his spare time writing his great novel of alienation L’Etranger.
After Paris fell, Camus moved with the newspaper to Lyons, married a girlfriend, Francine Faure, and began writing two new books which became major works: the novel La Peste (The Plague) and the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
Cut off from his wife by the Allied invasion of Algeria in November 1942, as I noted in my first article for The Critic, Camus’ novel, ostensibly set in the city of Oran isolated by an outbreak of Plague, became a metaphor for the Occupation of France, informed by the anguish of separation. Though many of its characters perish from the plague, their fight against disease and death is its own justification.
His essay used the Greek myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the Gods to forever roll a rock uphill, only to see it roll back down again, as another metaphor: for the futility of life. Camus asks the most fundamental of all questions: in the face of failure and inevitable death, what is the point of living? And he answers it with the affirmation of its final line: “We must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
Camus returned to Paris to put his philosophy into dangerous practice. Working clandestinely under false names, he became a journalist on and eventually editor of the underground newspaper Combat, the mouthpiece of the leftist but non-Communist resistance organisation of the same name. Camus personally penned many of the paper’s fierce rallying calls for resistance and revolution in the name of honesty and truth.
One of the articles that Camus published in Combat was an outspoken attack on Stalin’s pet scientist, the Agronomist Trofim Lysenko, notorious for rubbishing the developing science of genetics in favour of quack fake theories of his own. The author of the article, Jacques Monod, was a micro-biologist and a member of the earliest French resistance group based on Paris’s Museum de l’Homme.
Monod had very personal reasons to get involved in the resistance. His wife and twin sons were Jewish, and his first act of resistance had been to procure false identities for his family and smuggle them to a place of safety that saved them from the Holocaust.
Working under the cover name “Malivert”, Monod played a leading role in uniting the feuding factions of the Resistance into a single underground army, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), and preparing for D-Day and the liberation of Paris by organising weapons drops and acts of sabotage.
Attacking Stalin’s favoured pseudo-scientist was also an act of real courage by both Monod and Camus, as the Soviet controlled French Communist Party was immensely powerful, both in the ranks of the Resistance, and after the war as the dominant force among France’s intelligentsia. By taking an anti-Stalinist position as the Cold War began, the two friends were putting their careers at severe risk.
Their experience of war, occupation and resistance changed the lives and work of the three men, and what is remarkable is that all three drew broadly the same conclusions from their commitment. For Beckett, the flippant Joycean word games of his earlier work gave way to the pared down bare bones of Waiting For Godot (1953) and the bleak dramas that followed, which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.
Often seen as nihilism, Beckett’s depiction of humanity stripped of its defences and illusions actually offers a dim ray of hope amid its very darkness and despair: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”. Or: “Where I am I don’t know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”.
Similarly, Camus, having decided that life is worth living, threw himself into the maelstrom as if he knew that his time on earth would be brief. Representing a middle way between capitalism and communism, he campaigned variously against Soviet labour camps, Russia’s repression of the 1956 Hungarian revolt, the death penalty, and totalitarianism in general, and for truth, justice and freedom. Though he rejected the modish label of existentialism, Camus’s life fairly represented that philosophy in action: life was absurd, but having chosen to live it, we should make the best of it by choosing authenticity over lies.
Far from a plaster saint, – he was a relentless womaniser, and his ambiguous stance over the war in his native Algeria and his anti-Communism led to a bitter breach with former friends like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – Camus’ death in a random car crash in 1960 seemed both absurd yet somehow appropriate. Though reluctant to become the Nobel Prize for Literature’s second youngest recipient in 1957 – “Every achievement is servitude, as it compels to a higher achievement”, he wrote – he did not, unlike Sartre, refuse the award.
It was left to Jacques Monod to take up the torch that his friend had dropped. After the war Monod had returned to his labs, ending his career as director of the Pasteur Institute in whose attics he had hidden during the Occupation. His work on genetics, RNA and the behaviour of enzymes and viruses won him the 1965 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Rejecting the false comforts of religion or totalitarian politics, Beckett, Camus and Monod confronted their fates with courage and confidence
Five years before his death in 1976, Monod published a book Chance and Necessity with an epigram from Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus in which he strove to marry his discoveries in science with the ethics by which humanity should live. It’s closing lines read: “ Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose”.
Beckett, Camus and Monod arrived by different roads at the same destination thanks to their common experience of choosing to risk their lives to help others and fight injustice. Rejecting the false comforts and deceits of religion or totalitarian politics, they confronted their fates with courage and confidence. We in the soggy and softer climate of these islands should give thanks that we have never been put to the stern tests that they passed with such flying colours.
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