Book review: The Boxer And The Goalkeeper: Sartre Vs Camus, Andy Martin

The Boxer And The Goalkeeper: Sartre Vs Camus Andy MartinSimon & Schuster, £14.99

The Boxer And The Goalkeeper: Sartre Vs Camus

Andy Martin

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Simon & Schuster, £14.99

THIS coming November, Penguin are publishing a new translation of The Outsider, the most famous book by Albert Camus, describing it as “the classic existentialist novel”.

It was a label Camus found increasingly irksome; in America, he insisted he was “against modern existentialism”. When Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus’s sometime ally, sometime foe, and the most prominent exponent of existentialist philosophy, was in America, the only question people seemed to want to ask was “what is existentialism?”, despite the fact that Sartre now considered himself a Marxist.

Observations such as these, which complicate and entangle the lazy stereotype of what Camus and Sartre thought, typifies Andy Martin’s elegant study of the pair. It is one of the most accessible and intelligent books on philosophy I have read this year, as alert to the human drama as the intellectual conflict, and unfailingly observant to the nuances and subtexts.

Sartre and Camus are almost a parody of opposites. Camus, the pied noir, had the Bogart-like good looks; Sartre, the Parisian, was notoriously, unashamedly ugly (and usually unwashed). Camus died too young; Sartre lived too long. Camus’s engaged directly with the Resistance as editor of Combat; Sartre “intellectually” resisted (or, as Camus quipped, “aimed his armchair in the direction of history”). Sartre was an indefatigable, profuse writer while Camus aspired to silence, to “writing degree zero”. Sartre joined the Communist Party while Camus declined to be doctrinaire; Camus accepted and Sartre declined the Nobel Prize for Literature; Sartre constantly sought radical disjunctions while Camus looked for underlying continuities. Martin is too subtle a writer (and thinker) to allow these binary opposites to determine the story: time and again we see their positions reversing, merging and shifting.

Although the title presents it as a simple conflict, the text reveals something more like an angst-ridden love affair, with each simultaneously needing and resenting the other. At times their positions seem to become deliberately more extreme in provocation of each other.

For example, in terms of the civil war in Algeria, Sartre is far more extreme than the French Algerian. While Camus refuses to be either a victim or a coloniser, Sartre insists one can only be one or the other. Camus preaches pacificism on both sides while Sartre maintains that only through revolutionary, even divine, violence can the colonised cease to be victims.

The concentration on the Second World War and the Algerian War shows how philosophy, for both men, was not something abstract or confined to the ivory tower, but a profoundly ethical question with life and death consequences. The scene where Camus and a girlfriend come upon a Nazi roadblock while he is carrying the proofs of Combat is a moral parable in miniature: Camus takes a risk that the women are not being searched as thoroughly, and passes the proofs to his girlfriend – which, had he been wrong, would have certainly sentenced her to death. Was what he did rash or pragmatic or brave or cowardly? Martin’s book is a wonderful corrective to the sententious piffle about how to be happy and the benefits of having a holiday that passes as philosophy in Britain today.

Usually, Martin is keen-eyed about odd synchronicities: both Sartre and Camus, for example, were meteorologists during the war, and both responded to their duties in idiosyncratic ways. As such, it is curious he does not dwell more on their parents (perhaps a lingering fear of gauche Freudianism?) Both men lost their fathers at an early age; more interestingly, both exhibit a strange relationship with mothers. In The Outsider, Mersault’s murder of the Arab is inextricably linked to his incapacity to grieve for his mother: the prosecutor practically accuses Mersault of matricide. Sartre dealt with the issue in his play The Flies, an updating of the Greek myth of Orestes killing his mother Clytemnestra. The agonistic relationship between Sartre and Camus – which, before it becomes an intellectual tussle is often evident in their sexual rivalry – seems to some degree Oedipal.

It is as an actual reader of their work that Martin excels. He notices, for example, that while Camus refers to 166 different philosophers and thinkers in The Rebel, the name of Jean-Paul Sartre is a glaring omission. Likewise, in analysing Sartre’s obituary for Camus, Martin pays close attention to the modes and tenses, concluding that, in their final bout, Sartre writes about Camus as if he were already dead long before the fatal car crash.

It is no mean achievement to produce a book which will be surprising and enlightening to readers already acquainted with the work of Sartre and Camus – who would have thought Sartre was so obsessed with octopuses, or that the dog disappeared from the scene of the crash that killed Camus? – and which functions at the same time as an easy but unpatronising introduction for those who are not.

The autobiographical elements – which in other books can be superfluous and jarring – are here pertinent and develop a proper rapport with the reader. The Boxer And The Goalkeeper conjures the worlds and minds of Sartre and Camus with precision and empathy, and suggests the ways in which their differences are still being enacted today. «