Book Review: The Boxer and the Goalkeeper by Andy Martin

In December 1946, the French polymath and bon vivant Boris Vian, and his wife, threw a soirée in their Paris apartment. It was a boozy, bawdry affair, an intentional throwback to the all-night parties that raged in Occupied Paris. In one corner sat phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, across the room was his bête noire, the author Arthur Koestler. Simone de Beauvoir was there, so too her long-time partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and her some-time lover, Albert Camus.

As the evening wore on – and the drinks flowed – a quarrel broke out between the Marxist Merleau-Ponty and the avowed anti-communist Koestler. Camus, a supporter of his fellow writer Koestler, got involved. So too did Sartre, on the side of his philosopher friend Merleau-Ponty.

Koestler and Merleau-Ponty’s battle was a proxy for the real war, that between Sartre and Camus. The leading literary voices of wartime France had grown distant in the postwar penumbra. Once close, their relationship was already at breaking point, but that night at the Vian’s snapped it irrevocably. Camus, who found no place for Marxism in his rugged individualism, walked out on the party. Sartre, by now a leading figure in global Communist thinking, stayed behind. Their friendship would never recover.

The relationship between Camus and Sartre is one of the most fascinating in twentieth century philosophy. In many respects, they were unlikely colleagues. Camus: good-looking, phlegmatic, abstemious (at times). Sartre: ugly, loquacious, a drinker and a drug-user.

For a spell – mainly between 1943 and 1945 – what united Camus and Sartre was greater than what divided them: both men grew up without knowing their fathers, were significant writers and philosophers; were serial womanizers, often sharing girlfriends, most famously de Beauvoir.

Both were keen sportsmen too, a fact alluded to by the title of Andy Martin’s engaging if at times uneven account of their conflictual relationship. As befitted his combative nature, Sartre was a fan of pugilism; Camus, more considered and more solitary, was a keen amateur goalkeeper in his native Algeria (although as Martin points out,pace the urban legend, the author of the Outsider was never a professional footballer).

The similarities and differences, which eventually divided Camus and Sartre, provide the structure for much of the Boxer and the Goalkeeper. As the narrative progresses from a teenage Martin’s first illicit, teenage experiences with a stolen-copy Sartre’s notoriously dense philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness, to the two writer’s first meeting in Paris in 1943, the distinctions between the two most famous proponents of existentialism (Camus rejected this label) come sharply into focus.

Camus was, in his own eyes at least, a man of action, Sartre, a man of words. (Indeed, Che Guevara was later to say mockingly, ‘Let Jean-Paul Sartre philosophize about revolution; we who carry it out have no time for theories).

During the German occupation of Paris we find a portly Sartre, pipe in mouth, writing subversive plays, having earlier used a forged medical certificate to ‘escape’ from a prisoner of war camp. Camus, on the other hand, risked his life daily to edit Combat, a Resistance magazine.

When Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, he fretted that he was unworthy of such an honour (a concern shared by his then 20-year-old son, who said he was father was ‘an insignificant ‘writer about nothing at all’’). Sartre, on the other hand, had no doubts about his own suitability when Sweden came calling. His only regret on turning down the prize in 1964 was forgoing the 250,000 kroner cheque that accompanied it.

A popular book about philosophy and philosophers is a testing brief, and the Boxer and the Goalkeeper struggles at times to find its voice. In the early chapters, Martin is a consistent presence, imagining conversations between his protagonists and speculating on their thoughts and motivations (the word ‘perhaps’ recurs). Bum notes are hit: Sartre’s phizog ‘abolished the duality of the real and the apparent’; Camus smoking is ‘exhaling himself’.

As the book progresses, however, Martin slips to the background. Historical fact and material gleaned from epistolary exchanges replace speculation and the book’s tone and the style improve dramatically. The last hundred pages – by which point Camus and Sartre have terminally diverged – are by turns gripping and revealing.

Sartre and Camus’ ‘whole relationship’ was ‘more like a collision, a slow-motion car crash, than a collaboration’. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper suggests it could never have been any other way.

 This book review appeared in the Sunday Business Post in July 2012.