Book Review: The Boxer and the Goalkeeper, Sartre vs. Camus

Image mediumBack in the day, before I left New York for France 30 years ago, I was taking French lessons at the French Institute in Manhattan. At the time, I reached a level where I could start reading some books, so the first book I read in its entirety was Albert Camus’ L’étranger (in English: The Outsider, or The Stranger). One of the main reasons was simply because of the language. This book was written in the passé composé, rather than the usual literary passé simple, and was easier to read because of the simpler conjugated verb forms. But I was also very interested in Camus and his brand of existentialism. I had read the book in English a couple of years earlier, and had read several other books by Camus and Sartre, so I figured this would a good place to start.

Over the years, I’ve retained my interest in the works of these two authors, preferring Camus, because of his less academic style. (Five years ago, I gave myself his complete works as a Christmas present.) I read them from time to time, dipping in and out of their works, and I’ve read biographies of both men, finding their times to be a key period in French intellectual life, and in French history. Both of these men were awarded the Nobel prize for literature, though Sartre refused to accept his.

Andy Martin’s book The Boxer and the Goalkeeper (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a fascinating look at these two men by way of a biography of their friendship. Sartre and Camus met in Paris in 1943, at a rehearsal of Sartre’s play Les Mouches (The Flies), though they were each familiar with the other’s writings already. This was a period when the future was uncertain. Paris, and much of France, was occupied by the Germans, and there was no way of knowing the outcome of the war. It could end in only two ways, but at that time, as Andy Martin points out in this book, “If you are alive in 1943, whichever side you are fighting on, you can have no real confidence in the final outcome.” Yet anything was possible, and, as such, Sartre felt that people were free, because the future was so vague.

In this book, Andy Martin weaves his own experience with the works of these two authors with the story of their friendship and the years following their split. Martin recounts how he once shoplifted a copy of Sartre’s L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness), and became a follower of existentialism. He tells of the influence of this philosophy, and how he has described himself as a neb-existentialist. He manages to explain both the philosophy of existentialism (Sartre) and absurdism (Camus), while telling a page-turning story of an intellectual friendship.

These two men – the boxer is Sartre, and the goalkeeper is Camus; they practiced these sports – became close friends, even though they have strong differences in the way they thought, and they way they approached the world. Their friendship ended in 1951, after Camus published L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), which included some thinly disguised criticism of Sartre.

Camus famously said “There is nothing stupider than dying in a car accident,” and his life ended in that manner, in 1960. Sartre published a critical obituary of Camus, showing that he did, indeed, hold a grudge. But that was the end of their relationship, and this book ends with a brief overview of Sartre’s final years.

I read this book in just two evenings, enjoying Andy Martin’s writing and the way he told enough of the story to make it matter, but not too much to make it uninteresting. If you’re interested in these authors, or in French intellectual history, especially during the key time of occupied Paris, and the years following the liberation, you’ll find this a wonderful book.

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