Albert Camus and a trace of cold smoke

On 4th January 1960 the French philosopher and Nobel prize-winner Albert Camus died in a road accident at the age of 46. The accident happened on the Route Nationale 5, close to Chapelle Champigny, roughly 160 kilometres south of Paris; the car in which he was a passenger skidded on the wet road and crashed into a tree. Behind the wheel was the poet’s friend, the Parisian publisher Michel Gallimard; he suffered severe injuries and died from the consequences of the accident. Camus, who had a fractured skull and broken neck, died on the spot. “His death,” wrote the Parisian newspaper “Le Monde”, “confirmed in a macabre way his vision of an absurd, inexplicable and incomprehensible world.” In the last year of his life Camus had been living in Lourmarin, a small village in Provence at the foot of the Luberon massif. He had bought a house there, a housekeeper cooked for him but he frequently ate out at the nearby “Hôtel Ollier”.

When Christian von Alvensleben came to Lourmarin in 1973, he found the hotel unchanged since the author’s death. The separate dining room in which Camus had dined with friends two days before his death had never been used since the accident. When the hotel’s owner, Madame Hirtzmann, noticed that the German photographer was visibly fascinated by the authenticity of the location, she was prepared to set the large round table again, just as Camus had used it at his last dinner with his friends. From a locked glass cabinet she fetched a copy of Camus’ late work, “La Chute”, which Camus had signed personally and dedicated to her.

The “Hôtel Ollier” has since changed hands. It has been modernized and turned into a fast food restaurant. But at the time, in 1973, it still seemed as if this place had been left in a time warp – strangely untouched by time as can sometimes be found in France. The yellowed, bare rooms, the old-fashioned installations in the hallways, the kitchen, the walls – to the photographer it seemed as if time had stood still in these rooms full of memories, as if Camus had just left the room, a trace of cold cigarette smoke still seemed to linger in the air.