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||Albert Camus (1913-1960)|
French novelist, essayist and playwright, who received the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature. Camus was closely linked to his fellow existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1940s, but he broke with him over Sartre's support to Stalinist politics. Camus died at the age of forty-six in a car accident near Sens, France. Among his best-known novels are The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947).
"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have happened yesterday." (in The Stranger)
Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria, into a working-class family. Camus's mother, Catherine Hélène Sintés, was an illiterate cleaning woman. She came from a family of Spanish origin. Lucien Auguste Camus, his father, was an itinerant agricultural laborer. He died of his wounds in 1914 after the Battle of the Marne – Camus was less than a year old at that time. His body was never sent to Algeria. During the war, Catherine Hélène worked in a factory. She was partly deaf, due to a stroke that permanently impaired her speech, but she was able to read lips. In their home "things had no names", as Camus later recalled. But he loved his mother intensely: "When my mother's eyes were not resting on me, I have never been able to look at her without tears springing into my eyes."
Growing up in poverty in Algiers shaped much of Camus' world-view
and had a profound influence on his writings. In 1923 Camus won a
scholarship to the lycée in Algiers, where
studied from 1924 to 1932. Incipient tuberculosis put an end to his
athletic activities. The disease was to trouble Camus for the rest of
his life. Between the years 1935 and 1939
Camus held various jobs in Algiers. He also joined the Communist Party,
but his interest in the works of Marx and Engels was rather
superficial. More important writers in his circle were André Malraux
and André Gide. As the Secretary General of the Algerian Cultural
Center he devised and supervised a number of programs. In 1936 he
lectured on the short-lived Popular Front, formed in France in 1934 as
an instument against the fascist threat from Germany. At that time the
anti-Semitic and pro-fascist far Right was very active in
In 1936 Camus received his diplôme d'étudies supérieures from the University of Algiers in philosophy. To recover his health he made his first visit to Europe. Camus' first book, L'Envers et l'endroit (1937), was a collection of essays, which he wrote at the age of twenty-two. Camus dedicated it to his philosophy teacher, Jean Grenier. The philosopher Brice Parain maintained that the little book contained Camus' best work, although the author himself considered the form of his writings clumsy.
By this time Camus' reputation in Algeria as a leading writer was growing. He was also active in theater. In 1938 Camus moved to France. Next year he divorced his first wife, Simone Hié, who was a morphine addict. From 1938 to 1940 Camus worked for the Alger-Républicain, reviewing among others Sartre's books, and in 1940 for Paris-Soir. In 1940 he married Francine Faure, a pianist and mathematician. When the Allied landed in North Africa in 1942, Camus was convalescing at Le Panier on a farm from a recurrence of his tuberculosis. Francine had returned to her teaching post in Algeria. Camus, who wrote in his journal of celibacy and deprivation, was cut him off from his wife until the end of the war.
During WW II Camus was member of the French resistance. He
biweekly trips for treatment in nearby Saint-Étienne, which was a
center of Resistace activity, too. From 1943 he worked as a reader and
editor of Espoir series at Gallimard publisher. Camus met Sartre
and Beauvoir in Paris at the opening performance of Les Mouches
in 1943; they talked about books. Sartre had given his works good
reviews in the Alger Républicain. With Sartre he founded the
left-wing Resistance newspaper Combat, serving as its editor.
However, it was Beauvoir who authored Sartre's first Combat articles. She had hoped to
have an affair with Camus, who fell in love with Arthur Koestler's partner Mamaine and Koestler
had a one-night stand with Beauvoir.
Camu's second novel, L'Étranger (The Stranger), which he had begun in Algeria before the war, appeared in 1942. It has been considered one of the greatest of all hard-boiled novels. Camus admired the American tough novel and wrote in The Rebel (1951) that "it does not choose feelings or passions to give a detailed description of, such as we find in classic French novels. It rejects analysis and the search for a fundamental psychological motive that could explain and recapitulate the behavior of a character..."
The story of The Stranger is narrated by a doomed
Mersault, and is set between two deaths, his mother's and his own.
Mersault is a clerk, who seems to have no feelings and spends
afternoons in lovemaking and empty nights in the cinema. Like
Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment (1866), he
reaches self-knowledge by committing a crime – he shoots an Arab on the
beach without explicit reason and motivation – it was hot, the Arab had
earlier terrorized him and his friend Raymond, and he had an headache.
Mersault is condemned to die as much for his refusal to accept the
standards of social behavior as for the crime itself. "The absurd man
will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of
his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions, and
without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate
attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the
"divine irresponsibility" of the condemned man." (Sartre's
analysis of Mersault, in Literary and
Philosophical Essays, 1943) Camus
himself argued that there were few points of contact between his notion
of the Absurd and Sartrean existentialism. Camus once famously
suggested that Mersault is "the only Christ that we deserve".
In the cell Mersault faces the reality for the first time, and his consciousness awakens. "It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe." Luchino Visconti's film version from 1967 meticulously reconstructed an Algiers street so that it looked exactly as it had during 1938-39, when the story takes place. But the 43-year-old Marcello Mastroianni, playing 30-year-old Mersault, was considered too old, although otherwise his performance was praised.
racial foundation of the author's fiction has caused a lot of
controversy. It has been argued that in L'Étranger the nameless Arab is the real Outsider, "the Foreigner whose voice and representation are effectively erased both by Mersault's act and by the colonial judical system." (Postcolonial Encounters in International Relations: The Politics of Transgression in the Maghreb by Alina Sajed, 2013, p. 127) The colonial Arab population of North Africa dId not play
a significant role in Camus' stories. This side of his
oeuvre was mostly overlooked until 1970, when the Irish writer and
politician Conor Cruise O'Brien published his study Albert Camus of Europe and Africa.
Edward Said has argued that O'Brien did not go far enough in his
criticism: "Having shrewedly and even mercilessly exposed the
connections between Camus's most famous novels and the colonial
situation in Algeria, O'Brien lets him off the hook." (Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said, 1993, p. 209)
Camus' philosophical essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942) starts with the famous statement: "There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that." Camus compares the absurdity of the existence of humanity to the labours of the mythical character Sisyphus, who was condemned through all eternity to push a boulder to the top of a hill and watch helplessly as it rolled down again. Camus takes the nonexistence of God granted and finds meaning in the struggle itself.
"A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images," Camus wrote. He admired Sartre's gift's as a novelist, but did not find his two sides, philosophy and storytelling, both equally convincing. In an essay written in 1952 he praises Melville's Billy Budd. Melville, according to Camus, "never cut himself off from flesh or nature, which are barely perceptible in Kafka's work." Camus also admired William Faulkner and made a dramatic adaptation of Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun. In 1946 Camus spent some time in New York, and wrote: "I don't have a precise idea about New York myself, even after so many days, but it continues to irritate me and seduce me at the same time."
"It is not rebellion itself which is noble but the demands it makes upon us." (The Plague, 1947)
Camus did not take his succes well while Sartre enjoyed his
celebrity in the postwar France. In 1947 Camus resigned from Combat
and published in the same year his third novel, La Peste,
an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. The Algerian city of
Oran is abruptly forced to live within narrow boundaries under a
terror – death is loose on the streets. In the besieged town
some people try to act morally, some are cowards, some lovers. "None
the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could be one of a final
victory. It could only be the record of what had had to be done, and
what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight
against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal
afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow
down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers." The Algerian
War had a huge impact on French society, enflaming and radicalizing
both the Left and the Right. Horrified by the bloodshed, Camus
condemned all violence, and found himself between hostile camps; he
both rejected Algerian independence ("a purely Arab Algeria could not
achieve that economic independence without which political independence
is nothing but an illusion") and supported equal political
rights for Arab citizens, which made him an isolated figure both in
France and Algiers.
Before his break with Sartre, who had decided to side with
Communism, Camus wrote L'Homme Révolté (1951,
Man in Revolt), which explores the theories and forms of humanity's
revolt against authority. The book was criticized in Sartre's Les Temps modernes
by a junior member of the journal, Francis Jeanson. Camus was offended
and wrote a seventeen-page reply to "M. Le Directeur" (To the Editor),
never once mentioning Jeanson. Sartre responded with a scornful letter:
"You do us the honor of contributing to this issue of Les Temps modernes, but you bring
a portable pedestal with you."
Following Sartre's attack Camus stayed away from places where he used to see his former friend. Moreover, he saw the success of Beauvor's novel The Mandarins as directed against him. From 1955 to 1956 Camus worked as a journalist for L'Express. Among his major works from the late-1950s is La Chute (1956), an ironic novel in which the penitent judge Jean-Baptiste Clamence confesses his own moral crimes to a strager in an Amsterdam bar. Jean-Baptiste reveals his hypocrisy, but at the same time his monologue becomes an attack on modern man.
When Camus heard, that he had won the Nobel Prize for
stated publicly that he would have voted for Malraux. Taking a very
unpopular stand during the Algerian war, Camus claimed that there "has
never yet been an Algerian nation" and the French deserved to have a
voice in Algerian society. Camus warned that a break with France would
be fatal. While expressing his attachment for his "Arab brothers" he
exhibited an attitude of disdain and distrust towards all that is Arab,
Muslim, and Oriental. Camus' efforts to negotiate a civilian truce in
war-torn Algeria were fruitless and he fell silent.
At the time of
his death, Camus was planning to direct a theater company of his own
and to write a major novel about growing up in Algeria. Several of the
short stories in L'Exil et le Royaume
(1957) were set in Algeria's coastal towns and inhospitale sands. The
unfinished novel La Mort heureuse
(1970) was written in 1936-38. It presented the young Camus, or Patrice
Mersault, seeking his happiness from Prague to his hometown in Algiers,
announcing towards the end of the book "What matters – all that
matters, really – is the will to happiness, a kind of enormous,
ever-present consciousness. The rest – women, art, success – is nothing
Le Premier Homme (1994),
the story of Jacques Cormery, charted the history of Camus's family
and his lycée years. The manuscript was found in the car, a Facel Vega,
in which he died on January 4, 1960, in the passenger seat. Camus was
thrown from the car. He died instantly of a broken neck. Pedestrians
who witnessed the incident told that the car suddenly zigzagged off the
road, crashed into a plane tree, and then smashed into a second tree.
The driver, Michel Gallimard, died five days later of a brain
hemorrhage. "Was I driving?" he asked. (The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire by Laura Claridge, 2016, p. 308) A family dog called Floc, a Skye terrier, ran into the forest and was never found. The Italian author Giovanni
Catelli claimed in 2011 in an article written for the newspaper Corriere della Sera, that it was not a simple accident, but Camus was assassinated by KGB for his anti-Soviet views.
Camus was buried in the Provençal village of Lourmarin, in the
South of France, where he had spent the last years of his life. With
the approach of the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 2010,
President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that the author's remains to be
moved to the Pantheon. Camus' daughter Catherine, the executor of her
father's estate, thought that the "Pantheonization" would crown his
lifelong desire to speak for those who had no voice.