Albert Camus


Albert Camus
(1913 - 1960)


French novelist, essayist, and playwright, best known for such novels as L'Etranger (1942; The Stranger), La Peste (1947; The Plague), and La Chute (1956; The Fall) and for his work in leftist causes. He received the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Early years.
Less than a year after Camus was born, his father, an impoverished worker of Alsatian origin, was killed in World War I during the First Battle of the Marne. His mother, of Spanish descent, worked as a charwoman to support her family. Camus and his elder brother Lucien moved with their mother to a working-class district of Algiers, where all three lived, together with the maternal grandmother and a paralyzed uncle, in a two-room apartment. Camus's first published collection of essays, L'Envers et l'endroit (1937; "The Wrong Side and the Right Side"), describes the physical setting of these early years and includes portraits of his mother, grandmother, and uncle. A second collection of essays, Noces (1938; "Nuptials"), contains intensely lyrical meditations on the Algerian countryside and presents natural beauty as a form of wealth that even the very poor can enjoy. Both collections contrast the fragile mortality of human beings with the enduring nature of the physical world.
In 1918 Camus entered primary school and was fortunate enough to be taught by an outstanding teacher, Louis Germain, who helped him to win a scholarship to the Algiers lycee (high school) in 1923. (It was typical of Camus's sense of loyalty that 34 years later his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature was dedicated to Germain.) A period of intellectual awakening followed, accompanied by great enthusiasm for sport, especially football (soccer), swimming, and boxing. In 1930, however, the first of several severe attacks of tuberculosis put an end to his sporting career and interrupted his studies. Camus had to leave the unhealthy apartment that had been his home for 15 years, and after a short period spent with an uncle--a butcher by trade and a Voltairean by conviction--Camus decided to live on his own, supporting himself by a variety of jobs while registered as a philosophy student at the University of Algiers.

At the university, Camus was particularly influenced by one of his teachers, Jean Grenier, who helped him to develop his literary and philosophical ideas and shared his enthusiasm for football. He obtained a diplome d'etudes superieures in 1936 for a thesis on the relationship between Greek and Christian thought in the philosophical writings of Plotinus and St. Augustine. His candidature for the agregation (a qualification that would have enabled him to take up a university career) was cut short by another attack of tuberculosis. To regain his health he went to a resort in the French Alps--his first visit to Europe--and eventually returned to Algiers via Florence, Pisa, and Genoa.


Camus's literary career.
Throughout the 1930s, Camus broadened his interests. He read the French classics as well as the writers of the day--among them Andre Gide, Henry de Montherlant, Andre Malraux--and was a prominent figure among the young left-wing intellectuals of Algiers. For a short period in 1934-35 he was also a member of the Algerian Communist Party. In addition, he wrote, produced, adapted, and acted for the Theatre du Travail (Workers' Theatre, later named the Theatre de l'Equipe), which aimed to bring outstanding plays to working-class audiences. He maintained a deep love of the theatre until his death. Ironically, his plays are the least-admired part of his literary output, although Le Malentendu (Cross Purpose) and Caligula, first produced in 1944 and 1945, respectively, remain landmarks in the Theatre of the Absurd. Two of his most enduring contributions to the theatre may well turn out to be his stage adaptations of William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun (Requiem pour une nonne; 1956) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (Les Possedes; 1959).
In the two years before the outbreak of World War II, Camus served his apprenticeship as a journalist with Alger-Republicain in many capacities, including those of leader- (editorial-) writer, subeditor, political reporter, and book reviewer. He reviewed some of Jean-Paul Sartre's early literary works and wrote an important series of articles analyzing social conditions among the Muslims of the Kabylie region. These articles, reprinted in abridged form in Actuelles III (1958), drew attention (15 years in advance) to many of the injustices that led to the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954. Camus took his stand on humanitarian rather than ideological grounds and continued to see a future role for France in Algeria while not ignoring colonialist injustices.

He enjoyed the most influence as a journalist during the final years of the occupation of France and the immediate post-Liberation period. As editor of the Parisian daily Combat, the successor of a Resistance newssheet run largely by Camus, he held an independent left-wing position based on the ideals of justice and truth and the belief that all political action must have a solid moral basis. Later, the old-style expediency of both Left and Right brought increasing disillusion, and in 1947 he severed his connection with Combat.

By now Camus had become a leading literary figure. L'Etranger (U.S. title, The Stranger; British title, The Outsider), a brilliant first novel begun before the war and published in 1942, is a study of 20th-century alienation with a portrait of an "outsider" condemned to death less for shooting an Arab than for the fact that he never says more than he genuinely feels and refuses to conform to society's demands. The same year saw the publication of an influential philosophical essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), in which Camus, with considerable sympathy, analyzed contemporary nihilism and a sense of the "absurd." He was already seeking a way of overcoming nihilism, and his second novel, La Peste (1947; The Plague), is a symbolical account of the fight against an epidemic in Oran by characters whose importance lies less in the (doubtful) success with which they oppose the epidemic than in their determined assertion of human dignity and fraternity. Camus had now moved from his first main concept of the absurd to his other major idea of moral and metaphysical "rebellion." He contrasted this latter ideal with politico-historical revolution in a second long essay, L'Homme revolte (1951; The Rebel), which provoked bitter antagonism among Marxist critics and such near-Marxist theoreticians as Jean-Paul Sartre. His other major literary works are the technically brilliant novel La Chute (1956) and a collection of short stories, L'Exil et le royaume (1957; Exile and the Kingdom). La Chute reveals a preoccupation with Christian symbolism and contains an ironical and witty exposure of the more complacent forms of secular humanist morality.

In 1957, at the early age of 44, Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature. With characteristic modesty he declared that had he been a member of the awarding committee his vote would certainly have gone to Andre Malraux. Less than three years later he was killed in an automobile accident.


Assessment.
As novelist and playwright, moralist and political theorist, Albert Camus after World War II became the spokesman of his own generation and the mentor of the next, not only in France but also in Europe and eventually the world. His writings, which addressed themselves mainly to the isolation of man in an alien universe, the estrangement of the individual from himself, the problem of evil, and the pressing finality of death, accurately reflected the alienation and disillusionment of the postwar intellectual. Though he understood the nihilism of many of his contemporaries, Camus also argued the necessity of defending such values as truth, moderation, and justice. In his last works he sketched the outlines of a liberal humanism that rejected the dogmatic aspects of both Christianity and Marxism.

MAJOR WORKS.
Novels and short stories.
L'Etranger (1942; English title, The Outsider, 1946; U.S. title, The Stranger, 1946); La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948); La Chute (1956; The Fall, trans. by Justin O'Brien, 1957). Short stories collected in L'Exil et le royaume (1957; Exile and the Kingdom, trans. by J. O'Brien, 1958); La mort heureuse (1970; A Happy Death, 1972).

Plays.
Le Malentendu (performed 1944; pub. with Caligula, performed 1945, in Le Malentendu, suivi de Caligula, 1944; Caligula and Cross Purpose, 1947); L'Etat de siege (performed and pub. in 1948; State of Siege, trans. in Caligula and Three Other Plays, 1958); Les Justes (performed 1949, pub. 1950; The Just Assassins, trans. in Caligula and Three Other Plays, 1958). Adaptations: La Devotion a la Croix (1953, from Calderon); Un Cas interessant (1955, from Dino Buzatti); Requiem pour une nonne (1956, from William Faulkner); Les Possedes (1959, from Dostoyevsky).

Essays, journalism, and notebooks.
Collections: L'Envers et l'endroit (1937), recollections of childhood and travel sketches; Noces (1938), four Algerian essays; Actuelles, 3 vol. (1950, 1953, 1958), editorials and articles written for Combat, 1944-45; L'Ete (1954). Other essays: Le Mythe de Sisyphe, essai sur l'absurde (1942, enlarged and rev. ed. reprinted 1945; The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. by J. O'Brien, 1955), a long philosophical essay; Lettres a un ami allemand (1945; trans. by J. O'Brien in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, 1960), four linked essays, with preface, in the form of letters written during the Occupation, the first and second previously published in the "underground" reviews, Le Revue Libre (1943) and Cahiers de la Liberation (1944); Le Minotaure ou la halte d'Oran (written 1939, pub. 1950), poetic and satirical description of Oran, the background for La Peste; L'Homme revolte (1951; The Rebel, 1953), a long metaphysical, historical, and political essay. Notebooks published posthumously: Carnets: Mai 1935-Fevrier 1942 (1962; Notebooks, 1935-42, trans. by Philip Thody, 1963); Carnets: Janvier 1942-Mars 1951 (1964; Notebooks, 1942-51, trans. by P. Thody, 1965); Carnets: Avril 1951-Decembre 1959 (1966; Notebooks, 1951-59, trans. by P. Thody, 1969).

BIBLIOGRAPHY.
Bibliographies of works by and about Camus include Robert F. Roeming (ed. and compiler), Camus: A Bibliography (1968); and Brian T. Fitch and Peter C. Hoy, Essai de bibliographie des etudes en langue francaise consacrees a Albert Camus, 1937-1967, 2nd ed. (1969). Camus's main works are published with excellent editorial material in Theatre, recits, nouvelles, ed. by Roger Quilliot (1962, reissued 1991); and Essais, ed. by Roger Quilliot and L. Faucon (1965, reissued 1993). Collections of Camus's writings in English translation are The Collected Fiction of Albert Camus (1960); Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, trans. by Justin O'Brien (1960, reissued 1995); and Lyrical and Critical, ed. by Philip Thody (1967; also published as Lyrical and Critical Essays, 1968).
Biographies include Morvan Lebesque, Portrait of Camus: An Illustrated Biography (1971; originally published in French, 1963); Herbert R. Lottman, Albert Camus: A Biography (1979, reissued 1997); and Patrick McCarthy, Camus (1982).

Bettina L. Knapp (ed.), Critical Essays on Albert Camus (1988), presents a collection of 15 essays, including one by Jean-Paul Sartre. Critical studies of his works and ideas include Jean-Claude Brisville, Camus (1959, reissued 1969); John Cruickshank, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt (1959, reprinted 1978); Philip Thody, Albert Camus, 1913-1960 (1961), and Albert Camus (1989); Germaine Bree, Camus, rev. ed. (1964, reissued 1972); Adele King, Camus (1964, reissued 1971); Emmett Parker, Albert Camus: The Artist in the Arena (1965); Roger Quilliot, The Sea and Prisons: A Commentary on the Life and Thought of Albert Camus (1970; originally published in French, rev. ed., 1970); Brian T. Fitch, The Narcissistic Text: A Reading of Camus' Fiction (1982); Susan Tarrow, Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus (1985); David Sprintzen, Camus: A Critical Examination (1988); Philip H. Rhein, Albert Camus, rev. ed. (1989); and Joseph McBride, Albert Camus: Philosopher and Litterateur (1992). Among numerous studies of individual works are Patrick McCarthy, Albert Camus, The Stranger (1988); Adele King (ed.), Camus's L'Etranger: Fifty Years On (1992), a collection of original essays by leading Camus scholars; and Steven G. Kellman, The Plague: Fiction and Resistance (1993).


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