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Albert Camus (1913-1960)

French novelist, essayist and playwright, who received the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.











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." 


In 1923 Camus won a scholarship to the lycée in Algiers, where he 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.


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 made 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 character, 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. 


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 Mesault, was considered too old, although otherwise his performance was praised. 


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 and supported equal political rights for Arab citizens, which made him an isolated figure.  



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 Literature, he stated publicly that he would have voted for Malraux. 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 but excuses." In Le Premier Homme (1994), the story of Jacques Cormery, Camus charted the history of his family and his lycée years. The manuscript was found in the car, a Facel Vega, in which he died on January 4, 1960.



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