French writer, playwright, philosopher, and essayist.
Both as a writer and as an intellectual, Albert Camus is a far more complex figure than his reputation as Jean-Paul Sartre's fellow existentialist; a best-selling writer (his works have been translated into more than forty languages); or what the novelist and essayist Jean-Jacques Brochier called a "philosopher for high school seniors" would suggest.
Camus was born into a very poor family in Mondovi, Algeria. His experience of poverty marked him profoundly. He once wrote that he had "not learned about freedom from reading Marx" but "from poverty." He had lost his father, an agricultural worker-turned-soldier, at the beginning of World War I, and his mother earned a living as a cleaning woman. As much as he was marked by his working-class background, Camus was also marked by his Algerian roots. He and his brother, Lucien, grew up in the working-class district of Belcourt, in Algiers, "half-way between misery and the sun," as he wrote in his first book. He was a brilliant student and was noticed by his schoolteacher, Louis Germain, to whom Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, published as Discours de Suède.
As a "ward of the Nation," Camus received a scholarship that enabled him to continue his studies at the Algiers lycée (high school). There he completed the preparatory course for his college entrance examinations. His teacher and mentor was the writer and essayist Jean Grenier, who became a close friend and with whom Camus corresponded throughout his life. During his time in the lycée, his contact with middle-class students at the school made Camus conscious of his family's poverty; he had tuberculosis; and his uncle and teachers introduced him to both sports (especially soccer) and literature.
In 1932 he published his first articles in the journal Sud. During this period he also met Simone Hié, and the two became what his biographer and friend, Roger Grenier, called a "Fitzgeraldian couple." They married in 1934, but the marriage quickly became a disaster, notably during the trip to central Europe that he later recounted in his first book, L'envers et l'endroit (1937; Betwixt and Between). Camus joined the Communist Party in 1935, at the time of the antifascist Popular Front government, but he was considered excessively anticonformist and was expelled from the party in 1937. In 1936 and 1937 he came into contact with the theater and with the utopian spirit of the Théâtre du Travail (Workers' Theater) company. He performed with it as Don Juan and wrote stage adaptations for it. The troupe renamed itself the Théâtre de l'équipe (Team Theater), and he began writing the play Caligula, a "tragedy of the intelligence" in which "Caligula accepts death because he has understood that no one can save himself all alone and that one cannot be free at the expense of others" (p. vi).
During the same period, he wrote Noces (Nuptials), which was published in 1938. This short poetic essay is a love song for his country, a land that "contains no lessons. It neither promises nor reveals. It is content to give, but does so profusely" ("Summer in Algiers," p. 62).
This was also when Camus wrote his first novels: La mort heureuse (A Happy Death), followed by L'étranger (The Stranger), which took up themes from his first book. La mort heureuse was published only posthumously, in 1971. L'étranger, on the other hand, brought Camus success, and recognition in literary and intellectual circles. As Roger Grenier wrote, the power of the text lies in the appropriateness of the style—often described as blank or dry—to the subject, an absurd murder followed by a death sentence. Completed in May 1940, the novel was published in 1942.
In 1940 Camus married a second time, to Francine Faure, and they had twins, Catherine and Jean, in 1945. The year of their marriage he left Algiers, where he was working as a journalist, and moved to Paris, where he got a job at Paris-Soir magazine with the help of his friend Pascal Pia, whom he had met when he worked at the Alger-Républicain. Once he had completed L'étranger, he began work on "Le mythe de Sisyphe" ("The Myth of Sisyphus"), an essay that shows the development of his thinking about the absurd, which he described as being "born of [the] confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world" (p. 20). The essay was published in 1943 and is often considered devoid of hope. In 1941 he began work on La peste (The Plague). The execution on 19 December 1941 of journalist Gabriel Péri, a communist member of the Resistance, by the Germans who had taken him hostage was an existential shock and a turning point for Camus. He became involved in the Resistance and in 1943 joined the Combat resistance network. From August 1944 to June 1947, he was editor-in-chief of the paper Combat, one of the main organs of the Resistance.
At the end of 1943, he met Sartre. Looking back on their meeting two years later, surprised that he was being associated with existentialism, he wrote, "When we met, it was to note our differences."
After the war, he engaged in a polemic with the writer François Mauriac over the purges of Nazi collaborators, contrasting Mauriac's "charity" toward the collaborators with the need for justice. However, he was opposed to capital punishment—he later wrote about this opposition in "Réflexions sur la guillotine" (1957; "Reflections on the Guillotine")—and, appalled by purges that affected intellectuals more than other groups of people, he signed a petition asking for clemency for the collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach.
In September 1945 Caligula, which gave exposure to the young actor Gérard Philippe, was a theatrical triumph, but Camus seemed dissatisfied with the reviews, both good and bad, believing that the critics had failed to grasp the crux of the play. His renown as a multitalented writer was by then solidly established and the publishing house Gallimard hired him to be the editor of a series. In 1947 he left Combat and finished La peste, which was highly successful. Perhaps fleeing the temptations of success, he left for the small city of Saint-Brieuc with Jean Grenier. There he met Louis Guilloux. Camus's play L'état de siège (State of Siege), a play protesting Franco's rule in Spain, was produced in 1948 without much success, followed by Les justes (The Just Assassins), about terrorism and resistance, in 1949.
Around the same time, the differences between Camus and Sartre culminated in a rupture that was triggered by an attack on Camus's L'homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, in which Camus denounced Soviet totalitarianism) in Les temps modernes, of which Sartre was the editor. The many attacks (by André Breton and others) on his book deeply wounded Camus, who commented that he would thereafter "prefer the company of theater people." He redoubled his efforts in the theater, producing a succession of plays and stage adaptations (of Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Félix Lope de Vega, Pierre de Larievy, Dino Buzatti, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoyevsky) and publishing articles, talks, and chronicles in the series Actuelles (1950, 1953, 1958) as well as L'été (Summer), a collection of lyrical essays that return to what he called the solar tradition of his earliest works. He remained active in the political arena, voicing his indignation at the repression of an Algerian demonstration in Paris that caused seven deaths (1953) and at communist repression in Berlin (1953), Hungary, and Poland (1956). His independence of mind was hailed by Eastern European dissidents and his outspokenness made him one of the leading figures of the antitotalitarian Left.
In 1957 Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, and in his acceptance he thanked the academy for "having been willing to distinguish first [his] country and second a Frenchman from Algeria." If Algeria had illuminated the beginnings of Camus's life, it cast a shadow over the end of it. His sense of despair is reflected in La chute (The Fall) of 1956.
As early as 1945, he had investigated the colonial massacres in Sétif, Algeria, but beginning in 1954, at the start, with the murder of a French teacher, of the "events in Algeria," as the war for decolonization was then called, Camus grew increasingly heartbroken at what was happening in his native land. He returned to journalism (at L'express), no doubt hoping to influence events in some way. The hopes he placed in Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France (1954–1955) and his policy of appeasement in the matter of decolonization quickly disappeared after the fall of the government and the inexorable escalation of violence in Algeria. He became an advocate for what he called "the path of truce," but his appeal was heard only by a minority of the most liberal colonists, French politicians, and Algerian combatants. Prime Minister Guy Mollet (1956–1957) was intent upon a course of repression, which Camus condemned, but he balanced this position with a refusal to condone the violence of the Algerian National Liberation Front, which he condemned as terrorism.
Camus did not live to see the end of Algerian war. He died in an automobile accident on 4 January 1960. The manuscript of an unfinished novel, Le premier homme (The First Man), was found in his car; it was published posthumously in 1994.
According to the writer Jacques Julliard, Camus was one of the few intellectuals of his time who was able to uphold "both the need for the fight against oppression and the need for critical rigor," and was "one of the few intellectuals of his generation whom history will prove to have been right."
- Primary Sources
- Camus, Albert. "The Myth of Sisyphus." In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O'Brien. New York, 1959.
- ——. "Author's Preface." Caligula and Three Other Plays, translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York, 1962.
- ——. Théâtre, récits, nouvelles. Paris, 1962.
- ——. Essais. Paris, 1965.
- ——. "Summer in Algiers." In Nuptials, collected in Lyrical and Critical, selected and translated by Philip Thody. London, 1967.
- Secondary Sources
- Grenier, Roger, ed. Album Camus: Iconographie. Paris, 1982.
- Julliard, Jacques. "Albert Camus." In Dictionnaire des intellectuels français: Les personnes, les lieux, les moment, edited by Jacques Julliard and Michel Winock. Paris, 1996.
- Lottman, Herbert. Albert Camus: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y., 1979.
- Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. Translated by Benjamin Ivry. New York, 1997.