Albert Camus Biography

Only in an Albert Camus work would someone shoot and kill another person because the sun is too bright. That action is one of the central plot points of his most famous book, The Stranger. The cryptic, elliptically written text has spurred a variety of interpretations by scholars—a fitting response because the author himself was so difficult to define. Albert Camus, like Samuel Beckett, is often associated with existentialism and the absurd, but his rise to prominence mirrored that of deeply political writers like Federico García Lorca. What made Camus’s brand of existential and absurdist commentary unique, however, was its connection to anti-totalitarian sentiments. Throughout his prolific career (which was cut short by his death in a car accident), Camus remained as committed to political change as he was to writing.

Facts and Trivia

  • Camus is nearly always associated with existentialism, yet he rejected the label in attempt to differentiate himself from the philosopher and writer Jean Paul Sartre.
  • Despite being both a pacifist and a communist, Camus served in the French Resistance during World War II.
  • Camus was a pied-noir (“black foot”), a term for a person of European descent living in Algeria. The uneasy French-Algerian relations greatly affected both Camus’s politics and his novel The Stranger.
  • Camus’s A Happy Death features a character with the same name, Meursault, as the protagonist of The Stranger. Scholars continue to wonder whether or not the two characters and stories are connected.
  • Camus’s most famous novel, called L’Étranger in French, is usually translated into English as The Stranger; however, in the rest of the world it is more commonly called The Foreigner or The Outsider. The ambiguity of the original title has caused endless debate as to whether it refers to the disaffected title character or the Arab man he kills.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2054

Article abstract: Camus’s philosophical and literary writings established his reputation as the moral conscience of France during the 1940’s and 1950’s. With understated eloquence, he reaffirmed the intrinsic values of individual freedom and dignity in the face of such evils as Nazism, Stalinism, and colonial exploitation.

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Early Life

Albert Camus had a very difficult childhood. When he was born on November 7, 1913, his parents Lucien and Catherine were living in the small Algerian city of Mondovi, where his father worked for a vineyard. His parents were very poor. The very next year, Lucien was drafted, and he died in October, 1914, as a result of wounds received during the Battle of the Marne. His widow Catherine, already partially deaf, suffered a stroke soon after Lucien’s death, and this stroke permanently affected her speech. She moved to Algiers with her two sons, Albert and Lucien. They lived with her domineering mother, Catherine Sintes, in the working-class neighborhood of Belcourt. The harsh conditions of Camus’s youth taught him to value independence, personal responsibility, and human dignity.

Camus did very well in grammar school and earned a scholarship to the prestigious Grand Lycée of Algiers, where he developed a profound interest in philosophy and literature under the guidance of his teacher, Jean Grenier, to whom he would later dedicate both a volume of essays, L’Envers et l’endroit (1937; The Wrong Side and the Right Side, 1968), and a philosophical essay, L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1956). At the age of seventeen, however, he became gravely ill with tuberculosis, from which his lungs never fully recovered. Camus did, however, resume his studies, and in 1936 he defended his master’s thesis on the problem of evil in the writings of Plotinus and Saint Augustine. Although his mother was Catholic, Camus was an agnostic. His medical problems prevented him from being offered a teaching position in Algeria.

Between 1935 and his move to France in 1942, he worked as a journalist in Algiers. He also became involved with a theatrical troupe there, first as an actor and then as a playwright and director. He wrote his first play, Caligula (English translation, 1948), in 1938. He temporarily joined the Algerian Communist Party, but he soon became disillusioned with communism. His distrust of communism greatly influenced his political opinions. In 1940, he married Francine Faure. Two years later, he moved permanently to France in order to join the French Resistance. Francine stayed in Algeria from 1942 until 1944. She rejoined Camus in 1944 after the liberation of Paris. Camus and Francine had two children—twins, Catherine and Jean, born in 1945.

Life’s Work

Although Camus did publish in Algiers two well-crafted volumes of short stories, Betwixt and Between and Noces (1938; Nuptials, 1968) in the 1930’s, his work was then appreciated only in Algeria. His international reputation as a writer and philosopher dates from the publication in occupied Paris of L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) and Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Stories, 1955).

The Stranger is a first-person narrative whose principal character, Meursault, does not even have a first name. Meursault, an Algerian office worker, is alienated from society. He is incapable of expressing strong emotions even at his mother’s wake and burial. He has no real ambition or sensitivity to the feelings of his lover Marie. Meursault does not truly respect the dignity of other people. Raymond, a close friend, is a pimp, and Meursault sees nothing wrong with this amoral profession. Meursault kills an Arab who has been following Raymond. Although Meursault is clearly guilty, he still should receive a fair trial. Impartial justice, of course, no longer existed in occupied France. The presiding judge overtly favors the prosecutor, who is allowed to introduce numerous irrelevant and damaging remarks about Meursault, whose incompetent or corrupt lawyer never protests effectively. Nazi collaborators in France denounced The Stranger as a dangerous novel because it held the French judicial system up to ridicule. In an early essay on The Stranger, Jean-Paul Sartre noted perceptively that these collaborators had not fully understood The Stranger. This novel clearly condemns the legal injustices committed by the Nazis and their collaborators, but it also reaffirms the French republican ideals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” The Nazis wanted nothing to do with the moral values of the French Third Republic, which they had destroyed in 1940.

Camus’s next major work was his 1942 philosophical treatise The Myth of Sisyphus. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned for eternity to push a large rock to the top of a mountain. Every time he reached the summit, his rock rolled back into the valley. Despite the apparently absurd nature of his task, Sisyphus never gave in to the forces that were trying to destroy his spirit. Camus imagines that Sisyphus was being punished because he had rebelled against the arbitrary power of the gods. Camus transforms Sisyphus into a moral hero who resists evil. Many readers have interpreted The Myth of Sisyphus as an ethical defense of the French Resistance. In the last paragraph of this work, Camus describes Sisyphus at the bottom of his mountain. Sisyphus must decide whether it is worth the effort to continue his fight for human dignity. Sisyphus will not give in to evil. Camus ends The Myth of Sisyphus with the thought-provoking remark, “We must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.” Sisyphus realizes that he is morally superior to the evil forces that seek to destroy him.

Three years after the liberation of France, Camus published his most extended reflection on the evil of Nazism. His powerful 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague, 1948) takes place in the walled Algerian city of Oran. The Plague is technically a series of diary entries, but readers do not discover until the very last chapter that Dr. Bernard Rieux kept this diary. Camus describes Oran as a typical modern city with which any reader can identify. The plague suddenly breaks out and the walls of Oran are closed in order to prevent this epidemic from spreading to other cities. For the inhabitants of Oran, this plague symbolizes the absolute evil against which they must fight. The political and moral implications of The Plague were clear to Camus’s contemporaries. The closed walls of Oran may represent the closed frontiers of those countries occupied by the Nazis or they may refer more directly to the walls around the Nazi death camps. In plague-ridden Oran, crematoria are used to dispose of the numerous corpses. This clearly reminds Camus’s readers of the crematoria used by the Nazis in their concentration camps.

For highly diverse reasons, characters such as the agnostic Dr. Rieux, the journalist Rambert, and the modest civil servant Joseph Grand all decide to fight the plague. The incredibly destructive power of evil is illustrated when Camus describes the painful death of Judge Othon’s young son. The screams from this dying child cause Father Paneloux to question his belief in a just God, and they almost destroy Judge Othon’s will to live. The gruesome death of his young child is reminiscent of the millions of equally innocent children and adults whom the Nazis murdered. At the end of this novel, the plague itself is over but its effects will last for years and generations to come. Camus ended this powerful novel by reminding his readers that evil can never be permanently eradicated, because a plague may break out at any time in another “happy city.” The Plague was such an extraordinarily effective novel that the members of the Swedish Academy seriously considered giving Camus the Nobel Prize in 1947. Camus was then only thirty-four years old, and the youngest previous Nobel laureate had been Rudyard Kipling, who was forty-three years old when he received his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. In 1957, the Swedish Academy would honor Camus with the Nobel Prize in Literature.

During the last twelve years of his relatively short life, Camus became very involved in the theatrical life of France. His plays stressed both the absolute need to respect human life and the danger of political theories that try to justify the use of violence as a means of changing society. Among his most important contributions to the theater were L’État de siège (1948; The State of Siege, 1958), Les Justes (1950; The Just Assassins, 1958), and his 1956 adaptation of William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (1951). His major philosophical work from this period was his 1951 book The Rebel, in which he argued against all uses of violence as a technique for social change. The Rebel provoked an extremely negative reaction from Jean-Paul Sartre, who believed that violence was sometimes justifiable. Camus considered Sartre’s arguments to be both specious and dangerous. The rupture between Camus and Sartre would be permanent. In 1956, Camus published his last complete novel, La Chute (The Fall, 1957), a marvelously ironic book about an amoral lawyer named Jean-Baptiste Clamence. During the last year of his life, Camus worked on a novel entitled “Le Premier Homme” (the first man) about his own youth. When he died in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960, the unfinished manuscript of “The First Man” was found in Camus’s attaché case. Although he died at the relatively young age of forty-six, Camus was a very prolific writer with extremely varied interests.

Summary

Albert Camus was an eloquent “man of letters” in the finest sense of the term. His intelligence, modesty, and fierce commitment to moral values created a very favorable impression on contemporaries from Africa, Europe, and other continents as well. Since his death in 1960, his writings have continued to inspire much creative scholarship, and his analysis of the human condition still fascinates readers from around the world.

His refusal to propose simplistic answers to complex moral and social problems alienated Camus from many French intellectuals on both the political Left and Right. He refused, however, to compromise his ethical beliefs in order to placate even influential critics such as Jean-Paul Sartre and François Mauriac. Personal integrity was indispensable for Camus. He courageously resisted all attempts to limit basic freedoms. He fought in the French Resistance; he was once expelled from his native Algeria because of newspaper articles he had written to denounce the mistreatment of Arabs by the French colonial authorities, and he frequently criticized political abuses in such countries as Francisco Franco’s Spain and communist Hungary and East Germany. When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in December, 1957, his acceptance speech stressed that a conscientious writer should convey to others the interrelated values of truth and liberty. His profound insights into the human condition have enriched the lives of readers from many different cultures.

Bibliography

Brée, Germaine. Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment. New York: Delacorte, 1972. This book accurately describes similarities and differences between Camus and Sartre. Brée disagrees sharply with O’Brien’s contention that Camus was insensitive to the situation of Arabs in Algeria.

Fitch, Brian T. The Narcissistic Text: A Reading of Camus’ Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. This creative book examines Camus’s major works of fiction from the perspective of reader-response criticism. Fitch stresses the numerous ambiguities in The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall.

Lazere, Donald. The Unique Creation of Albert Camus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973. This fascinating psychoanalytic reading of Camus’s works also enriches our appreciation of Camus’s style. Lazere’s final chapter summarizes well American critical reactions to Camus’s works.

Lottman, Herbert R. Albert Camus. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. This is an extremely well-documented biography of Camus. Lottman based this book on extensive interviews of people who knew Camus well.

Merton, Thomas. Albert Camus’ “The Plague”: Introduction and Commentary. New York: Seabury Press, 1968. This book proposes a profound theological interpretation of The Plague. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and a famous writer, shows that the two sermons delivered by Fr. Paneloux in this novel distort the traditional Christian concept of grace.

O’Brien, Conor Cruise. Albert Camus of Europe and Africa. New York: Viking Press, 1970. This very controversial book argues that Camus was insensitive to the plight of Arabs in French Algeria. Brée and other critics have questioned the validity of O’Brien’s thesis.

Rhein, Phillip H. Albert Camus. New York: Twayne, 1969. This excellent general study of Camus’s works defines well the originality of his contributions to French literature and philosophy.

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