Addressing a symposium on the art of biography hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Leon Edel proposed a method “related to the methods of Sherlock Holmes and also to those of Sigmund Freud.” The biographer, Edel said, must seek “the figure under the carpet, the evidence in the reverse of the tapestry, the life-myth of a given mask.” He concluded this remarkable lecture (later collected in Telling Lives: The Biographer’s Art, edited by Marc Pachter) by urging biographers to learn from modern painters, whomoved from the splendid verisimilitude of Rembrandt’s self-portraits to a kind of UR-portrait. In the recreation of lives, we have reached a time when we must, like these painters, give a new account of ourselves. We must not flinch from the realities we have discovered; we must realize that beyond the flesh and the legend there is an inner sense of self, an inner man or woman, who shapes and expresses, alters and clothes the personality that is our subject and our art.
The life of Albert Camus, now that we have Herbert R. Lottman’s massive account of it, would seem to be an ideal subject for Edel’s ideal biographer. At the peak of his success, a Nobel laureate in Literature at forty-three (only Kipling had been younger), he was suffering writer’s block, “years of it (even if screened from public view by an abundance of ancillary activity).” A relentlessly moral writer, a man revered by many as the conscience of his generation, he was in private often quite different: clever, cynical, charming, and apparently a tireless womanizer. A colonial, and born into the working class (his mother could neither read nor write), he never lost a sense of solidarity with the oppressed, yet he was also driven by an enormous personal ambition: in his mid-twenties, he had outlined elaborate long-range plans for his oeuvre.
Camus presents a striking case, then, of the tension between the public “mask” and the animating “inner sense of self.” To give a coherent account of Camus’ life, a biographer must, in Edel’s words, write “the life of his subject’s self-concept. . . .” This is not to countenance the excesses of contemporary “psycho-history,” nor should we quibble with the biographer of Henry James over a bit of psychological jargon. Camus’ “self-concept” or “life-myth” is the figure under the carpet, the pattern without which there is no intelligible whole. Without this imaginative re-creation, a biography falls short of art. Camus still lacks such an empathic study.
Meanwhile, the standard will be Lottman’s work. Not only is it the first biography of Camus in English, it is also the first biography of the man anywhere. Although this is not an “authorized” biography, it gives evidence of years of painstaking research, and Lottman did have the cooperation of Madame Albert Camus. The thirty-five black-and-white photographs include a number of family pictures, beginning with photos of Camus’ mother and father.
Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria. His parents were both descended from early settlers in Algeria. His father, Lucien Auguste Camus, was called up for service in the Zouaves soon after Albert’s birth. Wounded in the Battle of the Marne, he died on October 11, 1914. Thus, Camus was reared by his submissive mother (who was “traumatized” by her husband’s death) and by her harsh, dominating mother. Two uncles—his mother’s brothers—and Albert’s brother, Lucien, completed the household.
Lottman devotes considerable attention to these early years, and makes much of Camus’ “Spanish blood” (his mother was Spanish). In part this is simply to balance the public image of Camus in France (well over half his life was spent in...
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