(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When he toured the United States in 1946, Albert Camus found Americans “cordial, hospitable and indifferent, quickly happy and quickly forgetful.” French interest in the author of L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948), and La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957) has been fickle, but American readers did not quickly forget Camus, whose works in English remain in print and in demand decades after his death in 1960. Barely forty-four years old in 1957, when he became the second-youngest recipient (after Rudyard Kipling) of the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has aged well in print. Camus’s spare, austere vocabulary makes him the author of choice for American students of French, and his stoic account of cosmic absurdity continues to be a popular import. “What interests me,” he wrote, “is knowing how we must behave, and more precisely, how to behave when one does not believe in God or reason.” Many North American readers have shared that interest.

The French revere actor and comedian Jerry Lewis and remain indifferent to more accomplished actors and directors, but American readers have embraced Camus even while ignoring Marcel Proust, Jean Racine, and Denis Diderot. One American, Herbert R. Lottmann, published a sedulously documented biography of Camus in 1979, and another, Patrick McCarthy, followed in 1982 with a life directed toward nonacademic readers.

Olivier Todd is the first Frenchman to offer a full-scale, general trade biography of Camus. Its appearance coincides with the rehabilitation of Camus’s reputation in Paris and with the new availability of relevant materials. Once lionized, then reviled, Camus is now read and respected again. When Le Premier Homme, the unfinished novel that was found amid the car wreck that took Camus’s life, was finally published in 1994 (it appeared in 1995 in English translation as The First Man), it squatted on French best-seller lists for months. A description of its autobiographical protagonist, Jacques Cormery, can double as a portrait of the author: “fragile, suffering, tense, willful, sensual, daydreaming, cynical, and courageous.”

Benjamin Ivry’s fluent translation reduces Todd’s two volumes to one, and, while offering dozens of photographs, eliminates his notes and bibliography. Those seeking to check sources or simply to follow threads beyond the book must look to the French original, yet American readers can still find in this single volume a worthy Camus for the times.

Born in Algeria of European stock, Camus grew up in desolating poverty in Belcourt, a working-class, European neighborhood of Algiers. After experiencing his first attack of tuberculosis at the age of sixteen, he was forever after haunted by his own mortality. Camus never knew his father, Lucien, a fresh recruit who was killed at the First Battle of the Marne before his son’s first birthday. A series of surrogate fathers, including teachers Louis Germain and Jean Grenier, encouraged the boy in his pursuit of literature and philosophy. Surrogate brothers included poet René Char and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus was active in journalism and theater before moving to France shortly before the German occupation. As a reporter for Alger- Républicain in the 1930’s, Camus honed his prose and his moral sensitivities covering European injustices against the Arab population. He learned the craft of drama working in Algeria as an actor and a playwright.

Camus spent much of World War II in rural isolation, ultimately editing an anti-Nazi newspaper, Combat, that was a mouthpiece of the Resistance. He also was creating the novels, short stories, plays, and essays that transformed him into one of the intellectual celebrities of postwar Europe. Although he later fervently, and disingenuously, denied an interest in existentialism, he was widely presumed to share, with Sartre, leadership of the movement. Camus’s feud with Sartre over L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1953), a muddled work of political theory, was one of the signal events in mid-century French culture. Although Camus valued this work over all his others, Sartre saw to it that the book was harshly reviewed in the magazine he edited, Les Temps modernes, and dismissed his erstwhile friend as “a kind of schoolteacher, worthless in philosophy, but radiating a moralizing hubris.”...

(The entire section is 1817 words.)