Albert Camus

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Albert Camus World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

When Camus received the Nobel Prize in 1957, the citation lauded him “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminated the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Camus died less than three years later without augmenting what was a relatively meager oeuvre: three novels and a handful of plays, short stories, and essays. It is possible to read his entire life’s work, including the posthumously published autobiographical fragment Le Premier Homme, in less time than it takes to absorb one novel by some of his more hermetic contemporaries.

Camus is widely read and fervently admired in a way few other twentieth century writers are. In a memoir of Robert F. Kennedy, journalist Jack Newfield recalls that the senator always traveled with a copy of Camus’s writings: “He discovered Camus when he was thirty-eight, in the months of solitude and grief after his brother’s death. By 1968 he had read, and re-read, all of Camus[’s] essays, dramas and novels. But he more than just read Camus. He memorized him, meditated about him, quoted him and was changed by him.”

Heir to the French tradition of literary crusaders, of activist authors like Michel de Montaigne, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, andÉmile Zola, Camus is the lucid moral conscience of his era. His fiction, drama, and essays pose fundamental questions about individual identity and social bonds that cannot be ignored in the century that produced Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Camus served in the underground Resistance to the Nazi occupation of France and after the war refused to confine himself to a purely literary role. He became embroiled in many of the most tumultuous political controversies of the time—colonialism, capital punishment, racism, and East-West alliances. Even posthumously, he remains a public figure challenging his readers to a stringent standard of candor and compassion.

“A novel,” wrote Camus in his review of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949), “is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images.” Camus’s own novels are probably much more than just a philosophy expressed in images but they are never anything less. The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall are among the most popular and esteemed books ever published in France; translated into dozens of languages, they remain not only in print but also in demand long after most other books of their era have been forgotten. Their appeal is less in plot and characterization than in the utter honesty with which they pose questions of personal, social, and cosmic identity. The scrupulously austere style that Camus honed was an embarrassment to the temptations of bogus rhetoric.

Camus came to Paris in the 1940’s with a proletarian and Algerian background that set him apart from the erudite middle-class French intellectuals who befriended him. Along with Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Camus emerged as one of the leaders of existentialism, a philosophical movement that was extremely popular following World War II. Existentialism has its roots in the writings of German philosophers, particularly Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Martin Heidegger, though its legacy can be traced back through Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard to as far as the pre-Socratic Greek Heraclitus of Ephesus. Never a systematic philosophy, existentialism was, in fact, a product of skepticism toward the intellectual arrogance of rational systems. Existentialism was the embodiment of a postwar zeitgeist cynical toward the shibboleths and values that had facilitated and camouflaged global catastrophe. It insisted that existence precedes essence, that nothing is given—nothingness is the given. In the vast, indifferent universe, the individual is ineluctably responsible for creating his or her own identity. Five A’s—alienation, absurdity, angst, anomie, and anxiety—seemed indispensable to the vocabulary of anyone who aspired to speak the language...

(The entire section is 4,095 words.)