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Albert Camus was an important novelist and playwright as well as a philosophical essayist and journalist. He translated and adapted the works of Spanish, Russian, and American writers such as Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega Carpio, Fyodor Dostoevski, William Faulkner, and James Thurber. During World War II,...

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Albert Camus was an important novelist and playwright as well as a philosophical essayist and journalist. He translated and adapted the works of Spanish, Russian, and American writers such as Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega Carpio, Fyodor Dostoevski, William Faulkner, and James Thurber. During World War II, he was the anonymous editor of Combat, and he often practiced the trade of journalism during his brief life.

Achievements

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At the early age of forty-four, Albert Camus accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature. He had already been feted by the literary elite of Paris and had himself become the center of a cause célèbre due to his criticism of Soviet Marxism and its concomitant lack of a humanistic face. More than thirty years after Camus’s death, the philosophic and aesthetic values found in his writings continue to attract a wide audience, from American high school students to deconstructionists. Few contemporary writers have provoked more thoughtful discussion concerning the human condition and the themes of absurdity, revolt, and fraternity found in the human struggle. Perhaps Camus’s principal achievement centers on his refusal to make a distinction between his writings and his own actions. In his works, these actions take “form” in his protests against racism, intolerance, and human indignity, wherever they may be found. Camus’s durability may, in the final analysis, rest as much on the character of the writer as on his art.

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Considered by many to have been the outstanding figure in his generation of French letters (rivaled only by his sometime friend and colleague Jean-Paul Sartre), Albert Camus is best remembered as the author of thought-provoking essays, such as Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955) and L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1956), and novels such as L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948), and La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957). L’Exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom, 1958), a collection of thematically linked but otherwise widely varied short stories, appeared in 1957 to considerable acclaim.

Achievements

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Despite a lifelong interest and participation in the theater, frequently as actor or director, Albert Camus never achieved with his plays the success that his essays and prose fiction enjoyed. Still, the plays are valuable for their development of the themes that preoccupied him throughout his career. It was his single-minded engagement with these fundamental moral and philosophical dilemmas that won for him a reputation as the conscience of his generation—a reputation confirmed in 1957 by the Nobel Prizein Literature, which he received when he was only forty-three years old.

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Albert Camus (kah-MEW) considered his vocation to be that of novelist, but the artist in him was always at the service of his dominant passion, moral philosophy. As a result, Camus was led to cultivate several other literary forms that could express his central concerns as a moralist: the short story, drama, and nonfiction forms such as the philosophical essay and political journalism, all of which he practiced with enough distinction to be influential among his contemporaries. Moreover, these works were generally written side by side with his novels; it was Camus’s customary procedure, throughout his brief writing career, always to be working on two or more compositions simultaneously, each expressing a different facet of the same philosophical issue. Thus, within a year of the publication of his most celebrated novel, The Stranger, there appeared a long essay titled Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955), a meditation on the meaning of life in an irrational universe that begins with the assertion that the only serious question confronting modern man is the question of suicide and concludes with a daring argument that finds in the legend of Sisyphus a strangely comforting allegory of the human condition. Sisyphus, who becomes in Camus’s hands an exemplary existentialist, spent his days in the endlessly futile task of pushing a boulder to the top of a hill from which it always rolled down again. Every human life is expended as meaninglessly as that of Sisyphus, Camus argues, yet one must conceive of Sisyphus as happy, because he was totally absorbed by his assigned task and found sufficient satisfaction in its daily accomplishment, without requiring that it also have some enduring significance. There are close links between such reasoning and the ideas that inform The Stranger, but it is erroneous to argue, as some have, that The Myth of Sisyphus is an “explanation” of The Stranger. The former work is, rather, a discussion of similar themes in a different form and from a different perspective, in accordance with Camus’s unique way of working as a writer.

That unique way of working produced another long philosophical essay, L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1956), which has affinities with the novel The Plague as well as with four of Camus’s plays written and produced in the 1940’s: Caligula (pb. 1944; English translation, 1948); Le Malentendu (pr., pb. 1944; The Misunderstanding, 1948); L’État de siège (pr., pb. 1948; State of Siege, 1958), and Les Justes (pr. 1949; The Just Assassins, 1958). Each of these plays is also related by certain thematic elements to the two novels that Camus published in the same period.

Camus’s earliest political journalism, written before 1940 and dealing with the problems of his native Algeria, attracted little attention, but his work for the underground newspaper Combat during and after World War II achieved considerable celebrity, and the best articles he wrote for Combat were later collected in a volume that was widely read and admired. During the civil war in Algeria, in the 1950’s, Camus again entered the lists as a political journalist, and because he was by then indisputably Algeria’s most famous man of letters, his articles were of major importance at the time, though highly controversial and much less widely approved than the wartime pieces from Combat.

Camus produced only one collection of short stories, L’Exil et le royaume (1957; Exile and the Kingdom, 1958), composed during the same years as the novel The Fall, but those stories have been very popular and are regarded by many as among the finest short stories published in France in the twentieth century. The volume is particularly noteworthy because it offers the only examples Camus ever published of fiction composed in the third-person mode of the omniscient narrator. The first three of his published novels are variations of the limited-perspective first-person narrative.

Deeply involved in the theater throughout his career, both as writer and director, Camus adapted for the French stage the work of foreign novelists Fyodor Dostoevski and William Faulkner, and of playwrights of Spain’s Golden Age, including Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega Carpio. These adaptations have all been published and form part of Camus’s contribution to the theater.

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To the immediate postwar public, not only in France but also throughout Europe, Albert Camus seemed a writer of unassailable stature. Although Camus himself repudiated the designation, he was regarded worldwide as one of the two principal exponents of existentialism (the other was Jean-Paul Sartre), the single most influential philosophical movement of the twentieth century. Indeed, the existentialist worldview—according to which the individual human being “must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad”—has profoundly shaped the values of countless people who have never read Camus or Sartre.

In the 1950’s, Camus was widely admired not only as a writer but also as a hero of the war against fascism, a spokesman for the younger generation, and a guardian of the moral conscience of Europe. That reputation was consecrated in 1957 with the award to Camus of the Nobel Prize in Literature, at the remarkably young age of forty-four. Yet, as has happened to many other recipients of the Nobel Prize, the award seemed almost a signal of the rapid deflation of his renown. Camus suddenly came under severe criticism for his stand on the Algerian Civil War, was attacked as self-righteous and artistically sterile, and was finally denounced as irrelevant by the new literary generation then coming to prominence, who were weary of moral issues and more concerned with aesthetic questions of form and language. Camus’s fame and influence appeared to many to have suffered an irreversible decline by the end of the decade, at least in France. (In the United States, the case was different: Made more accessible by the “paperback revolution,” Camus’s works were enormously influential among American college students in the 1960’s.) There were those who suggested that the automobile accident that took his life in January of 1960 was a disguised blessing, sparing him the pain of having to witness the collapse of his career.

It is true that, in the late twentieth century, generations after the height of Camus’s fame, French writers and intellectuals showed no influence of Camus in their writings and scant critical interest in his works. Still, his works have enjoyed steady sales among the French public, and outside France, especially in the United States, interest in Camus has remained strong. There has been an inevitable sifting of values, a crystallization of what it is, in Camus’s work, that still has the power to survive and what no longer speaks to successive generations. It has become clear, for example, that his philosophical essays are too closely tied to the special circumstances that occasioned them; in spite of a few brilliant passages, those essays now seem rambling and poorly argued as well as irrelevant to the concerns of modern readers. Camus’s works for the theater, too, have held up poorly, being too abstract and inhuman to engage the emotions of audiences. Although his plays have continued to be performed on both sides of the Atlantic, interest in them has steadily declined over the years. It is his fiction that still seems most alive, both in characters and ideas, and that still presents to the reader endlessly fascinating enigmas that delight the imagination and invite repeated readings.

Although the total number of Camus’s fictional works is small, those works are, in both form and content, among the most brilliantly original contributions to the art of fiction produced anywhere in the twentieth century. In particular, Camus expressed through fiction, more powerfully and more memorably than anyone else in his time, the painful moral and spiritual dilemmas of modern man: evil, alienation, meaninglessness, and death. He invented techniques and created characters by which he was able to make manifest, in unforgettable terms, the eternal struggle of Everyman for some shred of dignity and happiness. His stories have accordingly taken on some of the haunting quality, and the prestige, of myths. For that reason, it seems safe to predict that it is his fiction that represents Camus’s greatest achievement—an achievement that will endure long after his philosophical musings and political arguments have been forgotten.

Discussion Topics

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Is it accurate or useful to consider the work of Albert Camus “existentialist”?

How are Camus’s Algerian origins reflected in his fiction?

Why is Meursault executed in The Stranger?

Why does Camus not reveal the identity of the narrator of The Plague until the novel’s conclusion?

What is the significance of the title The Fall?

How does The Myth of Sisyphus help explicate some of Camus’s fiction?

What is going to happen to Daru after the final words of “The Guest”?

How does Camus treat the theme of capital punishment?

How does a tension between solidarity and solitude shape Camus’s work?

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Albert Camus. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. A collection of essays written by some of the principal scholars of Camus’s oeuvre. Among the contributors are Victor Brombert, Roger Shattuck, Paul de Man, Patrick McCarthy, and David R. Ellison. Harold Bloom’s introduction, though brilliant in its own virtuosity, may lack a certain humanistic understanding.

Brée, Germaine. Camus. Rev. ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972. A comprehensive study of the inner life and fictional universe of Camus. While drawing a sympathetic portrait of the writer, Brée gives particular importance to the aesthetic values in Camus’s works. Also includes a chapter on the short story “The Renegade” from Exile and the Kingdom.

Bronner, Stephen Eric. Camus: Portrait of a Moralist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Provides a thorough, detailed account of the life and work of Camus, but assumes that the reader is familiar with key places and figures in Camus’s life. Black-and-white photos and a chronology put events and Camus’s influence on history and literature into perspective.

Carroll, David. Albert Camus, the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Analyzes Camus’s novels, short stories, and political essays within the context of the author’s complicated relationship with his Algerian background. Concludes that Camus’s work reflects his understanding of both the injustice of colonialism and the tragic nature of Algeria’s struggle for independence. Includes bibliography and index.

Cruickshank, John. Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt. 1959. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Important work on Camus as writer and philosopher includes a general discussion of his principal ideas as they relate to the literature and historical events of the period. Offers interesting comments concerning American literary influences on Camus.

Dunwoodie, Peter. Camus: “L’Envers et L’endroit” and “L’Exil et le royaume.” London: Grant and Cutler, 1985. Presents an introductory discussion of the short story as genre and then looks for—in the best treatment in a single volume—the central themes and metaphors of the short stories contained in Exile and the Kingdom.

Ellison, David R. Understanding Albert Camus. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. A good general introduction to Camus’s work.

Hawes, Elizabeth. Camus, a Romance. New York: Grove Press, 2009. This thoroughly research biography puts Camus’ writing into the context of his life and the times in which he lived. His novels, plays, essays, and letters reveal his personal struggles, from his impoverished childhood to his failing health as an adult. This is by far the most detailed and well-researched biography of Camus ever written.

Hughes, Edward J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Camus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Examines Camus’s major works as well as his life, including his poverty-stricken childhood, his education, and his political beliefs. Includes reference citations in English and French.

Hurley, D. F. “Looking for the Arab: Reading the Readings of Camus’s ‘The Guest.’” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Winter, 1993): 79-93. A detailed, close reading that argues against the prevailing critical notion that the Arab prisoner in Camus’s story is an idiot or a beast.

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.

Jackson, Tommie L. The Existential Fiction of Ayi Kwei Armah, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997. Examines the existential writings of the three authors. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Kamber, Richard. On Camus. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002. A volume in the Wadsworth Philosophers series. Includes bibliographical references.

Kellman, Steven G., ed.“The Plague”: Fiction and Resistance. New York: Twayne, 1993. Discusses the novel in separate sections devoted to literary and historical context and to different readings of the work. Individual chapters examine major characters as well as the mysterious narrator.

King, Adele, ed. Camus’s “L’Étranger”: Fifty Years On. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Addresses the contexts and influences of the novel, its reception and influence on other writers, textual studies, and comparative studies. Includes an informative introduction.

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

Lottman, Herbert R. Albert Camus. 1979. Corte Madera, Calif.: Gingko Press, 1997. Extremely well-documented biography is based on extensive interviews with people who knew Camus well.

McBride, Joseph. Albert Camus: Philosopher and Littérateur. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. A narrowly focused study. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

McCarthy, Patrick. Camus. New York: Random House, 1982. A meticulous attempt to reconstruct Camus through his childhood and early influences. Also covers every major phase of the author’s life and work. Includes notes and brief bibliography.

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 Friar Paneloux in this novel distort the traditional Christian concept of grace.

Oxenhandler, Neal. Looking for Heroes in Postwar France: Albert Camus, Max Jacob, Simone Weil. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1996. Provides social context.

Rhein, Phillip H. Albert Camus. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Useful introduction to Camus’s life and work includes chapters on his childhood, his understanding of the absurd, his career in the theater, his view of humanity and rebellion. Includes notes and bibliography.

Rizzuto, Anthony. Camus: Love and Sexuality. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. Presents both biographical material and literary and psychological analysis in addressing the evolution of Camus’s use of the themes of love and sex in his fiction. Includes bibliography and index.

Sprintzen, David. Camus: A Critical Examination. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988. Delves into the biographical experience that informs Camus’s work. Includes chapters on The Stranger, Camus’s drama, his interpretation of social dislocation, society and rebellion, revolt and history, metaphysical rebellion, confrontations with modernity, and the search for a style of life. Includes notes and bibliography.

Suther, Judith D., ed. Essays on Camus’s “Exile and the Kingdom.” University, Miss.: Romance Monographs, 1981. An important collection of translated critical pieces written by international scholars using different literary approaches to the short stories of Camus. Interesting introductions by Germaine Brée and the editor.

Tarrow, Susan. Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus. University: University of Alabama Press, 1985. Combines a study of Camus’s journalism with his fiction. As the title indicates, particular emphasis is placed on Camus’s short stories.

Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. Translated by Benjamin Ivry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Making use of materials such as unpublished letters made available after the death of Camus’s widow, this detailed biography reveals much about Camus’s love affairs and his many important friendships.

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