Patrick McCarthy’s biography appears as part of a recent revival of interest in the writings of Albert Camus. Camus begins and ends with references to the Nobel laureate’s posthumous fate; while he remained generally respected in the United States, he had come to seem stale and antiquated to many Europeans. His drama was superseded by that of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco and his fiction by le nouveau roman. His ideals of clarity and measure were not congenial to the passionate intensity of the late 1960’s, but subsequent disillusionment with secular absolutes has led some to champion Camus again as an exemplary voice of liberal moderation. McCarthy’s book, following Herbert Lottman’s Albert Camus: A Biography (1979), is the second study of Camus’ life to have appeared in English in three years. It is admittedly indebted to Lottman’s copious scholarly work for much of its information, but it attempts to provide a more widely accessible review of the renowned author’s troubled life.
McCarthy’s account is based on the premise that Camus’ career is best understood within the context of Algeria, where, of mixed European ancestry, he was born and reared. Despite customary and exaggerated claims of American influence on L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), McCarthy makes a case for that book as the great Algerian novel. He is intent on avoiding hagiography, and the Camus who emerges in these pages is not only a proletarian pied noir ill at ease among Parisian intellectuals but also a lofty moralist with feet of clay—inconstant as a lover, muddled as a thinker, and, ultimately, paralyzed as a writer. While convinced, despite weaknesses in the handling of plot and character, of the enduring value of the three novels Camus published before his death and of some of the lyrical essays, McCarthy finds many of the other texts as much an embarrassment to the reader as they were personally disastrous for their author.
Camus was shaped by Belcourt, the predominantly European, working-class suburb of Algiers in which he grew up. Camus’ father died in World War I, when Camus was an infant. Catherine Camus, his impoverished, illiterate, and inaccessible mother, remained an exasperating challenge to him throughout his life. As portrayed by McCarthy, interwar Algeria was a lively, heterogeneous alembic for the future author. Its elemental landscape etched itself indelibly on his imagination. Algeria was a world of simple physical pleasures, where swimming was more urgent than metaphysics, and where violence was always lurking. Camus’ first attack of tuberculosis, which was to plague him for the rest of his life, occurred when he was only sixteen; the effects of that dread disease, the loss of his father, the remoteness of his mother, and the anomalies of French Algerian society created in him a sense of alienation and a preoccupation with death. In an image suggesting the tough and savvy urchin, McCarthy repeatedly characterizes a mistrustful Camus, in Algeria and in Europe, as confronting the world with a compact boxer’s stance.
McCarthy contends that Jean Grenier was the first great influence on the boy’s career and one of the many surrogate fathers Camus sought. Grenier was an inspiring schoolteacher, who recognized and cultivated the young Camus’ literary talents. Grenier was himself an ambitious and gifted writer, and later, as his former pupil began to acquire international acclaim, relations between the two became strained. Pascal Pia, Camus’ editor when he worked for the newspaper Alger-Républicain in the late 1930’s, likewise encouraged and then envied his protégé. As World War II approached, and Camus left Algeria, never again to live there, he had already established a pattern of simultaneous involvement in journalism, theater, politics, and belles lettres. He had also already married his first wife, Simone Hié, but as a result of her drug addiction and his constitutional inability to be faithful to any...
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