Albert Camus

Here is a review article I came across in The Economist. Having read Camus in my youth knowing little about his life and even less about his philosophical perspective, time permitting I’m inclined to rediscover him (I was taken by Visconti’s adaptation of L’Étranger). And anyone sidelined by Sartre (a fate to befall the great Raymond Aron as well), is worthy of admiration.


Albert Camus, 50 years on

Prince of the absurd

In search of the real Camus

Jan 7th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

Albert Camus: Solitaire et Solidaire. By Catherine Camus. Michel Lafon; 206 pages; €39.90. Buy from

Les Derniers Jours de la Vie d’Albert Camus. By José Lenzini. Actes Sud; 144 pages; €16.50. Buy from

Albert Camus, Fils d’Alger. By Alain Vircondelet. Fayard; 396 pages; €19.90. Buy from

Albert Camus. By Virgil Tanase. Gallimard; 416 pages; €8.10. Buy from

WHEN Albert Camus was killed in a car crash 50 years ago on January 4th, at the age of 46, he had already won the Nobel prize for literature, and his best-known novel, “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger” or “The Outsider”), had introduced readers the world over to the philosophy of the absurd. Yet, at the time of his death, Camus found himself an outcast in Paris, snubbed by Jean-Paul Sartre and other left-bank intellectuals, and denounced for his freethinking refusal to yield to fashionable political views. As his daughter has said: “Papa was alone.”

Today, by contrast, the French are proud to consider Camus a towering figure, while Sartre’s star has faded. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy, from the political right, has proposed transferring the writer’s remains from Provence to the Panthéon in Paris. Several new books mark the anniversary of his death, including an elegant illustrated volume by Catherine Camus, one of his twin children and custodian of her father’s estate.

The reader in search of literary criticism, or even the origins of absurdist thought, will not find it in the three new biographies. That by José Lenzini, a French former journalist, is the most unusual, retracing Camus’s last journey from Provence to Paris as a series of imaginary flashbacks through his life. The other two are more conventional but both finely drawn, digestible portraits of the football-playing “little poor child”, as Camus called himself, from Algiers, who came to leave such a mark on literature and moral thought.

A double haunting presence looms throughout all the books: that of Algeria, where Camus was born, and of his mother, Catherine. Before he was a year old, the infant Albert lost his father, an early settler in French Algeria, in the battle of the Marne. His mute and illiterate mother, and her extended family, raised her two sons in a small flat in Algiers with neither a lavatory nor running water. Alain Vircondelet writes movingly of the “minuscule life” in the apartment with nothing: “those white sheets, his mother’s folded hands, a handkerchief and a little comb.” Her purity and silent dignity marked her son, as he struggled to confront his own shame at such poverty—and his shame at being ashamed. “With those we love,” he once said of her, “we have ceased to speak, and this is not silence.”

That the young Albert went to the French lycée, and then to university in Algiers, was thanks to two inspiring teachers with whom he kept in touch throughout his life; he dedicated his Nobel prize to one of them. Camus began writing, as a reporter and dramatist, in a land that was then part of France—and yet apart. His was the solitude, self-doubt and restlessness of dislocation and displacement. The young man who emerges from Virgil Tanase’s biography in particular is seductive, funny and loving, but constantly on the move: between the raw, sun-drenched Mediterranean and cramped, grey Paris, ever in search of respite from crippling bouts of tuberculosis, as well as comfort from the various women he charmed and loved with a passion.

History finds Camus on the right side of so many of the great moral issues of the 20th century. He joined the French resistance to combat Nazism, editing an underground newspaper, Combat. He campaigned against the death penalty. A one-time Communist, his anti-totalitarian work, “L’Homme Révolté” (“The Rebel”), published in 1951, was remarkably perceptive about the evils of Stalinism. It also led to his falling-out with Sartre, who at the time was still defending the Soviet Union and refusing to condemn the gulags.

Camus left Algeria for mainland France, but Algeria never left him. As the anti-colonial rebellion took hold in the 1950s, his refusal to join the bien pensant call for independence was considered an act of treason by the French left. Even as terror struck Algiers, Camus was vainly urging a federal solution, with a place for French settlers. When he famously declared that “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice,” he was denounced as a colonial apologist. Nearly 40 years later, Mr Lenzini tracked down the Algerian former student who provoked that comment at a press conference. He now confesses that, at the time, he had read none of Camus’s work, and was later “shocked” and humbled to come across the novelist’s extensive reporting on Arab poverty.

The public recognition that Camus achieved in his lifetime never quite compensated for the wounds of rejection and disdain from those he had thought friends. He suffered cruelly at the hands of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their snobbish, jealous literary clique, whose savage public assassination of Camus after the publication of “The Rebel” left deep scars. “You may have been poor once, but you aren’t anymore,” Sartre lashed out in print.

“He would remain an outsider in this world of letters, confined to existential purgatory,” writes Mr Lenzini: “He was not part of it. He never would be. And they would never miss the chance to let him know that.” They accepted him, says Mr Tanase, “as long as he yielded to their authority.” What Sartre and his friends could not forgive was the stubborn independent-mindedness which, today, makes Camus appear so morally lucid, humane and resolutely modern.