French novelist, essayist, and playwright. Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a representative
of non-metropolitan French literature. His origin in Algeria and his experiences
there in the thirties were dominating influences in his thought and work.
Less than a year after Camus was born, his father, an impoverished worker of
Alsatian origin, was killed in World War I during the First Battle of the Marne.
His mother, of Spanish descent, worked as a charwoman to support her family.
Camus and his elder brother Lucien moved with their mother to a working-class
district of Algiers, where all three lived, together with the maternal grandmother
and a paralyzed uncle, in a two-room apartment.
In primary school, Camus found a teacher, Louis Germain, who recognized the
young boy's intellectual potential and encouraged him in his studies.
After taking a short break necessitated by a bout with tuberculosis, Camus
continued his education at the University of Algiers. After earning a degree
in philosophy, Camus relocated to Metropolitan France and took up journalism.
In 1938, he accepted a post with the left-wing newspaper Alger-Républicain
where he served alternately as sub-editor, social and political reporter, leader-writer,
and book-reviewer. After World War II broke out, Camus used his literary talents
to support the French Resistance, taking on the editorship of Combat, an important
underground paper. He was briefly a member of the Communist Party.
In 1947 Camus retired from political journalism and, besides writing his fiction
and essays, was very active in the theatre as producer and playwright. He also
adapted plays by Calderon, Lope de Vega, Dino Buzzati, and Faulkner.
His love for the theatre may be traced back to his membership in L'Equipe, an
Algerian theatre group, whose "collective creation" Révolte
dans les Asturies (1934) was banned for political reasons. He soon established
an international reputation with such works as The
Stranger (1946), The
Rebel (1954) and The
Myth of Sisyphus (1955).
The two most important of Camus' plays areCaligula
(1938) and Cross Purpose (1944). In Caligula,
a young Roman emperor comes face to face with the terrible lack of meaning in
the universe after the senseless death of his beloved sister Drusilla. In order
to teach the world the true nature of life, Caligula
goes on a murderous spree, killing his subjects indiscriminately. After this
act of rebellion fails, he chooses to court his own assassination.
In Cross Purpose, Camus' second play, a man returns home after travelling
the world for 20 years. His mother and sister keep an inn where, unbeknownst
to him, they murder and rob rich travellers so that they will one day be able
to move to the sea-shore. Unable to find the right words to reveal his identity,
the prodigal son decides to spend the night in his family's inn posing as a
stranger, thus becoming the next victim. When his identity is discovered, a
string of suicides is set into motion--a theme which Camus would later explore
in his philosophical work, The
Myth of Sisyphus.
The essay The
Myth of Sisyphus (Le
Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942), expounds Camus's notion of the absurd and of
its acceptance with "the total absence of hope, which has nothing to do
with despair, a continual refusal, which must not be confused with renouncement
- and a conscious dissatisfaction". Meursault, central character of The
1942), illustrates much of this essay: man as the nauseated victim of the absurd
orthodoxy of habit, later - when the young killer faces execution - tempted
by despair, hope, and salvation. His subsequent novel, The
Peste, 1947) depicted a city under siege by a mysterious plague that,
like Nazism, intimidated and terrorized many, but also called forth a heroic
determination to fight against it.
Other well-known works of Camus are The
Chute, 1956), and Exile
and the Kingdom (L'Exile
et le royaume, 1957). Primarily a moralist rather than a philosopher,
Camus was often mislabeled an "existentialist" in the mode of his
sometime-ally, Jean-Paul Sartre.
But, as Camus remarked in a review he wrote of Sartre's
Nausée) in 1938: "To observe that life is absurd
is not an end, but a beginning."
His post-war nonfiction book The
révolté, 1951) examined the dangerous tendency of revolutions
to become tyrannies. Since the publication of this book he had been caught up
in a controversy with Sartre, who - along with many
other French leftist intellectuals - felt that Camus's critique of revolutionary
excess played into the hands of rabid anti-Communists. In his scathingly self-critical
Chute(1956), Camus turned his moral searchlight on a character very
Camus later got into trouble over the issue of independence for the former
French colony of Algeria. Born and raised in the city of Algiers, Camus had
always been sympathetic to the plight of the Arabs in this region. But he would
not endorse the terrorist campaign of the Arab National Liberation Front (FLN)
in their quest for independence, when it targeted innocent civilians.
Camus wrote two other original plays, State of Siege (1948) and The
Justes, 1949). After this, his work for the stage consisted solely of
translations and adaptations. The most brilliant of these were adaptations of
for a Nun (1956) and Dostoevsky's The
In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel
Prize for Literature.
On January 4, 1960, Camus was killed in an automobile accident while returning
to Paris with his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard. He was only forty-six