Who was Albert Camus? Information on the French author Albert Camus biography, life story, books, writings and works.
Albert Camus; (1913 – 1960), French novelist, dramatist, essayist, and journalist, whose writings had a profound influence in the mid-20th century on the conscience of Western man. Both his personality and his work were deeply marked by the historic struggles that shook European civilization during his lifetime. A man of great personal integrity, Camus sought to define not a dogma but a way of life that would respect in equal measure the logic of the heart, the logic of the mind, and the limitations imposed on the individual by reality.
The marked changes in mood in Camus’ work and his great diversity in literary technique accentuate rather than mask the inner coherence and continuity of his writing. These unifying characteristics are evident in the recurrence from work to work of certain images—sea, sky, light, and desert—and of basic themes—exile, revolt, happiness, and man’s responsibility in a meaningless world. Camus early defined his own realm of concern and explored it with intellectual and artistic integrity. Like Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist thinkers with whom he was familiar, he examined the fundamental dilemmas of modern man, who is shorn of traditional structures of religious belief and explanation and who sees human existence as “absurd,” that is, purposeless and incomprehensible in rational terms.
Camus, however, was more optimistic than many existentialists in the value he accorded man. He sought, through the fictional characters he created, to define a positive ethic based on happiness, solidarity, and a respect for human life. This humanistic ethic rejected absolutes and stressed the continual effort, without falling into extremes, to balance the legitimate yet paradoxically contradicting aspirations of the individual for personal freedom and social justice, self-realization and solidarity, the happiness of love and a lucid understanding of the hopelessness of man’s fate.
Camus had a demanding conception of the artist’s responsibility in a time of crisis. He called upon man to face the crucial issues raised by the convulsions of the time—communism and World War II, for example—and elucidated them in works of sustained intellectual and stylistic excellence. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.
Camus was bom in Mondovi, Algeria, on Nov. 7, 1913. His father, a farm laborer of Alsatian descent, was fatally wounded in action during World War I. His mother, to whom Camus was devoted, was of Spanish origin and worked as a servant. Camus’ poverty-stricken childhood in a working-class section of Algiers inspired his unwavering commitment to social justice, his simple ethical code, and his sense of the violence and fatalism that characterized the illiterate working class. To his environment he also owed his basic fictional milieu, the landscape of the North African Mediterranean coast.
Through education, Camus was able to move beyond the limitations of his environment. At the University of Algiers, under the influence of the philosopher Jean Grenier, he developed a lifelong interest in literature and philosophy. To these fields he added a passion for the drama in all its aspects. Knowledge that he had tuberculosis, a disease that dogged him all his life, forced him to give up an academic career and stimulated him to become a writer.
The 1930’s and Early World War II:
In the 1930’s, Camus became committed to the three-pronged activity—politics, theater, and writing— that shaped his whole career. After briefly belonging to the Communist party, he became a nondoctrinal socialist. As a young journalist in Algiers, he incurred the hostility of the local authorities because of his vigorous and scrupulously documented campaigns for economic and political reforms on behalf of the Algerian Muslims. He participated in an amateur theatrical group as an actor and director, thus acquiring firsthand experience with the stage. Camus also traveled in Europe and was for a short time a journalist in Paris. After the fall of France in 1940, he returned to Algeria, where he taught in a private school.
Throughout this period Camus was hard at work writing. The ambience and imagery of L’envers et l’endroit (1937) and Noces (1938), two small volumes of essays, reflect Camus’ early lyrical commitment to life, beauty, and happiness in this world, especially the world of the North African coast that he knew. The essays also express Camus’ revolt against the burden of suffering, death, and solitude that estranges human beings from the plenitude of life.
The theme of revolt dominates Camus’ next three works. The novel L’étranger ( 1942; Eng. tr., The Stranger, 1946) is narrated by Meursault, a clerk in Algiers, who blindly commits murder, then, confronted by his own execution, realizes the unique value of life and the solidarity of all men in the face of unjust condemnation to death. In the essay Le mythe de Sisyphe ( 1943; Eng. tr., The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 1955), Camus uses Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology is condemned eternally to push a boulder uphill only to have it roll down again, as a symbol of man’s fate and possibilities in a purposeless world. The play Caligula (written in 1938 and published in 1945; Eng. tr., 1958), presents the Roman emperor as so driven by his sense of the absurdity of life that he indulges in excessive cruelties that destroy even himself.
Later War Years and Postwar Period:
In 1942, Camus returned to France, where he took an active part in the Resistance against the German army of occupation. He wrote leading articles and editorials for various underground journals, including the left-wing paper Combat, which he edited from 1944 to 1947. In these articles, and in the novels, plays, and essays of this period, Camus expressed his revulsion to the public’s cynical acceptance of wholesale violence and murder. He attempted to translate the bitter experiences of the German occupation and of the political disappointments of the post-liberation years into a general philosophy about man’s tragic situation.
One of the most important of these somber works is the novel La peste ( 1947; Eng. tr., The Plague, 1948). La peste, considered at one level to be an allegory of occupied France and at another level an allegory of the human situation, is a sparely written account of an epidemic of bubonic plague in the Algerian town of Oran and of the reaction of various individuals. Dr. Rieux, the central figure, who has no faith in God or the rationality of the universe, devotes himself wholeheartedly to helping his fellow men.
In the essay L’homme révolté (1951; Eng. tr., The Rebel, 1954), Camus studies the concepts of personal and historical revolutions in Europe since the 18th century, concluding that revolution carried to its logical extreme justifies war and murder, as for example in Stalin’s Russia, and thus destroys the very freedom it had set out to win. This view caused great controversy among leftists, and led to a split between Camus and the pro-Communist Sartre. Other works concerned with the troubled war and postwar years include Lettres à un ami allemand ( 1945 ) and the dramas Le Malentendu ( 1944; Eng. tr., The Misunderstanding, 1958) and Les Justes (1949; Eng. tr., The Just Assassins, 1958).
Among Camus’ later works is the novel La chute (1956; Eng. tr., The Fall, 1957), a powerfully satiric work in which the author frees himself from an obsessional involvement with history to indict those who take an intellectual delight in denouncing the corruption of Western man. Clamence, a former Parisian lawyer, reveals his guilty conscience as a man who has spent his life professionally seeking justice for others but who when personally confronted with a woman’s attempt at suicide does nothing to save her.
With L’été (1954), a collection of personal, lyrical meditations, and L’exile et le royaume (1957, Eng. tr., Exile and the Kingdom, 1958), a collection of short stories, Camus returned to his Algerian inspiration. He also adapted and directed plays taken from the works of William Faulkner and Dostoyevsky. However, his new ventures were cut short by his death in an auto accident near Sens, France, on Jan. 4, 1960.