Albert Camus, (1913-60)

· Life in Algeria

Although born in extreme poverty, Camus attended the lycee and university in Algiers, where he developed an abiding interest in sports and the theater. His university career was cut short by a severe attack of tuberculosis, an illness from which he suffered periodically throughout his life. The themes of poverty, sport, and the horror of human mortality all figure prominently in his volumes of so-called Algerian essays: L'Envers et l'endroit (The Wrong Side and the Right Side, 1937), Noces (Nuptials, 1938), and L'Ete (Summer, 1954). In 1938 he became a journalist with Alger-Republicain, an anticolonialist newspaper. While working for this daily he wrote detailed reports on the condition of poor Arabs in the Kabyles region. These reports were later published in abridged form in Actuelles III (1958).

· The War Years

Such journalistic experience proved invaluable when Camus went to France during World War II. There he worked for the Combat resistance network and undertook the editorship of the Parisian daily Combat, which first appeared clandestinely in 1943. His editorials, both before and after the liberation, showed a deep desire to combine political action with strict adherence to moral principles.

During the war Camus published the main works associated with his doctrine of the absurd--his view that human life is rendered ultimately meaningless by the fact of death and that the individual cannot make rational sense of his experience. These works include the novel The Stranger (1942; Eng. trans., 1946), perhaps his finest work of fiction, which memorably embodies the 20th-century theme of the alienated stranger or outsider; a long essay on the absurd, The Myth of Sysiphysus (1942; Eng. trans., 1955); and two plays published in 1944, Cross Purpose (Eng. trans., 1948) and Caligula (Eng. trans., 1948). In these works Camus explored contemporary nihilism with considerable sympathy, but his own attitude toward the "absurd" remained ambivalent. In theory, philosophical absurdism logically entails total moral indifference. Camus found, however, that neither his own temperament nor his experiences in occupied France allowed him to be satisfied with such total moral neutrality. The growth of his ideas on moral responsibility is partly sketched in the four Letters to a German Friend (1945) included, with a number of other political essays, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1960).

· Rebellion

From this point on, Camus was concerned mainly with exploring avenues of rebellion against the absurd as he strove to create something like a humane stoicism. The Plague (1947; Eng. trans., 1948) is a symbolic novel in which the important achievement of those who fight bubonic plague in Oran lies not in the little success they have but in their assertion of human dignity and endurance. In the controversial essay The Rebel (1951; Eng. trans., 1954), he criticized what he regarded as the deceptive doctrines of "absolutist" philosophies--the vertical (eternal) transcendence of Christianity and the horizontal (historical) transcendence of Marxism. He argued in favor of Mediterranean humanism, advocating nature and moderation rather than historicism and violence. He subsequently became involved in a bitter controversy with Jean Paul Sartre over the issues raised in this essay.

Camus wrote two overtly political plays, the satirical State of Siege (1948; Eng. trans., 1958) and The Just Assassins (1950; Eng. trans., 1958). It can be argued, however, that Camus scored his major theatrical success with stage adaptations of such novels as William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun (1956) and Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (1959). He also published a third novel, The Fall (1956; Eng. trans., 1957), which some critics read as a flirtation with Christian ideas, and a collection of short stories noteworthy for their technical virtuosity, Exile and the Kingdom (1957; Eng. trans., 1958). Posthumous publications include two sets of Notebooks covering the period 1935-51, an early novel, A Happy Death (1971; Eng. trans., 1972), and a collection of essays, Youthful Writings (1973; Eng. trans., 1976 and 1977)

John Cruickshank