- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Albert Camus has been one of this century's most misunderstood intellectual figures. Lumped in among Sartre and the other existentialists, when in fact he strongly disapproved of their philosophy, and reviled as a tool of French colonialism, when in fact he spent much of his life fighting imperialist oppression, Camus's undeniably important legacy for 20th century literature and thought has been hopelessly confused. In a meticulously documented new biography, "Albert Camus: A Life" (originally published in France in 1996), Olivier Todd attempts to set the record straight, while simultaneously painting a vivid, complex portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and philosopher.
Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 to working-class parents; both his poverty and his status as a pied-noir (a derogatory term of the day for working-class French Algerians) unquestionably influenced his later political thought and writing. His father died in World War I; his mother supported her two children by working as a cleaning woman. Camus won a scholarship to high school and was able to continue his studies at the university level, but not before tuberculosis was diagnosed, when he was 17. This disease, then incurable, provided one of the major ironies of Camus's life: After spending 30 years slowly dying of tuberculosis, he was ultimately killed all at once in an automobile accident, on January 4, 1960.
In between, of course, Camus became a driving force on the French literary intellectual scene. His first publication in France (Camus lived almost exclusively in Algeria prior to World War II) wasthe now-classic L'Étranger (The Stranger), published by Gallimard in 1942. L'Étranger had been one third of a trilogy that Camus hoped to publish simultaneously, but owing to the difficulties of wartime publication—both the pedestrian troubles of acquiring paper and finding a printer as well as the more sticky matter of dealing with the Nazi censors—the other two volumes were delayed. In 1947, however, Camus's place in the French literary and political canons was sealed with the phenomenally successful "La Peste" ("The Plague").
During the summer of 1942, Camus moved to occupied Paris, where he put his previous journalistic experience—he had written for and edited the Alger Républicain and Le Soir Républicain—to work for the French Resistance. Camus became the editor of Combat, an underground Resistance newspaper, writing numerous (though pseudonymous) editorials even after Combat's freedom was granted by the liberation.
These editorials, however, particularly those written after the liberation, reveal the basis for Camus's political conflicts with the French literary elite. Camus had joined the Communist Party in Algeria in 1935, but was purged from the party two years later as a "Trotskyite agitator," having angered party officials over his pro-Algerian-rights stance. And though his work for the Resistance was much in line with the ideology of the French Communist Party during World War II, he broke with the party in January 1945, withdrawing as well from the National Writers Committee over the issue of "purification"—the execution for treason of all Nazi collaborators. Camus felt strongly that justice did need to be served, but felt that what the Communists and the National Writers Committee were promoting was not justice but radical vengeance.
Camus's final political break from the French literary intellectual community was to come just a few years later, over the cause of Algerian nationalism. While Camus had for years fought the colonial oppression of ethnic Algerians, he nonetheless hoped that the country would remain part of the French Republic. Always a pacifist at heart, he particularly opposed the Stalin-supported Front for National Liberation (FLN), and thus drew heated criticism as a tool of the imperialist government. By 1951, Camus was virtually isolated from the rest of the left-wing intelligentsia.
Todd's biography traces Camus's writing life, from his pre-L'Étranger publications through his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 1957, alongside the narrative of his political life, in and out of the Communist Party, in and out of favor with the popular front. But Todd does not neglect the dramatic—and often salacious—story of his personal life, from his morphine-addicted first wife, Simone Hié, to the nervous breakdown suffered by his second wife, Francine Faure, to the numerous love affairs that occurred in between—and during—those two marriages. The portrait Todd paints with these three brushes is that of a man living his life to the fullest, while daily confronted with his own mortality.
If there is anything to complain about in "Albert Camus", it would, unfortunately, be Benjamin Ivry's translation, which is artless at best, and leaves the reader slightly too aware that he is reading a translated volume. Nonetheless, Todd's biography of Camus illuminates one of the major forces in the century's literary and intellectual history.—Kathleen Fitzpatrick