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Albert Camus: A Life

Albert Camus: A Life

by Olivier Todd

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In this vibrant, engaging biography of Albert Camus, the internationally acclaimed author of The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall, French writer and journalist Olivier Todd has richly tapped resources never before available—personal correspondence, notebooks, public records, as well as exclusive interviews with Camus's family, friends, fellow workers,


In this vibrant, engaging biography of Albert Camus, the internationally acclaimed author of The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall, French writer and journalist Olivier Todd has richly tapped resources never before available—personal correspondence, notebooks, public records, as well as exclusive interviews with Camus's family, friends, fellow workers, mentors, and lovers. What emerges is the study of a man caught in conflicts between family loyalties and his own passionate nature, between the call to political action and devotion to his art, between his support of the native Algerians and his identification with the forgotten poor whites. Exploring Camus's impoverished childhood in the Algerian city of Belcourt, his underground activities during the Occupation in Paris, the intrigues of the French literati who embraced him after the publication of his first novel, L'Etranger, Todd uncovers the solitary private man behind the mask of his celebrity. He shows us a writer isolated by his own success, crippled by the charms of women he could not resist, debilitated by the tuberculosis that did not kill him. The auto accident that did adds only to the ironies in the life of this international giant of twentieth-century literature.

Editorial Reviews

The 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

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Matriculation Number 17.032

On September 22, 1913, on the Saint-Paul Farm outside the town of Mondovi in Algeria, Lucien Auguste Camus wrote to his employer, "The grape harvest at Saint-Paul ended this morning at 10 a.m." Mondovi is 420 kilometers east of Algiers, and Lucien Camus worked there for the Ricome wine company as a cellarman. He lived on the farm in a low-built house with a clay floor, two rooms and a kitchen next to the wine cellars.

In the production of wine, vineyard owners reigned at the top of the economic ladder. Then came the estate managers; the directors of grape growing, who supervised the vines; and the cellarmen, who worked with the grapes after harvest. White laborers were used for disbudding, pruning, and wine pressing. "Native" workers lived around the farms in tents that clung to hovels made of wooden planks. Day workers might be local tribesmen and prison laborers, who returned to jail after each day's work. Europeans and Arabs worked side by side, but they had little social contact, except at the bordello in nearby Bone, the hometown of Saint Augustine.

Once Lucien Camus recommended an Arab worker who wanted to change jobs: in his letter of reference for this laborer, named Rabad Oustani, who had refused to sabotage wine production despite orders from a French supervisor, Lucien wrote, "Although he is a native, he has much more know-how than the ignoble individual who urged him to sabotage the filtering of the wine during the night. Because he refused to do it, he had to quit his job."

Born in 1885 at Ouled-Fayet, outside Algiers, Lucien Camus was a descendant of the first generation of Frenchmen to settle in Algeria. He was not a rich colonist, but a simple salaried foreman. In his professional notes, the cellarman would sometimes include a literary touch--for instance, during the very hot summer of 1913 he wrote, "The birds are silenced ... by the heat, and the wine tastes like a heated pond."

The vineyard employee Lucien Auguste Camus, twenty-eight years old, had blue eyes, brown hair, and a mustache. He measured five feet six inches, which was then above average height. He had served with the Zouave regiment in Morocco as a second-class soldier in 1907 and 1908. His military papers described him as a "coach driver."

Orphaned at the age of one, he had been placed by his siblings in an orphanage. One of his grandfathers had come from the Bordeaux region, and a great-grandfather was from the Ardeche in France. The Camuses had a family legend that they were from Alsace, no doubt because in Algeria, a political refugee from Alsace had more prestige than a poor immigrant from Bordeaux.

On November 13, 1910, Lucien Auguste had married Catherine Helene Sintes, who was three years older than he, and three months later their first son, Lucien Jean Etienne, was born. In autumn 1913, Catherine Helene and her small son traveled for eighteen hours by train from Algiers en route to Bone. After the long train ride, on wooden seats, the pregnant woman and her son were packed into a wagon that carted trunks and furniture to Saint-Paul.

Shortly after his family arrived, Lucien Camus wrote to a colleague at the Ricome company, "Things aren't going well at home, the little boy and his mother have fevers, bad luck, but they're a little better the last two days." Malaria, a constant threat, was borne by the wind blown over from nearby putrid swamps and the stagnant Lake Fetzara. Only fifty years before, an epidemic of cholera and plague had killed half the colonists.

Lucien also had difficulties with his workers. He was "twice physically threatened by a native driver." And he was bothered by Europeans who lived in Bone, writing in a letter on June 24, 1914: "It's true that all these people from Bone seem as sweet as lambs, but deep down they're deceitful and treacherous as foxes." When business obliged him to drive his cart to Mondovi, small boys would hang on to the vehicle just for a lark, and rather than using his whip to get rid of them--other drivers would have--Lucien simply cried "Emchi!"--Go away!

On November 8, 1913, Lucien Camus appeared at the mayor's office in Mondovi to register the birth of his second son, born the day before. The baby was given only one Christian name, Albert. The two witnesses to the newly registered infant were Jean Piro, a merchant, and Salvatore Frendo, a delivery man for a local grocer.

Mondovi had been designed by military engineers, who organized the sharply rectangular city into twenty neighborhoods of twelve houses each. The city offered hunting clubs, which Lucien Camus would have enjoyed if he had had the time; he'd proved himself a good shot in military service. Silent films were shown at Mondovi, but the Camuses did not use the farm car to go into town for amusements.

Lucien Camus earned ten to twenty francs a day, not much more than a common laborer. He complained to his supervisor at Ricome wines, M. Classiault, that the manager of the Saint-Paul Farm "didn't hide his displeasure that Ricome is only buying 131 barrels." When Classiault reacted by chewing out the disgruntled manager, Camus, aware that employees had guns and would use them if provoked, warned his boss, "I beg you not to make a big deal about it, and not to threaten him, because this fellow is capable of anything."

Around Algeria, there were debates over France's role in the country's future, and what rights the Arabs should have. A month after Albert's birth, the daily L'Echo d'Alger published a series of articles by a professor of law, Emile Chauvin. He declared that France's purpose in Algeria was "to substitute civilization and reason for barbarity and fanaticism, and to aim for the assimilation, the unification of the races," in order to make them as French as possible. Frenchmen like Chauvin believed that in the very distant future, natives might be transformed into citizens of the French Republic. For the time being, declared Chauvin, France "intends to energetically maintain the principle of French supremacy, by not allowing native, non-French advisers to participate in mayoral elections.... We cannot accept the idea of giving French citizenship and thereby political rights to men who persist in thinking and acting outside of all our legal and moral strictures."

Lucien Camus was much too occupied as cellarman to get involved in such debates. He noted to his employer in the winter of 1913, "I sent out 1,553 full barrels, but got back only 1,543 empty barrels.... Something suspicious may happen before the season's work is over.... I have to stand guard during the day and part of the night."

The new year began badly. On January 4, 1914, he noted, "I plan to move, when the weather is good ... we've had torrential rains here for several days.... You can't even wash the barrels, there is so much mud all over."

That spring Lucien received a draft notice from the French army, but his employer tried to intervene to have his military service postponed until the quiet season in winemaking. Catherine and their two sons, three-year-old Lucien and eight-month-old Albert, were threatened by malaria. On July 14, the cellarman wrote to Classiault, "I plan to move my family to Algiers at the end of the month, for health reasons."

Finally called up to the First Zouave Regiment, Lucien was just in time for Germany's declaration of war on France on August 3. Wearing the Zouave uniform--a fez, billowing red pants, and a blue vest--the dashing Lucien had the matriculation number 17.032.

His regiment was sent overseas in a crowded ship, the Lamarsa. The soldiers lived on a diet of beans and beef, and after a few hours at sea the ship stank of vomit. They landed at the southern French city of Sete. From there, the troops traveled in boxcars to Narbonne, got off at Massy-Palaiseau, crossed Paris, and then looked for the German foe.

The Zouaves' red-and-blue uniforms made them an easy target for German Maxim machine guns, and Lucien Camus was among the first French soldiers wounded in the bloody Battle of the Marne. From the town of Montreuil-sous-Bois, Lucien sent his wife, who had returned to Algiers on August 30, a postcard that showed a municipal fountain in the city of Noisyle-Sec. The message read, "A big kiss for you and the children and hello to my friends. Send me your news, my health and news are all fine, no worries."

A few days later he sent another card from Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, showing a school that had been transformed into a makeshift army hospital. One window was marked with an X, with the message, "My dear Helene, I'm sending you a picture of the hospital where I'm being treated, just above the X. Kiss the children for me, Your husband."

Lucien did not write this card himself, and he died of his wounds on October 11, 1914. Of the 1,357,000 Frenchmen killed in the First World War, Algeria contributed 25,000 Frenchmen and 22,000 Arabs who had served in the French army. Of these, fifty casualties came from Mondovi, including twelve Arabs.

Lucien Camus's body was never sent home to Algeria. Instead, the French bureaucratic system sent his widow the dead soldier's military passbook, marked as having served in "the German campaign from August 28 to October 11, 1914."

Lucien had spent a tenth of his short life in the army. As the first man in the life of his son, he would be the one Albert knew least. He left behind a few documents and sepia photographs, his posthumous war medal, and some shrapnel from the shell that killed him. They were sent to his widow by the staff of the Saint-Brieuc hospital where he died.

Albert and his father, Lucien, had lived together for only eight months.


"Mosquito, You've Been Accepted."

On May 7, 1921, Catherine Helene Sintes-Camus was informed by the French Pension Ministry that as a war widow, she was entitled to eight hundred francs per year, plus three hundred francs for each of her children until they reached the age of eighteen. At the time, a cleaning woman earned one thousand francs a year.

As war orphans, Lucien and Albert were entitled to free medical treatment. During the war, their mother had worked in a factory, stacking cartridges in boxes. The workers earned up to five francs per day, but now the widow Camus worked as a cleaning woman in private homes and businesses, such as the butcher shop on the rue de Lyon in Algiers. She lived in her mother's apartment with her brothers, Etienne and Joseph, and her two sons.

The children, Lucien and Albert, felt that their grandmother talked too much, and their mother not enough. Camus's mother came from a family of Spanish origin, from Minorca. Dark, small, and partly deaf, she could neither read nor write. Although she was able to read lips, some people thought her mute, or mentally retarded. Others thought that she was suffering from badly treated meningitis. Albert believed that his mother began to have hearing and speech problems after a bout of typhoid fever or typhus. Still others thought she had had a cerebral attack upon hearing about her husband's death. She would slide over certain words, hissing instead of pronouncing sounds like s or z, and say "coucou" when she meant to say "couscous." She would use her hands to express herself, joining them to imply that a man and woman were having a love affair.

Present and yet distant, this terrified woman would not intervene with the children in the way Camus's grandmother did. Nor would she complain when an aunt snubbed her. Catherine Helene, known in the family by her second name, would neither laugh nor cry in front of her family, maintaining a steady smile on her face. When Lucien and Albert quarreled, she would only say, "I doan like arguments, I doan like fights."

She had red, rheumatic hands and wore black or gray blouses all year long. She would lean on her elbow on the windowsill, watching the street through the potted geraniums. In spring and summer, she took a chair out to the sidewalk and listened to the neighbors' gossip.

Later, the family moved further down the rue de Lyon, from number 17 to number 93, in the heart of Belcourt, a working-class quarter in east Algiers, on the border of the Arab quarter, Marabout. On the ground floor of the house were a barber, a wine seller, and a milliner. Behind the building was an orange tree and a rickety shack where the barber lived, along with the Arab family of a street sweeper, whose son, Omar, played with Albert.

The Sintes-Camus home was a three-room apartment with a long corridor. The name of the grandmother, Madame Sintes, was on the lease. She occupied one room. The main room, whitewashed, had a table, a desk, a sideboard, and a mattress on the floor, hidden by a covering. Albert and Lucien's uncle Etienne, who was partially mute, slept there. Helene and her two sons shared the third room, which was crowded with a mirrored wardrobe, two iron bedframes--a single for the mother, a double for the boys--and a night table between them. A net covering was draped over a fiber trunk. Etienne's brother, Joseph, also lived in the apartment until 1920, and at one point a woman cousin named Minette slept in the hallway for some months.

On the landings the Turkish toilets--a hole with a drain--stank. There was no electricity or running water, and jugs of water had to be fetched from street faucets. Everyone washed in the kitchen sink and once a week took a shower in a zinc tub. Above a table in the main room was an oil lamp.

Grandmother kept her coins in a cookie box, as no one in the family had a bank account. On New Year's Day 1921, Grandmother explained to Albert that now that he was "grown up," he would be getting practical gifts from now on. Grandmother and Mother would get up early to do the marketing, stopping to gossip with the delicatessen owner, as the trolley's early morning runs along the rue de Lyon made the house shake.

Catherine Helene prepared dishes like jugged hare, and snails with oil. She would wait patiently, while the snails disgorged, simmering her sauce of lard, onions, tomatoes, and pepper. One of the children took the prepared dishes over to the butcher's to get them baked.

Grocery stores sold tomatoes, figs, melons ripened in the sun, and fat, juicy Algerian apricots, while fishmongers offered sea bream and mullet. On Thursdays and Sundays, Helene would prepare desserts, flavoring pastries with lemon and orange blossom, while the boys hovered around the kitchen. Their grandmother would yell at them, but never sent them outside, because she didn't want them "hanging around."

The mother's life was one of silence and work. She never remarried, although in 1930 she did have one suitor, Antoine, a Maltese fishmonger, a handsome, mustached man who wore a bowler hat. She put on makeup and a bright smock, but Etienne made a scene--the typical North African European protecting his sister. When Helene cut her hair, her mother called her a whore. She wasn't given a chance to remarry.

Etienne used to hang out at a cafe near the house, where he would drink anisette, a drink that according to a local saying "rolled off the tongue like the piss of Baby Jesus." As Etienne gossiped and played cards, his nephew Albert learned the rules of the French card game belote. In Belcourt, on the left bank, lived the humble French people of Algiers. They were joyous, generous, vain, quarrelsome, quickly excited and as quickly discouraged. The lower-level French laborers of Belcourt often despised their Arab neighbors, but at the same time they felt inferior to the ruling class of French civil servants, who could afford to take vacations back in France.

In Belcourt, the lower-class French rubbed elbows with Arabs and believed they understood them, speaking in condescending generalities of "Ahmed" or "Fatma" instead of using their full Arab names. With Arabs they shared the spit-roasted lamb mechoui during picnics on the beach, but they would never think of receiving Arabs in their homes. Both lower-class Arabs and whites had a hatred for the police, even during a baroufa, the typical street brawl. The poor also feared unemployment. Arabs, Jews, Neapolitans, Spanish, Corsicans, and people from Marseilles were all accused of stealing jobs. Xenophobia flourished, with a kind of solidarity between Arabs and the poor. On the rue de Lyon, French, Arab, Italian, and Spanish accents could be heard.

Afternoon was nap time, and Albert hated having to lie next to his grandmother, with her rancid old-lady smell. Over her bed, Grandmother had hung her own portrait. With her hair in a tight bun, a chain around her neck, and clear, piercing eyes, the old lady was starchy.

Her daughter and sons accepted Madame Sintes's authority, and when Grandmother whipped the boys, Catherine Helene would just stand by, begging her not to hit them too hard. Lucien, the elder and thus the first to be held responsible for mischief, took more beatings than his brother. Grandmother was especially fond of Albert. With some talent for histrionics, she would hide in her room, complaining of stomach aches, or ask the boys in front of guests if they preferred Mother or Grandmother. And she complained that her daughter didn't take care of her, and that her son Joseph had gone far away.

Uncle Etienne would take Albert to the Sablettes beach, where they played with the family dog, Brilliant. Etienne had a quick temper, and he no longer spoke with Joseph, who called him "a rude beast." On Thursdays, Albert helped Uncle Etienne in his work as a barrel maker. A careful craftsman, Etienne was obliged to work a sixty-hour week. Once he deliberately cut the palm of his hand and got sick leave.

Uncle Joseph had a better job, working for the railroad, and was married to a piano teacher. As a railway employee, Joseph could travel around the countryside free, buying chickens and rabbits from farmers and reselling them, or giving some to his mother to raise in her courtyard. Madame Sintes decided that Albert had become a man on the day he helped her kill one of their chickens. Etienne agreed that the boy "had courage," compared with big brother Lucien, who had refused to kill the fowl. But Madame Sintes was usually strict: when Albert hurt a finger by getting it pinched in a seat at school and the blood was flowing freely, his grandmother gave him a whipping for disturbing the household.

The family's favorite entertainment was going to the Musset cinema, next door, or the Alcazar, nearby on the rue de l'Union. Albert was embarrassed to have to read aloud the silent film titles for his illiterate mother and grandmother. To cover up, his grandmother would say loudly, "I've left my eyeglasses at home, so you'll have to read them to me."

Although Lucien was a friendly and sociable boy, he was a less gifted student than Albert, but was more talented at soccer. Lucien would look after Albert, sharing boxes of coconut candy with him. At the age of fourteen, Lucien was hired as a messenger at the Ricome wine company, with a starting salary of eighty francs per month.

In 1923, Albert was going to the boys' primary school on the rue Aumerat, a ten-minute walk from the rue de Lyon apartment. Few students played truant or arrived late, and they waited for permission to sit down. It was a typical French school of the Third Republic. In winter, fires were lit in cast-iron stoves. Each wooden desk had an inkwell containing a purple ink, into which the children dipped their Sergent-Major pen nibs. Blackboards, cluttered with white, pink, and blue pieces of chalk, were side by side on the wall with Vidal de La Blache's geographical maps, representing France and its Algerian colony in the same color. The standard world atlas, Schroeder and Galouedec's, colored the entire French empire a uniform light purple. On the classroom walls there were also photographs of the cathedrals of Strasbourg and Notre-Dame de Paris and the Mont-Blanc--parts of a country that to the Algerians of Belcourt seemed like a paradise with its chateaux, kings, and revolutionaries.

Classes in history, geography, and civics hammered into the students the idea of France as a maternal power. In 1923, the second-year courses were run by an established instructor, Louis Germain. Tall and stiff, with precise pronunciation, Germain played the clarinet as an amateur, but he followed the musical score so strictly that some listeners said, "All Germain knows is the metronome markings." The teacher used to slap unruly students and spank their bottoms with what he called his "barley sugar," a fat ruler made of red wood. Unyielding about spelling, punctuation, arithmetic, and composition, Germain would organize contests of mental arithmetic and give twice-monthly slide shows about geography and natural history to his rapt students. A relative free-thinker, he would tell his students that some people practiced no religion at all. As a social progressive, Louis Germain was aware of the Socialist leader Jules Ferry's famous "Letter to Teachers," in which he said that teachers "replace fathers of families." At the end of the trimester, his voice subdued, Germain read aloud in class a novel about trench warfare by Roland Dorgeles, Les Croix de bois, which described bayonet attacks, the wounded, and war's horror. He later told Albert, "I've always considered your poor father as a personal friend," although the men had never met.

At Belcourt, a few young Arabs were admitted into primary school, and in Germain's second-year class, out of thirty-three students, only three were Arabs. Germain wanted Albert to continue his studies into high school, seeing that his student was happy in class, but did not realize how poor he was. He would tell Albert later, "Your pleasure at being in class was always apparent, and your face was so optimistic that looking at it, I never guessed your family's real situation. I only had a clue when your mother came to see me about entering your name on the list of scholarship candidates."

Grandmother was against scholarships for Albert, feeling that he should work for his living the way Lucien did. But with Catherine Helene's encouragement, Germain explained about the boy's skill in reading, writing, and the spoken word, and that the scholarship would pay for a high-school diploma, after which Albert could get a better job.

Albert was a good student, especially in French. Starting in January 1924, Germain, who had lots of free time because he had separated from his wife, gave two free hours of supplementary lessons every day for four students, including Albert, who had ranked first in his class the month before. Once he was a scholarship candidate, Albert was treated with more respect at the apartment on the rue de Lyon. Germain also spoke to Albert on his grandmother's behalf, saying that her bark was worse than her bite.

In school, the boy discovered the world of words, as there were no books at home. On Thursdays and Sundays, when there was no school, Albert would walk by his friend Pierre Fassina's house and the boys would go tree climbing in Essai Park. Young Camus had the reputation of being a brawler: when one schoolmate took him to be Alsatian and called him a boche, an insulting French term for a German, Albert insisted on having a fistfight with the boy and gave him a black eye. Pierre and Albert would roam through the streets, wearing espadrilles with holes in them, cotton pants, and sweaters. In the spring the friends, along with brother Lucien, would attend soccer matches, often preceded by a parade with a marching band.

The working people of Belcourt admired priests less than they did teachers. Albert had been baptized, and was confirmed at the Church of Saint Bonaventura in Algiers, but no one in his family was a churchgoer. There was never any talk of hell, paradise, or purgatory, and when somebody died, Grandmother would say, "Well, he's farted his last...."

Religious observance was limited in Belcourt, but still, most burials were under the auspices of the church. The Algerian parish priests rattled off the catechism, inspiring guilt in their young students. The priests stressed the subject of impurity, that masturbation would cause deafness and sometimes blindness or insanity, too. From the Belcourt point of view, the Catholic Church seemed definitely on the side of the rich.

Madame Sintes did insist, however, that Albert have his first communion before entering high school. When Albert talked during catechism class, he was slapped by the priest, which he remembered far longer than the lesson of the day. After the communion ceremony, wearing a sailor suit and armband, Albert went back to school. Louis Germain later commented, "I remember your coming to class with your communion friends. You were so visibly happy and proud of the costume you were wearing and the special day you were observing that I was sincerely happy at your joy, feeling that if you made your communion, it was because you wanted to...."

The anticlerical leftists in Algiers, who had gained power in 1924, plastered posters around showing Joan of Arc at the stake, being burned by cardinals and monks. The poor folk of Belcourt were not generally observant, and they were suspicious of priests. The Catholics of Spanish origin would celebrate Mardi Gras by burning a priest in effigy. When they passed a priest in the street, people would murmur "Tocaferro"--Touch iron. It was believed that church people brought bad luck. Camus was brought up on the outskirts of a superficial Catholicism. The priests in Algeria spoke of heaven, but on earth they tended to pit their parishioners against one another. To a Spanish congregation in Bab el-Oued, Spanish-language sermons denounced the French in Algeria, claiming that they did not attend mass, nor did they produce enough children. But the young people in Algeria were more concerned with the earth, the sand, the sun, and the sea.

Meet the Author

Born in Paris in 1929, Olivier Todd studied at the Sorbonne and at Cambridge University. He taught for a few years before turning to journalism. He has been a reporter, a columnist, and an editor at Le Nouvel Observateur and L'Express. He has also contributed to the Times Literary Supplement and Newsweek International, and worked for the first French television channel and the BBC.

Todd is the author of numerous books, including novels, essay collections, and biographies. Jean-Paul Sartre endorsed Todd's first published novel and later called him--in jest--his "rebel son." Albert Camus has enjoyed both critical and popular success in France, and has been translated into more than ten languages.

A recognized observer of the French political and literary scene, Todd is currently at work on a new biography of André Malraux. He lives in Paris.

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