Complex Life of Camus Defies Traditional 'Existentialist' Label

ALBERT CAMUS: A LIFE

By Olivier Todd. Trans. from the French by Benjamin Ivry

Alfred A. Knopf

428 pp., $30

Albert Camus produced a handful of books that came to serve as beacons to 20th-century readers looking for meaning in a world that seemed increasingly "absurd." 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 novel "La Nause" ("Nausea") in 1938: "To observe that life is absurd is not an end, but a beginning."

When Camus was killed in an automobile accident in January l960, he had attained the kind of international renown that had won him the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature. But his reputation, particularly among French intellectuals, had fallen into a recession.

Camus's previous biographers, Herbert Lottman and Patrick McCarthy, were English-speaking writers. Published in France in 1995, Olivier Todd's "Albert Camus: A Life" is apparently the first biography of Camus by a Frenchman. Drawing on previously untapped sources, it is sprinkled with lively quotes from Camus's journals, correspondence, and other writings.

Ever since the publication of his "L'Homme rvolt," 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.

Camus responded, "One doesn't decide the truth of an idea according to whether it is left- or right-wing, and even less by what the left or right wing decides to make of it."

Born in Algiers in 1913 to a working-class family, Camus was briefly a member of the Communist Party. In France during World War II, he joined the Resistance, serving as editor in chief of the Resistance newspaper Combat.

Published in the midst of World War II, Camus's novel "L'Etranger" ("The Stranger") and his essay "Le Mythe de Sisyphe" ("The Myth of Sysiphus") set forth the plight of the human heart confronted with a seemingly indifferent universe.

His subsequent novel, "La Peste" ("The Plague," 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. His post-war nonfiction book "L'Homme rvolt" (1951) examined the dangerous tendency of revolutions to become tyrannies. And in his scathingly self-critical novel "La Chute" (1956), Camus turned his moral searchlight on a character very like himself.

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, where his mother and other family members still lived, 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.

"Though I can understand and admire a fight for liberation, I have only disgust for a killer of women and children," he wrote. Nor did Camus support the violent counterrevolutionary movement against the FLN. Indeed, as Olivier Todd shows in his biography of the man, Camus personally intervened with the French authorities to save the lives of individual Arab revolutionaries who had been condemned to death. Camus's refusal to take sides in this dispute, particularly his refusal to endorse the FLN, set him at odds with prevailing left-wing opinion. Indeed, at the time of his death, his wife decided it would be too risky to publish his last novel, a poignant, quasi-autobiographical account of a poverty-stricken, fatherless boy growing up in French Algeria in the years following World War I. It was 35 years before this novel, "The First Man," was finally published, thanks to the efforts of Camus's children.

The English version of the Todd biography has been abridged, presumably to make it short enough for the attention spans of Anglophone readers.

Read not only in translation, but in abridged form, the work becomes more difficult to evaluate fairly. Is the choppiness one detects an innate feature of Todd's narrative style or merely the result of having parts chopped out? Only those who have read the original can answer this question.

On the credit side, certainly, is this biographer's attitude toward his subject: admiring and appreciative without lapsing into hero worship. Although Todd is sympathetic when discussing Camus's faults and peccadilloes, he does not merely dismiss or excuse them.

But Todd's analysis of Camus's ideas, works, and character, while essentially on target, seem to lack depth and consistency. (Or perhaps vital parts of them are lying somewhere on the editorial scrap heap?)

Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming of this book is that it ends with Camus's death, with no mention of what happened to his wife, his children, his mistresses, or his literary reputation in the immediate aftermath. If Todd has succeeded in making us partisans of this flawed yet courageous man, he should not have deprived us of the continuing story of his influence.

For all its shortcomings, however, this is a very readable book. The biographer, clearly, is engaged by his subject and his book conveys a sense of that engagement.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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