The French novelist, essayist, and playwright Albert Camus (1913-1960) was obsessed with the philosophical problems of the meaning of life and of man's search for values in a world without God. His work is distinguished by lucidity, moderation, and tolerance.
Albert Camus may be grouped with two slightly older French writers, André Malraux and Jean Paul Sartre, in marking a break with the traditional bourgeois novel. Like them, he is less interested in psychological analysis than in philosophical problems in his books. Camus developed a conception of the "absurd," which provides the theme for much of his earlier work: the "absurd" is the gulf between, on the one hand, man's desire for a world of happiness, governed by reason, justice, and order, a world which he can understand rationally and, on the other hand, the actual world, which is chaotic and irrational and inflicts suffering and a meaningless death on humanity. The second stage in Camus's thought developed from the first—man should not simply accept the "absurd" universe, but should "revolt" against it. This revolt is not political but in the name of the traditional humane values.
Camus was born on Nov. 7, 1913, at Mondovi in Algeria, then part of France. His father, who was French, was killed at the front in 1914; his mother was of Spanish origin. His childhood was one of poverty, and his education at school and later at the University of Algiers was completed only with help from scholarships. He was a brilliant student of philosophy, and his major outside interests were sports and drama. While still a student, he founded a theater and both directed and acted in plays. Having contracted tuberculosis, which periodically forced him to spend time in a sanatorium, he was medically unable to become a teacher and worked at various jobs before becoming a journalist in 1938. His first published works were L'Envers et l'endroit (1937; The Wrong Side and the Right Side) and Noces (1938; Festivities), books of essays dealing with the meaning of life and its joys, as well as its underlying meaninglessness.
At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 Camus was unfit for military service; in the following year he moved to Paris and completed his first novel, L'Étranger (The Stranger), published in 1942. The theme of the novel is embodied in the "stranger" of its title, a young clerk called Meursault, who is narrator as well as hero. Meursault is a stranger to all conventional human reactions. The book begins with his lack of grief on his mother's death. He has no ambition, and he is prepared to marry a girl simply because he can see no reason why he should not. The crisis of the novel takes place on a beach when Meursault, involved in a quarrel not of his causing, shoots an Arab; the second part of the novel deals with his trial for murder and his condemnation to death, which he understands as little as why he killed the Arab. Meursault is absolutely honest in describing his feelings, and it is this honesty which makes him a "stranger" in the world and ensures the verdict of guilty. The total situation symbolizes the "absurd" nature of life, and this effect is increased by the deliberately flat and colorless style of the book.
Unable to find work in France during the German occupation, Camus returned to Algeria in 1941 and finished his next book, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), also published in 1942. This is a philosophical essay on the nature of the absurd, which is embodied in the mythical figure of Sisyphus, condemned eternally to roll a heavy rock up a mountain, only to have it roll down again. Sisyphus becomes a symbol of mankind and in his constant efforts achieves a certain tragic greatness.
In 1942 Camus, back in France, joined a Resistance group and engaged in underground journalism until the Liberation in 1944, when he became editor of the former Resistance newspaper Combat for 3 years. Also during this period his first two plays were staged: Le Malentendu (Cross-Purpose) in 1944 and Caligula in 1945. Here again the principal theme is the meaninglessness of life and the finality of death. Two more plays, L'État de siège (The State of Siege) and Les Justes (The Just Assassins), followed in 1948 and 1950, and Camus was to adapt seven other plays for the stage, the sphere of activity where he felt happiest.
In 1947 Camus brought out his second novel, La Peste (The Plague). Here, in describing a fictional attack of bubonic plague in the Algerian city of Oran, he again treats the theme of the absurd, represented by the meaningless and totally unmerited suffering and death caused by the plague. But now the theme of revolt is strongly developed. Man cannot accept this suffering passively; and the narrator, Dr. Rieux, explains his ideal of "honesty"—preserving his integrity by struggling as best he can, even if unsuccessfully, against the epidemic. On one level the novel can be taken as a fictional representation of the German occupation of France, but it has a wider appeal as being symbolical of the total fight against evil and suffering, the major moral problem of human experience.
Camus's next important book was L'Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel). Another long essay, this work treats the theme of revolt in political, as well as philosophical, terms. Camus, who had briefly been a member of the Communist party in the 1930s, afterward maintained a position of political independence, from both the left and right-wing parties in France. In this book he develops the point that man should not tolerate the absurdity of the world but at the same time makes a careful distinction between revolt and revolution. Revolution, despite its initial ideals, he sees as inevitably ending in a tyranny as great or greater than the one it set out to destroy. Instead, Camus asks for revolt: a more individual protest, in tune with the humane values of tolerance and moderation. Above all he denounces the Marxist belief that "history" will inevitably produce a world revolution and that any action committed in its name will therefore be justified. For Camus, the end can never justify the means. L'Homme révolté was widely discussed in France and led to a bitter quarrel between Camus and Sartre, who at this time was maintaining the necessity of an alliance with the Communists.
In the early 1950s Camus turned back to his earlier passion for the theater and published no major book until 1956, when La Chute (The Fall) appeared. This novel consists of a monologue by a former lawyer named Clamence, who mainly sits in a sordid waterfront bar in Amsterdam and comments ironically on his life. Successful and worldly, he has undergone a moral crisis—the "fall" of the title—after failing to help a young woman who commits suicide by jumping off a bridge in Paris; afterward he gives up his career and moves to Amsterdam, where he lives as what he calls a "judge-penitent." The guilt he feels because of this "fall" makes him see and describe the whole of human life in terms of satirical pessimism.
In 1957 Camus received the great distinction of the Nobel Prize for literature for his works, which "with clear-sighted earnestness illuminate the problems of the human conscience of our time." In the same year he published a collection of short stories, L'Exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom). Later he began to work on a fourth important novel and was also about to become director of a major Paris theater when, on Jan. 4, 1960, he was killed in a car crash near Paris, at the age of 46, a tragic loss to literature since he had yet to write the works of his full maturity as artist and thinker. Since his death important volumes of Carnets (Notebooks) have appeared.
Further Reading on Albert Camus
There are a number of valuable studies of Camus's work: Robert de Luppé, Albert Camus (1957; trans. 1966); Thomas Hanna, The Thought and Art of Albert Camus (1958); Germaine Brée, Camus (1959; rev. ed. 1964); John Cruickshank, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt (1959); Philip Thody, Albert Camus: 1913-1960 (1961); Adele King, Albert Camus (1964); and Emmett Parker, Albert Camus: The Artist in the Arena (1965). Donald R. Haggis, Albert Camus: La Peste (1962), is a perceptive short study. Germaine Brée edited a volume of extremely useful articles, Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962). Recommended for general critical background are Henri Peyre, French Novelists of Today (1955; new ed. 1967), and John Cruickshank, ed., The Novelist as Philosopher: Studies in French Fiction, 1935-1960 (1962).