Absurd majesty

Albert Camus

February 27, 1998

Camus's reputation has worn well on this side of the Channel. Not only is L'Etranger among the most widely-read French books in British schools and universities, it is also one of the most universally enjoyed; and La Peste comes a close second. More adventurous readers will know the theoretical writings which complement the novels, such as Le Mythe de Sisyphe or L'Homme Revolte, and may well have had their interest rekindled by the recent posthumous publication of Camus's last work, Le Premier Homme, in 1994. Only the theatre, paradoxically, since it represented such an abiding passion of the writer's life, has suffered from relative neglect in later years (although both Les Justes and Caligula have enjoyed revivals in Paris). Camus's writing in all these texts is associated with the conceptualisation and exemplification of the absurd, but also with the potential within that term for the presence, first, of a strand of optimism born of lucidity and, subsequently, of humankind's capacity for revolt.

Albert Camus was born in Algeria of French parents of modest means in 1913, and his father died of war wounds the following year. Despite so much of his adult life being spent in Paris, he remained powerfully attached to his birthplace, which he left in 1940. He frequently experienced a sense of exile, longed for the qualities of the Mediterranean South, and indeed spent the last years of his life in Provence, from where he was returning to Paris when he was killed in a car crash in 1960, at the age of 46. His personal life was turbulent: he was dogged by tuberculosis and suffered from periods of acute depression; his first marriage, to a woman addicted to drugs, ended quickly in divorce; and his second, to Francine, endured, in Olivier Todd's interpretation, more as a relationship between brother and sister than husband and wife, shored up by Camus's devotion to his children. His mother, who never left Algeria, survived him. As, or more, important, were his relationships with a succession of mistresses, most significantly with the actresses Maria Casar s and Catherine Sollers. His public activities throughout his life were divided between creative writing, political engagement, journalism, the theatre (as playwright, director and actor) and publishing, and his close relationship with members of the influential Gallimard dynasty, on whose committee of readers he sat, is a constant of this account.

Due attention is given by Todd to the gradual emergence of all the major projects, spanning as they do the genres of novel, essay and drama from the outset. The primary emphasis of this study nonetheless remains biographical. It would not be the book to consult for an introduction to the specifics of Camus's thinking. Equally little is said about the magisterially varied stylistic qualities of his writing (unless it is these which are deemed in the English-language version to constitute "material not of sufficient interest to the British and American general reader"), and consequently little attention is paid to the brilliant series of short stories, L'Exil et le Royaume, following whose publication, in 1957, their author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On the other hand we learn a good deal about his multifaceted relations with the impressive array of writers and thinkers who were his seniors or contemporaries, evoking an intense and in some respects glamorous intellectual milieu, yet without the intrusion of too great an element of left-bank pittoresque: Andre Malraux and Andre Gide, his first literary heroes; novelists such as Roger Martin du Gard and Francois Mauriac; the poets Francis Ponge and Rene Char; and of course Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. It was with the last of these that he so memorably and irredeemably clashed in 1952 over a review of L'Homme Revolte in Les Temps Modernes, after a long period of strained friendship, with Camus unhappy in the perceived role of the "number two existentialist". (On the other hand, he had little time for what he saw as the outdated poetic movement of surrealism, or for its principal exponent, Andre Breton.) Camus joined the Communist Party as a young man in Algeria, only to be expelled in 1937, and was a courageous member of the Resistance during the second world war, most notably as editor of the newspaper Combat. A good deal of attention is accorded to his complex and superficially surprising relationship with the Algerian independence movement, showing how his sympathies emerged above all for the cause of the poor whites, his own class, rather than for more hard-line nationalist aspirations. As such he remained "very much a European from Algeria", a stance which alienated him from the mainstream of leftwing opinion.

Indeed Camus suffered criticism from members of the philosophical left on the grounds that he was either insufficiently philosophical or insufficiently left. Yet paradoxically it was his chief antagonist Sartre who, posthumously, best situated his intellectual temperament, writing in his obituary of Camus's "stubborn humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual". He comes across as a person of charm, intelligence and integrity, but above all as an eclectic thinker who refused to be constrained by orthodoxies, even, indeed especially, by those to which he felt most strongly drawn. Perhaps his political philosophy is best encapsulated in the title of his collection of essays of 1945, Ni Victimes ni Bourreaux: he felt unable to side with either the USSR or the US at the outbreak of the cold war; and yet his adoption of what he saw as legitimate causes was passionate, and he would write on behalf of individuals, be it in Hungary or Algeria, who were threatened with the death penalty.

Todd, himself a distinguished French man of letters, is supremely well placed to write this substantial authorised biography, at an appropriate distance from Camus's death, and with most of his writing now available in print. He makes the most use in so doing of the correspondence and Carnets, and engages with his subject with an adept balance between analysis and admiration. The result is both readable and subtle; it conveys a fine sense of its restless hero and of his intellectual context, as well as offering a powerful evocation of the places and people with whom he was involved. It should be noted, however, that the English version is "abridged and edited"; thus sections of the narrative are deleted, and the endnotes are either suppressed or incorporated into the text. The translation is not only heavily American in idiom, it is often inappositely folksy, and contains questionable treatment in particular of low-register French, resulting in a sprinkling of obscenities which do not correspond to their less violently colloquial equivalents. French syntax and lexis on occasion show through the surface of the English writing; some titles of contemporary works are translated, others are not; and accentuation of words left in the original is frequently approximate (thus St-Germain-des-Pr s (sic) throughout). The serious student of Camus should not hesitate to prefer the French version, published, appropriately enough, by Gallimard.

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Albert Camus: A Life

Author - Olivier Todd
ISBN - 0 7011 6062 4
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 435

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