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Albert Camus

Albert Camus

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.

L'Étranger

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.

Later Works

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

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). □

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Camus, Albert

Albert Camus

Born: November 7, 1913
Mondovi, Algeria
Died: January 4, 1960
Paris, France

French novelist, essayist, and playwright

The French novelist, essayist, and playwright Albert Camus was the literary spokesman for his generation. His obsession with the philosophical problems of the meaning of life and man's search for value made him well loved by readers, resulting in his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of forty-four.

Childhood

Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria, then part of France. His French father was killed in World War I (191418; a war that involved many European countries, such as Russia, the United States, and areas of the Middle East) when Albert was just one year old. His mother, of Spanish origin, was able to provide a small income and home in a needy neighborhood of Algiers, Algeria, through unskilled labor. His childhood was one of poverty and of sunshine. Life in Algeria left Camus feeling rich because of the temperate climate. Camus said, "I lived in destitution but also in a kind of sensual delight." His Spanish heritage provided him with a self-respect in poverty and a passion for honor. Camus started writing at an early age.

His schooling was completed only with help from scholarships. At the University of Algiers, he was a brilliant student of philosophy (the study of value and meaning in life), focusing on the comparison of Hellenism (ideals associated with Ancient Greece) and Christianity. Camus is described as both a physical and mental athlete. While still a student, he founded a theater and both directed and acted in plays. At seventeen he contracted tuberculosis (a disease that mainly affects the lungs), which kept him from further sports, the military, and teaching jobs. Camus 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.

Albert Camus's writing marks a break with the traditional bourgeois (middle class) novel. He is less interested in psychological (involving the study of the mind) analysis than in philosophical problems in his books. Camus developed an idea of the "absurd," which provides the theme for much of his earlier work: the "absurd" is the gulf between man's desire for a world of happiness, a world which he can understand rationally, and the actual world, which is confused and irrational. The second stage in Camus's thought developed from the firstman should not simply accept the "absurd" universe, but should "revolt" against it. This revolt is not political but in the name of traditional values.

L'Étranger

His first novel, L'Étranger (The Stranger), published in 1942, focuses on the negative aspect of man. 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 expected human emotions. He is a human sleepwalking through life. 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 sentence to death, which he understands about as much as why he killed the Arab. Meursault is absolutely honest in describing his feelings, and it is this honesty that 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 World War II (193945; a war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan), because Germany invaded and occupied France, 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 meaninglessness of life, which is shown in the mythical figure of Sisyphus, who is sentenced for eternity to roll a heavy rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down again. Sisyphus becomes a symbol of mankind and, in his constant efforts, achieves a certain sad victory.

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 three 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. It was in playwriting that Camus felt most successful.

In 1947 Camus published his second novel, La Peste (The Plague). Here, Camus focuses on the positive side of man. In describing a fictional attack of bubonic plague (a highly contagious outbreak of disease that causes many deaths) in the Algerian city of Oran, he again treats the theme of the absurd, represented by the meaningless and totally unearned suffering and death caused by the plague. But now the theme of revolt is strongly developed. Man cannot accept this suffering without a fight. The narrator, Dr. Rieux, explains his ideal of "honesty"preserving his strength of character by struggling as best he can, even if unsuccessfully, against the outbreak of disease. On one level the novel can be taken as a fictional representation of the German occupation of France. It also has a wider appeal, though, as a symbol of the fight against evil and suffering, the major moral problem of human experience.

Later works

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 been a member of the Communist Party (a political party whose members support the idea that the government should control the production and distribution of goods) for one year, afterward maintained a position of political independence from the parties in France. In this book he develops the idea that man should not tolerate the irrationality of the world, while at the same time making a careful distinction between revolt and revolution. Revolution, despite its initial ideals, he sees as something that always ends in a cruelty 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 values of tolerance and moderation. Above all he strongly rejects 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.

In 1957 Camus received the great honor of the Nobel Prize in Literature for his works. In the same year he began to work on a fourth important novel and was also about to become the director of a major Paris theater, when, on January 4, 1960, he was killed in a car crash near Paris. He was forty-six years old. This was a tragic loss to literature, since he had yet to write the works of his full maturity as an artist and a thinker.

For More Information

Lottman, Herbert R. Albert Camus: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.

Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

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Camus, Albert

Albert Camus (älbĕr´ kämü´), 1913–60, French writer, b. Mondovi (now Dréan). Camus was one of the most important authors and thinkers of the 20th cent. While a philosophy student at the Univ. of Algiers (grad. 1936), he formed a theater group and adapted, directed, and acted in plays. He became active in social reform and was briefly a member of the Communist party. He worked as a reporter for an Algiers newspaper, and shortly after his essay Noces [weddings] appeared (1939), he went (1940) to Paris and found work as a journalist. In World War II he joined the French resistance and was principal editor of the underground paper Combat.

Noted for his vigorous, concise, and lucid style, Camus soon gained recognition as a major literary figure. His belief that man's condition is absurd identified him with the existentialists (see existentialism), but he denied allegiance to that group; his works express rather a courageous humanism. The characters in his novels and plays, although keenly aware of the meaninglessness of the human condition, assert their humanity by rebelling against their circumstances.

The essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942, tr. The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955) formulates his theory of the absurd and is the philosophical basis of his novel L'Étranger (1942, tr. The Stranger, 1946, The Outsider, 2013) and of his plays Le Malentendu (1944, tr. Cross Purpose, 1948) and Caligula (1944, tr. 1948). L'Étranger brought him the admiration and friendship of Jean-Paul Sartre, and turned Camus from a journalist into a well-known novelist and intellectual. The essay L'Homme révolté (1951, tr. The Rebel, 1954), dealing with historical, spiritual, and political rebellion, treats themes found in the novels La Peste (1947, tr. The Plague, 1948) and La Chute (1956, tr. The Fall, 1957). Other works include the plays L'État de siège (1948, tr. State of Siege, 1958) and Les Justes (1950, tr. The Just Assassins, 1958), journalistic essays, and stories. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. The last book he published in his lifetime was Chroniques algériennes (1958, tr. Algerian Chronicles, 2013), a group of articles that express conflicted feelings regarding his homeland—supporting Arab political rights but opposing Algerian independence. The first draft of an autobiographical novel, found in a briefcase after his death in a car crash, was published as Le Premier Homme (1994, tr. The First Man, 1995).

See Camus at Combat: Writing 1944–1947, ed. by J. Levi-Valensi (2007); his Notebooks: 1935–1951, (2 vol., tr. 1963–65, repr. 1998) and Notebooks: 1951–1959 (tr. 2008); C. Camus (his daughter), Albert Camus: Solitude and Solidarity (tr. 2012); biographies by H. Lottman (1979) and O. Todd (1997); R. Zaretsky, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010); studies by G. Brée (4th ed. 1972), D. Lazere (1973), L. Braun (1974), P. McCarthy (1982), B. L. Knapp, ed. (1988), D. Sprintzen (1988), H. Bloom, ed. (1989, repr. 2003), P. Thody (1989), D. R. Ellison (1990), J. McBride (1992), C. S. Brosman (2001), and M. Longstaffe (2007).

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Camus, Albert

Camus, Albert

Born in 1913, Albert Camus was a French philosopher, writer, and playwright of Algerian descent. Camus was confronted very early in his life by the contradictions that forged his conception of death. While celebrating the multiple splendours of life and the exuberance of nature, he was struck by an illness (tuberculosis) that had lasting effects throughout his life. This was the beginning of his conception of the absurdity of life, best summarized by the title character of his 1938 play Caligula, who said, "Men die, and they are not happy" (1.4).

Camus was an atheist, and the notions of divinity or life after death were evacuated from his philosophical conception. So, if one cannot find sense in dying, one must invest all of one's energies (despite the apparent absurdity of existence) into action: There is an obligation on humans to actby revolting against things as they are, assuming their freedom, fighting for the values of justice, equality, and brotherhood. This, however, presupposes that one chooses to live; to Camus, as he writes at the very beginning of his essay on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, "There is but one truly philosophical problem and that is suicide" (p. 11). This affirms the liberty that individuals have to dispose of their life as they wish. Camus is not, however, an apologist of suicide. He is a passionate advocate for the freedom of choice. In concluding The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus cannot help but ask the reader to "imagine Sisyphus happy." Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. He died in a car accident in 1960.

See also: Kierkegaard, SØren; Philosophy, Western; Sartre, Jean-Paul

Bibliography

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O'Brien. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Random House, 1966.

Todd, Oliver. Albert Camus: A Life, translated by Benjamin Ivry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

JEAN-YVES BOUCHER

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Camus, Albert

Camus, Albert (1913–60) French novelist, playwright, and essayist. An active figure in the French Resistance, Camus achieved recognition with his debut novel The Outsider (1942), a work permeated with the sense of individual alienation that underlies much of his writing. His later work include the novels The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956), and the essay The Rebel (1951). Camus has been associated with existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd. He received the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature.

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