How absurd: the world as Albert Camus saw it
The writer, always his own man, refused to take sides on Algeria and was an anti-Soviet leftist even though it led to a rupture with fellow intellectual Sartre
French author and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) on a terrace outside his Paris office in 1957. Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
That Camus became one of the finest writers of the 20th century and a Nobel laureate is something of a miracle. The writer was born 100 years ago, on November 7th, in a remote corner of colonial Algeria, where his father was employed as a labourer in a vineyard. When the first World War started, Lucien Camus joined a Zouave infantry regiment. He was killed weeks later, at the Battle of the Marne.
Camus’s mother, Catherine, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, was half-deaf and suffered from a speech impediment. She cleaned houses to support her two sons. The family kept the piece of shrapnel that killed Lucien in a biscuit tin in their two-room flat in Belcourt, a working-class district of Algiers. The flat had no bathroom, heat or plumbing.
His brother worked full time as an errand boy from the age of 14. The same fate would have befallen Albert if his teacher, Louis Germain, had not persuaded Camus’s grandmother to let him try for a scholarship to the lycée. Germain gave Camus two hours of private lessons daily, free of charge. In December 1957 Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to his former teacher.
Despite extreme hardship, Camus remembered his childhood fondly. “I was born poor and without religion, under a happy sky, feeling harmony, not hostility, in nature. I began not by feeling torn, but in plenitude,” he wrote in 1948.
Camus recounted his childhood in an unfinished autobiographical novel The First Man, which remained unpublished for 34 years after his death in 1960. “For you who could never read this book,” was the handwritten dedication to his illiterate mother.
Camus planned his oeuvre in three successive stages: the Absurd; Revolt, which he saw as salvation from the Absurd; and Love. Shortly before his death, he said he had completed only a third of his oeuvre. Though he had written extensively on the Absurd and Revolt, he barely broached the subject of Love. The First Man, a moving paean to his silent, long-suffering mother, is all we know of what Camus would have written of love.
In his male friendships, Camus seemed to search for the father he never knew. On the advice of his philosophy professor in Algiers, Jean Grenier, he briefly joined the Algerian communist party. He was expelled after a year, and his subsequent membership of the French communist party lasted scarcely longer. “I’m not cut out for politics, because I’m incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary,” he wrote later.
Yet Camus is often described as the moral conscience of his generation. He never forgot his Spanish blood, and was a lifelong opponent of Franco’s dictatorship. During the second World War, he joined the Combat Resistance group, whose newspaper he edited in Paris.
Camus was one of the first western intellectuals to condemn the American bombing of Hiroshima. In a Combat editorial published on August 8th, 1945, he wrote of “the terrifying perspectives opened up to humanity”. He campaigned against capital punishment. The Nobel committee praised Camus’s “important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times”.