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
Diagnosed with TB
Camus was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 17, and was heart-broken at having to give up his position as goalkeeper on the University of Algiers football team. He suffered relapses of TB throughout his life.
Camus’s lifelong passion for the theatre began in 1936, when he founded the Théâtre du Travail in Algiers. Two of his four long-term mistresses, Maria Casares and Catherine Sellers, later acted in his plays in Paris. Asked why he wrote and directed theatre, Camus answered: “Simply because a theatre stage is one of the places in the world where I am happy . . . Through the theatre, I escape from what bores me in my profession as a writer.”
In his novels, plays and essays, he struggled to find meaning in meaninglessness. Though he showed lust for life and a Mediterranean oneness with nature, happiness was an unrelenting quest. “Heroism is accessible,” he wrote. “Happiness is more difficult.”
In 1943, Camus met Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at a rehearsal of Sartre’s play, The Flies. From the Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the three dominated French intellectual life for the following decade.
In his 1951 book The Rebel, Camus denounced the totalitarianism of the Soviet bloc. Sartre was a pro-Soviet communist who labelled anti-communists “dogs”. Sartre commissioned an underling to write a scathing review of The Rebel in Les Temps modernes, the influential magazine he edited. Camus protested in a letter to “Monsieur le Directeur”, to which Sartre replied with his own 19-page epistle. Their rupture was complete. In her 1954 book The Mandarins, de Beauvoir maligned Camus as a repugnant character and collaborationist.
Camus had always maintained that he did not adhere to existentialism, the philosophy invented by Sartre. Asked later if he was a left-wing intellectual, he replied, “I’m not sure of being an intellectual. As for the rest, I am for the left, despite myself and despite the left.”
Also in 1954, Camus’s wife Francine, who suffered terribly from his infidelities, attempted suicide by jumping from a window. In The Fall, perhaps Camus’s finest novel, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a lawyer who has specialised in defending noble causes, recounts his life during a night-time stroll through Amsterdam, whose concentric canals recall the circles of Dante’s hell. Clamence/Camus admits he cannot pass a pretty woman in the street without turning to look at her. He is haunted by the memory of a woman who threw herself from a bridge in Paris, whom he did not try to save.
During the 1954-1962 Algerian war, Camus refused to chose between the Algerian Arabs, whose rights he had often defended, and his own people, the European pieds noirs.
His calls for non-violence and a federal Algeria where they would live in peace angered both sides. After his Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden, he was accosted by a young Algerian to whom he said, in a fit of pique, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice”. The quote was misinterpreted as support for l’Algérie française.