A lover of the absurd

 

Albert Camus: A Life by Olivier Todd, trans. Benjamin Ivry Chatto & Windus 435pp, £20 in UK

Albert Camus's contribution to 20th-century thought is his philosophy of the absurd, first defined in two works published in 1942, before he was 30, the novel The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus.

Absurdity, the Nobel Prize winning author said, was not in man, nor in the world, but in their "common presence". Camus often told friends that to die in a car accident was the height of absurdity. The remark was prescient, and the high priest of the absurd was killed when he crashed into a plane tree on the Nationale 5 highway south-east of Paris on January 4th 1960. His friend and publisher, Michel Gallimard, was at the wheel and died five days later.

Camus' Diana-like death at the age of 47 transformed him into a myth, a literary and philosophical guru for generations to come. His physical resemblance to the actor Humphrey Bogart helped. The French writer Olivier Todd's new biography explores three previously neglected aspects of Camus' life: his impoverished childhood, his lifelong battle with tuberculosis, and his love life.

In his preface, Todd notes that until Camus' second wife Francine died in December 1979, "decency imposed a certain reserve" upon biographers. Based on interviews with Camus' mistresses and private correspondence, Todd recounts the great writer's philandering. From his first, brief marriage at the age of 20 to a promiscuous morphine addict, to his conquest of a Danish art student in Paris twenty-four years later, we follow Camus' seemingly unstoppable seduction of his friends' wives, literary women, actresses and others.

Perhaps, as Francine Camus' sister said, "you can't expect Albert to fight against tuberculosis and his passions as well, that's too much to ask". One wonders how Camus, who coughed blood and had difficulty breathing, possessed the energy to write novels, plays and essays, edit newspapers, work in publishing and collect so many lovers. Because he found it difficult to break up, he often carried on several affairs at once; Todd quotes love letters to four mistresses in the month before Camus' death.

Over the 1959 Christmas holidays, spent with Francine and the couple's twin children, Camus told his wife: "You are my sister, you resemble me, but one shouldn't marry one's sister." He had used the analogy of a sister in 1945, when Francine rejoined him in Paris after their wartime separation. Camus had begun a passionate affair with the Spanish-born actress Maria Casares. Don't worry, he told Casares, "Francine is like my sister". But when she learned that Francine was pregnant, Casares broke off with Camus, until they met by chance three years later. For the rest of his life, Casares would be the official mistress. Camus called her "the Unique one" and "the genius of my life".

Francine Camus was hospitalised for depression in 1953, doing nothing but weeping, sleeping and talking about Maria Casares. She broke her pelvis when she attempted suicide by jumping from the window of the clinic. While his wife underwent insulin and electro-shock therapy, Camus grew impatient. "I hope that by autumn it will be over," he said. "And it had better be, as I am tired and can't help her anymore." Despite his crassness, the experience gave him one of the most haunting scenes in his oeuvre, when a young woman throws herself from a Paris bridge as the protagonist of The Fall walks by - and does nothing to save her.

Camus hated being called an existentialist, and wearied of being compared to Jean-Paul Sartre. The two friends split up in a spectacular, public, literary row carried out in the pages of Sartre's magazine Les Temps Modernes in 1952. "My dear Camus," Sartre wrote, "our friendship was not easy, but I shall miss it."

Sartre was angered by Camus' criticism of the Soviet Union and Communism. A few years later, their rift deepened when Camus refused to advocate independence for Algeria.

Translator Benjamin Ivry has made an abysmally bad job of the English version of Todd's biography, consistently mistranslating French words ("engaged", instead of "committed", "salute" instead of "greet", "present" instead of "introduce", to give only a few examples). Ivry also amputated 420 pages of text and footnotes from the original French biography. It is a tribute to Olivier Todd's book that the English version nonetheless holds our attention, and leaves the reader with a craving to reread Camus' masterpieces.

Lara Marlowe is the France and Maghreb correspondent of The Irish Times