Albert Camus was born on 7or 8 November 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria. Both dates are listed in various biographies. His parents were Lucien Camus and Hélèn Sintès. Lucien had been orphaned in Algeria. His parents had been French immigrants seeking a better life in the colonies. Lucien was self-educated. When Albert was born, Lucien was working as a cellerman at a winery.
Unlike Lucien, Hélèn was not French. Her family had moved to Algeria from the Spanish island of Minorca. She suffered hearing loss and a speech impediment. Hélèn was illiterate, relying upon her husband for support.
His father, Lucien, died in 1914, during World War I's Battle of the Marne. Lucien was a member of the First Zouave Regiment. War was to remain a constant throughout Camus' life -- and his literature.
Camus' mother was left to raise her son alone, in extreme poverty. Widowed and nearly deaf, there was little possibility of her earning a reasonable income. She moved the family to Rue de Lyon, in the Belcourt section of Algiers. Belcourt was a crowded, almost third-world neighborhood. The family was forced to move to the region so a grandmother could raise Albert and his older brother. Albert's grandmother was dying of liver cancer, while an uncle living in the apartment was paralyzed. A second uncle also lived with the family. Camus' family represented all human misery and misfortune.
The apartment, near the Arab Quarter of the city, lacked electricity and plumbing. The "facilities" consisted of water jugs and "Turkish toilets" on the balcony. A Turkish toilet is a drain into an open, or minimally covered, public sewer.
According to Camus' accounts, his mother was permanently melancholy. To escape this home life, Camus buried himself in studies and participation in local athletic teams. He distinguished himself in sports as a leader and competitor. In academics, Camus also excelled. When Camus entered the local Belcourt schools, an instructor named Louis Germain noticed young Albert's intellect. The teacher tutored Albert, helping him pass the lycée entrance exams in 1923. A lycée is an exclusive secondary school for students destined to university -- as Albert was.
An important step out of poverty, Camus was accepted into the University of Algiers' school of philosophy. In 1930, his studies were interrupted by severe tuberculosis. The disease took one of his most important possessions -- his strength. As a result of the disease, Camus reduced his studies to a part-time pursuit. Albert would attend lectures at the University of Algiers from 1932 through 1953, never losing his enthusiasm for learning.
Between 1931 and 1935, Camus worked in a string of low-paying jobs, including positions as a police clerk and salesman. He also had a brief marriage during this period, which ended in divorce. Sadly, Camus wanted to be a teacher, but could never pass the medical exam due to his tuberculosis.
While a student at the University, Camus joined and left the Communist Party. According to biographers, Camus joined the Communist Party in 1934, primarily as an anti-Fascist. The Spanish Civil War greatly affected Camus and many others. His stormy relationship with the Communist Party continued throughout his life. "Marxist-Leninist" doctrines did not appeal to Camus, even as a student. His real concern was for the plight of the working class and poor in Algeria and elsewhere.
Marriage added to the complexity of Camus' life. In 1934 he married Simone Hié, the daughter of a successful ophthalmologist. Simone was from Algeria's upper-class and her mother -- the doctor -- supported the newly weds. Unfortunately, Simone was also a drug addict. Camus' marriage ended when he learned Simone was having sex with a doctor in exchange for various drugs.
Camus remained a socialist throughout his life. He founded The Workers' Theater in 1935. The Workers' Theater was intended to present socialist plays to Algiers' working population. Camus hoped to educate the workers, in accordance with his own beliefs. The theater company survived until 1939.
In 1936 the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) was founded with the explicit goal of independence for Algeria and a government representing Muslim concerns. In response to the PCA, Camus joined activities of Le Parti du Peuple Algérien -- a party he considered more "people" oriented. The PCA soon declared Le Parti to be a Fascist organization, which it was not. Camus was placed "on trial" by the Algerian Communist Party and expelled as a "Trotskyist." This experience resulted in Camus becoming anti-Communist for many years. Hypocrisy within the International Communist (Workers) Party was exposed by the Stalin-Laval Pact of 1935, which changed Communist Party goals. Stalin wanted strong allies to fight fascism. France was suddenly "good" and, after some "persuasion," the PCA dropped its call for Algerian independence. Camus was to be forgiven, but he did not forgive.
Between 1937 and 1939, Camus wrote for the Alger-Republicain, a socialist paper. As a reporter, he compiled a detailed account of the lives of poor Arabs in Kabyles. Camus later published a collection of essays on the conditions and ethnic discrimination faced by the Arabs in Actuelles III. In late 1939 and early 1940, he edited another socialist paper, the Soir-Republicain. His editorship lasted only a few short months, as the paper closed in the midst of tensions between Algiers and France.
The period from 1939 through 1942 presents some difficulty to trace accurately. Biographers differ on exact events in Camus' life, so I attempt to present those facts on which there is agreement. It is important to recognize that World War II created a great deal of confusion. Camus was a member of a resistance cell, so not all his activities could be recorded by himself or others. If the order of events in this section are in error, please offer any corrections.
Camus married again in 1940. Francine Faure was a mathematics instructor from Oran.
In 1940, Camus left Algiers for Paris, hoping to establish himself as a reporter in the leftist press. Unfortunately, the German army invaded France, and Camus returned to North Africa. Camus remarried in Africa, and found a teaching position in Oran. Camus was shortly declared a "threat to national security" and "advised" to leave Algeria in March 1940. The political right's rising power in both France and Algeria resulted in the mistreatment of many leftist and pacifists. Camus was a pacifist and wrote openly about avoiding war in Europe. The invasion of France left a terrible impression upon Camus.
Again, Camus traveled to Paris. This marked Camus' Exile. Camus arrived shortly before the German army took Paris and much of northern France. The remnants of the French army were demoralized and, worse, positioned incorrectly to offer any defense of the city. Camus find himself feeling isolated, or estranged, from what he thought was his country. Camus wrote:
Paris is dead. The danger is everywhere. You go home and wait for the alert signal or whatever. I get stopped constantly in the street and asked for my ID: charming atmosphere.
Consider that Camus is a pied-noir. His skin is tanned by the sun or light brown. His accent might be imperfect. Whatever the case, to the "powers" governing Paris, Camus is suspect. What he certainly is not, in their minds, is Parisian. For better or worse, Camus is in Paris briefly before the entire staff of Paris-Soir, the newspaper at which he found work, is relocated to the western port city of Bordeaux to avoid the Nazis.
He travels light, carrying one case with white shirts, ties, toothbrush, and three incomplete manuscripts. These manuscripts were "The Absurds" -- as named by Camus. During the year 1940 he produced some of his greatest essays and short stories. In less than a year, Camus wrote or completed drafts of The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Plague. In addition to these works, Camus filled notebooks with his thoughts on philosophy and politics.
The German army soon reached Paris, forcing Camus and many others to flee for Vichy France. In November 1942 the Allies landed in North Africa, giving Camus some hope the war might end. Camus soon traveled to Saint-Etienn, in Central France. During the winter, his tuberculosis symptoms worsened and his mood sank.
In October, 1943, Camus joined a clandestine resistance cell known as "Combat" -- also the name of the organization's newspaper. "Combat" had been founded in 1942 as an intelligence and sabotage organization. Considered crude leftists and terrorists by General de Gaulle, Combat proved itself dedicated to France during the occupation. As with most operatives, Camus adopted a false identity, "Beauchard," and carried false papers to travel within occupied cities. Camus helped smuggle copies of the paper Combat to the public. Combat was printed in Lyon and distributed in Paris, carrying news of the war.
Camus became editor of Combat in 1943, editing the newspaper for four years. His columns and reports often called upon people to act in accordance with strict moral principals. It was during this period that Camus formalized his philosophy that human life was sacred, no matter how inexplicable existence of life might be. The newspaper moved to Paris in the summer 1944, following the Liberation of Paris. Camus wrote the first Paris edition editorial.
Paris is aflame in a hail of bullets on this August night. In this immense setting of water and stone, all around this river flowing heavily with history, the barricades of freedom are once again being erected. Once more, justice must be bought with men's blood. It is unimaginable that men who for four years have fought in silence and in whole days of bombardments and gunfire will agree to see the forces of resignation and injustice return in any form whatsoever.
World War II brought Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus together; politics eventually drove them apart. Even their friendships with Simone de Beauvoir was not enough to keep the two men united following the rise of Soviet Communism. Only after Camus' death would Sartre again praise his former friend.
During the mid-1940s, this trio of French intellectuals would meet at Café Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain, known as the "The Left Bank." They shared common beliefs: the universe is brutally apart from reason, there is no divinity, and that freedom surmounts a basic despair. Early on Sartre and Camus embraced solidarity/humanism as the guiding value in life. Later, in part due to Camus' rejection of Soviet methods, Sartre would state that Camus had forsaken solidarity as a guiding principal.
Born into poverty, raised by a widowed nearly-deaf mother, Albert Camus was the ideal target of socialist and existential doctrines. Not that such doctrines are incorrect, but Camus' perspective was different from that of other French intellectuals. Experiences produce biases -- and Camus' biases were rooted in poverty and suffering. Camus was in many ways the man Jean-Paul Sartre wanted to be. While Sartre had a mildly difficult childhood, he was never wanting for attention or security. Sartre was drawn to Camus in large part due to this contrast in histories.
Following the war, Camus toured the United States. Camus found that French Existentialism, as promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre, was widely misunderstood as a philosophy of hopelessness. Camus did hold that life was absurd -- defying logical explanation, and ultimately irrational. However, Camus considered life valuable and worth defending. While the American public thought existentialism was devoid of morality, Camus' experiences in Algiers and France had led to a strong ethical system.
In 1944, at the age of thirty-one, Camus was a leading voice of social change. He belonged to no political party and was fiercely independent. His rejection of Marxism led to attacks from the Communists in France and other countries. Camus responded by attempting to form a socialist party of his own. While the political party never matured, it was clear Camus spoke for many French workers.
Camus' twin daughters, Catherine and Jean were born.
Camus succumbed to illness in 1949, a relapse of his tuberculosis accompanied by other difficulties. For two years he remained in seclusion, writing and publishing political essays. Camus recovered in 1951, and published The Rebel, a collection of his thoughts on metaphysical, historical, and artistic rebellion. The book so angered some of his counterparts that he was ostracized by many French intellectuals. It was this work that led to Camus' split with Sartre.
The stress of The Rebel's reception among philosophers and historians led Camus to seek out more relaxing work. He spent the next few years translating his favorite plays. This work as a translator led to successful French-language productions of plays by Larivey, Buzzati, and William Faulkner.
During the 1950s, Camus took on the role of full-time advocate for human rights. He did this despite his break from the French intellectual elite, which in some ways left Camus isolated. He found himself alone, though often writing about the same injustices as Sartre and others.
In his new solitude Camus would never show more solidarity, giving way to the French equation/pun solitaire-solidaire, which he would later employ in one of his short stories. He was active in most of the major causes of his time.
- Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 140
Still disgusted with victory of Franco in Spain decades earlier, Camus resigned from UNESCO in 1952 when it admitted Spain into the organization. Camus could not belong to any organization allowing a Fascist state membership.
In 1953 Camus wrote in support of east Berlin workers who attempted to strike. While other leftists ignored the sins of the Soviet satellite states, Camus was shocked when the state used tanks to end demonstrations. The Communist Party once again proved to Camus that it was anything but communist or socialist in nature. Wrote Camus of the events:
When a worker, somewhere in the world, approaches a tank with his bare fists and cries out that he's not a slave, what are we if we remain indifferent?
- Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 141
Camus' deep affection for France was severely tested by events in the 1950s. Dedicated to human rights, Camus found himself struggling to understand French colonialism -- and its fall. In July 1953, police opened fire on Muslims protesting in Paris. Many were wounded, several killed, by French police. Many Muslims in Paris were Algerian, hoping for a peaceful resolution to colonial control. Most simply wanted, as did Camus, greater autonomy for their homeland. Events such as the police shootings only served to isolate the Muslims and give greater power to radicals.
One of the greatest blows to French pride was the fall of colonial Asia. In 1954, Vietnamese General Giap's army defeated French colonial powers in the "Battle of Dien Bien Phu." After the Vietnamese began to rebel openly, other French colonial holdings begin to follow in armed rebellion. Camus was torn -- he considered himself French first, Algerian second… and he saw the colonies as part of a greater France.
Later, as with many other leftists, Camus found himself aligned with the "right" when the Soviet Union began to use force to control its satellite states. In 1956 Camus and others protested Soviet actions in Hungary.
True to his life-long opposition to capital punishment, Camus defended the infamous American couple, the Rosenbergs, not because they were leftists but because of death penalty imposed by an American court. Camus actually worried that the couple might have spread nuclear weapons -- a technology Camus found deeply troubling. Commenting upon the United States' use of nuclear weapons (6 Aug 1945), Camus wrote:
Mechanized civilization has just reached its highest degree of savagery. There is a certain indecency in celebrating a discovery which above all serves the greatest rage for destruction man has known for centuries.
Following World War II, there was a great call for "justice" throughout most of Europe. In France, the Vichy Purge followed WWII. During the purge traitors and Vichy leaders were summarily tried and executed for crimes against the French people.
Camus attended the trial of Marshal Pétain as both a journalist and out of morbid curiosity. He wanted to know how such a great man could have aided an enemy of the French people. To the surprise of many, Pétain was sentenced to death. The World War I hero, now more than 80 years old, had gone from a French icon to a personification of treachery. Camus and others were relieved when Pétain was pardoned by Charles de Gaulle, who wanted unity after the war.
Many of the French people, even those who had fought in the Resistance, wanted to forget the war. While de Gaulle had led French troops, he wanted to rebuild France more than he wanted revenge. As a result, de Gaulle's government did not continue the Vichy Purge as long or as thoroughly as might be assumed. Once a few major trials and executions had occurred, de Gaulle properly thought the public would be satisfied -- and no more French blood would be shed as a result of the war.
Like his fellow Frenchman, Camus insisted upon justice -- and severe penalties. For the first time in his life, he wondered if the death penalty was a reasonable punishment. Camus attended the trial of a particularly treacherous man and admitted that death seemed almost too good for a traitor. Still, Camus resisted the death penalty and fought his emotions.
In every guilty man, there is some innocence. This makes every absolute condemnation revolting.
After the war, Camus continued to work at the newspaper Combat. For Albert Camus, "journalist" was as prestigious a job description as "novelist" or "playwright." Camus wrote of the sounds and smells of the press room, where the words he had written were typeset and printing plates created. He often spent hours watching the typesetters work with hot lead and the pressmen adjusting the presses while newspapers were printing. Camus realized that newspapers were far more influential than most other forms of writing -- thanks to their larger and loyal audiences.
In 1947, Combat was taken private, which meant it operated for profit. This change did not originally affect content; one reason the paper was privatized was its popularity. Over time, however, the content did shift and editorial policy moderated. Yet Camus' strong journalistic ideals did not change. He always held that news must be what people should and need to know, not what they want to read. Commenting upon the press, in 1957, Camus wrote:
This press, which we hoped would be proud and dignified, is today the same of this unhappy country.
The Algerian situation began to deteriorate more rapidly on 1 November 1954, when members of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) attacked various state assets in Algeria, including military barracks, police offices, and other symbols of French "occupation." Unlike many from the intellectual left in France, Camus did not side with the rebels. Unlike these left-leaning thinkers, Camus was in the unique situation of being from a colony. He considered self native Algerian. Said Camus, "It's easy to be anti-colonialist in the bistros of Marseille or Paris."
Camus started writing for l'Express daily newspaper in 1955. His "beat" included coverage of the Algerian war. His articles about Algeria were later collected into Actuelles: Chronique Algérienne.
Who has capsized all projects of reform for thirty years, if not a parliament elected by the French? Who has closed its ears to the cries of Arab misery… if not the great majority of the French press? And who, if not France, with its disgusting good conscience, has waited until Algeria bleeds to finally realize that she exists?
In February 1956, mass demonstrations by pied-noirs forced France to respond to the unrest in Algeria. Reluctantly, 400,000 French soldiers were stationed in Algeria. The FLN attacks on non-Muslims worsened with the arrival of troops. Unfortunately, yet predictably, the French responsed with torture, mass killings, and a campaign against Muslim fundamentalists.
A despondent Camus concluded there was no stopping the violence, at least not between rebels and the French troops. Camus begged publicly for a "civil" truce in Algeria, asking both sides to "spare the civilian population" from violence. Taking his crusade to the people of Algiers, Camus and others organized a 22 January 1956 public debate. Outside the hall, Muslims and the Front Français de l'Algérie faced off, but without any major incidents. Unbeknownst to him, Camus guarded by members of FLN. After the debate, one Algerian writer called Camus, "Le Colonisateur de Bonne Volonté" -- The Well-Meaning Colonialist.
The last essay written by Camus, "Algérie 1958," supported a "Federation of Peoples" in Algeria. Under Camus' plan, Muslims and pied-noirs would share power in government and Algeria would become an autonomous commonwealth. He had also become convinced that communist were behind much of the unrest. Camus blamed the Soviet Union, Egypt, and Arab states for encouraging Muslim radicals.
Camus escaped the stress of being a political leader through a series of affairs. From 1956 until 1959, Camus translated and directed plays in France. His leading actresses were also his lovers, Maria Casarès and Catherine Sellers.
The Fall was published in 1956, marking Camus' return to novels. The book was well received, bringing Camus back into favor in intellectual circles. The following year, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. While The Fall clearly attracted attention, the Nobel committee sited Camus' essay Réflexions Sur la Guillotine as an influential work on behalf of human rights.
When Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, he was the second youngest to ever receive award. While in Sweden to accept the award, Camus went before students at Stockholm university. An Arab student accused Camus of not caring about the Arabs in Algeria. Camus responded, "I have to denounce blind terrorism in the streets of Algiers, which might one day strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I'll defend my mother before justice."
His comments shocked the left-wing. Just as quickly as The Fall had returned him to favor, these comments isolated Camus again from intellectual circles. Family before justice? Private concerns greater than the common good? These thoughts ran counter to traditional socialist doctrine. Camus knew that most people would defend family above country, but he dared to state publicly that human relationships superceded political theories.
Privately, Camus had worked to help Arabs, saving many from the death penalty. He later said that "mother" in his comments was meant to symbolize Absurd Death -- no more meaningless death in the name of politics was acceptable to Camus. Still, leftists failed to understand. The still held to the belief that sometimes revolution must be violent.
In May 1958, a coup in Algeria, led by right-wing French, temporarily ended the civil unrest. France promised self-determination, assuming the conservative victory meant French rule would continue. Camus planned to campaign against independence... he could never imagine Algeria apart from France.
Before his death, Camus had planned another set of three works. His new theme was to be "love." According to some biographers, Camus also had three lovers in Paris.
It seems almost fitting that Camus died at the pinnacle of his career as a writer. Camus died in a freak automobile accident near Sens, France, on 4 January, 1960. Curiously, Camus had once said there would be no death less meaningful than to die in an automobile accident. He disliked cars, especially driven at high speeds. He was not driving when he died. Among his papers was the novel The First Man, a fictionalized account of his family history. This novel was published in 1995, leading to renewed interest in Camus and his works.
What sets Camus apart from many existentialists and modern philosophers in general is his acceptance of contradictions. Yes, Camus wrote, life is absurd and death renders it meaningless -- for the individual. But mankind and its societies are larger than one person.