November 7, 2013

Happy 100th birthday, Albert Camus


Albert Camus in 1957

November 7 is the 100th anniversary of Albert Camus’ birth. The author of The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall, among others, Camus remains a huge presence in French literature, and the milestone is being celebrated around the world. (Except probably in Algeria, but more on that later). At points in his life, Camus was a footballer, a journalist, an author, a colonialist, and a Communist, but not, in his mind, an existentialist.

Camus was born and raised in Algeria, then a French colony, in less than fortunate circumstances. Ray Cavanaugh writes on Philosophy Now, “He was born on November 7, 1913, into a largely illiterate family, and raised in the slums of Algiers. Albert’s mother, Catherine Sintès, came from a poor family that had migrated to Algeria from the Balearic Islands of Spain. His father, Lucien Camus, was a native French-Algerian who labored as a farmhand, belonging to a class of agricultural workers known as pieds-noirs for their muddy feet.”

Camus’ father died in 1914, in WWI’s Battle of the Marne, and Albert and his mother, who was illiterate and nearly deaf, struggled to survive, and even had to give up their home. Cavanaugh writes vividly of how difficult this was:

Albert and his mother were forced to move into a three-room apartment in Algiers, where he joined his grandmother and two uncles, all of whom were illiterate. In this setting, without running water or electricity, the indigent young Albert suffered from malnourishment and ongoing physical abuse from his “brutal, authoritarian grandmother.” Her tyrannical personality might well have influenced his later crusade against totalitarian regimes.

Camus excelled in school, and with the help of Louis Germain—a teacher Camus wrote about in The First Man—he received a scholarship that allowed him to move on to high school. Camus then entered the University of Algiers, and was a generally happy student, but at 17, a promising soccer (football) career was cut short when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis:

Camus’ years of teenage exuberance were cut short when, at the age of 17, doctors diagnosed tuberculosis. Constantly short of breath, he was forced to abandon a promising soccer career, and would suffer relapses throughout his life. Despite the often-debilitating illness, he graduated in 1936 from the University of Algiers with a philosophy degree. After a stint of uninspiring office work, Camus was hired in 1938 as a reporter for a new daily newspaper, the Alger Républicain, covering everything from murder trials to a famine in the mountain region of Kabylia, 50 miles east of Algiers. That exposé of government neglect infuriated colonial authorities. They shut down the paper and blacklisted Camus, making him unemployable as a journalist.

With his athletic career sidelined, and work as a journalist impossible in Algeria, Camus moved to France on the eve of the occupation in 1940; he joined the resistance, and eventually, the Communist Party.

Olivia Snaije writes in Publishing Perspectives about the next phase of his life.

During the 1940s and 50s he published his work, non-fiction and fiction, among which Le Mythe de Sisyphe(The Myth of Sisyphus), L’Homme Révolté (The Rebel), and his best-selling novels, L’Étranger (The Stranger) and La Peste (The Plague). Camus was a leading voice for social change and the French working class, but fell out with the left wing intelligentsia and modern philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, following his rejection of communism and later on the subject of the French-Algerian war. Camus positioned himself neither for nor against independence, denouncing a “reign of terror” on both sides. Instead, he called for peace talks, favoring a federation that would include a mixed population of Algerian, French and other ethnicities, with equal rights for all.

Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, for “his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” His life was tragically cut short when he died in a car accident at age 46.

At Smithsonian Magazine, Joshua Hammer has written “Why is Albert Camus Still A Stranger in His Native Algeria?” Visiting the Algerian settings of Camus’ youth, Hammer investigates the author’s colonialism and how it affected his legacy in Algeria.

At The Telegraph, Jim White has written of Camus’ years as a goalkeeper. At The Guardian, Geoff Dyer considers Camus, the hero.

And here, in its entirety, is Camus’ banquet speech upon receiving his Nobel Prize, three years before his death.

For more than twenty years of an insane history, hopelessly lost like all the men of my generation in the convulsions of time, I have been supported by one thing: by the hidden feeling that to write today was an honour because this activity was a commitment – and a commitment not only to write. Specifically, in view of my powers and my state of being, it was a commitment to bear, together with all those who were living through the same history, the misery and the hope we shared.


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.