Albert Camus was born November 7, 1913, and reared in Algeria, a country exposed to the blistering African sun and the plain by the Mediterranean sea. These roots — the sun and the sea — have spread into all of Camus' writings — the novels, the plays, and the essays. They are a part of his lyricism, his symbolism, and his values. The universe, it seems from his early notebook (Noces), was mother, father, and lover for the young Camus, and from the first, Camus was aware of the paradoxical aspects of his natural world. The sensual free pleasure of swimming and hiking was in continuous contrast to the bare stony earth that made living a matter of poverty and destitution. He was early aware of the absurd condition of humanity's being totally alone in a resplendent universe. This concept is Camus' equivalent of "In the beginning . . ." With this truth, all of his writings sound revolt, for he refused to be deceived by social, religious, or individual submissions that ignored or defied the irreducible truth that humanity alone is responsible for itself, its meaning, and its measure. Camus' writings are a testament to a continuing belief in humanity's exiled but noble condition.
Lucien Camus, Albert's father, was killed in 1914, during World War I's Battle of the Marne, and the year-old child was reared by his deaf mother. She had little money and was apparently a rather joyless and boring companion for her son. It is little wonder that he spent much of his time with athletics, studies, and necessary part-time employment. When he finished school, a university degree seemed the most important challenge available to a poverty-stricken student. Camus was enthusiastic and ambitious about his studies, but he was not able to complete them immediately. In 1930, while he was a student of philosophy at the University of Algiers, he almost died during a bout with tuberculosis, an illness that would periodically afflict him for many years. Then, after his recovery, he was beset by the constant problem of poverty and was forced to support himself for several years as a meteorologist, a police clerk, and a salesman.
During this time, he married and divorced and also joined and left the Communist party. In 1935, a year before he received his degree from the university, he founded The Workers' Theater, a group formed to present plays for Algiers' working population. Before his theater venture ended in 1939, Camus published L'Envers et L'Endroit (Betwixt and Between), essays that deal with man and death in terms of an oblivious universe. They are mood pieces, written in Camus' mixture of irony and lyricism, describing humanity's defenselessness and isolation in a splendid universe whose only rule for us seems to be death. Yet there is an optimism in these essays; it is here that Camus first advocates living as if humans had eternal value. He believes that only in our courageous rebellion to confront ourselves and our world can we begin to create a civilization that can rescue itself from a nihilistic catastrophe.
Between the years 1937 and 1939, Camus wrote book reviews and occasional essays for the Algier-Republicain, a left-wing newspaper. Later he assumed the editorship of the Soir-Republicain, but for only a short time. He was severely critical of the French colonial government and after the newspaper folded, he soon found himself unofficially unwelcome and unable to find a job in the country. Thus in 1940, he left Algeria and went to live in Paris. There he worked for a time with the Paris-Soir, but his journalistic career was once again curtailed. This time the Germans had invaded France.
Camus returned once again to North Africa, where he remarried and began teaching in a private school in Oran. He continued to write and filled several notebooks with sketches and several versions of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, and he also worked on ideas for a new novel, The Plague.
A year later, both The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus were published, and Camus was established as a writer of international importance. The Stranger's Meursault has now become a literary archetype, and the beginning sentences of The Stranger have become synonymous with an absurd or ironic situation. Never before had the public read about a man who was so absolutely honest as Meursault. In fact, his honesty is perhaps his only meritorious quality. Meursault is an anti-hero, an inconspicuous clerk who does not believe in God, but cannot lie. He does believe in going to the movies, swimming, and making love. He is finally beheaded because he murdered an Arab; he is condemned, however, because he seemed indifferent at his mother's funeral. Meursault becomes aware of his freedom and his happiness only after he is imprisoned, a situation similar to that of the imprisoned Oranian citizens in The Plague. He faces death with sensitive and joyous awareness of his last moments and hopes for a vivid end and an angry shouting crowd as a witness.
In the year of The Stranger, 1942, Camus decided to return to France and commit himself to the French Resistance Movement. He enlisted in an organization known as Combat, also the title of the clandestine newspaper he edited during the Occupation. After Paris was liberated in 1944, Camus continued to edit Combat for four years while he published collections of his wartime essays. His plays The Misunderstanding and Caligula were presented during 1944; the latter was as well received as the former was not. In 1945, Camus toured the United States, lecturing and gathering firsthand impressions of the national power that was credited with ending the long war.
His allegory, The Plague, was published in June 1947, and was immediately cited as a major literary work. The critics and the public were unanimous in their praise for this somberly narrated chronicle. As a popular book it had none of the formula gimmicks; it had no intense, romantic plot-line, no fascinating setting, nor even a powerfully drawn characterization of its main character. But to a nation recovering from an enemy occupation, it was an authentic account of months during which only human dignity and survival mattered. Postwar readers were appreciative and sympathetic to this writer who had faithfully, and not melodramatically, recorded the suffering and misery of separation and exile.
In 1949, upon his return to France from a South American tour, Camus became quite ill and went into almost total seclusion, only occasionally publishing collections of more of his political essays. In 1951, when he was recovered, he published an extensive study of metaphysical, historical, and artistic revolt, The Rebel. It was a controversial book and was responsible for breaking the friendship he had with Jean Paul Sartre.
After The Rebel, Camus began translating favorite works of international playwrights. His adaptations were rapidly produced and included Calderón's La Devocion de la Cruz, Larivey's Les Espirits, Buzzati's Un Caso Clinico, Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, and others. More collections of his political essays appeared, plus many prefaces to contemporary writings.
In 1956, a new fictional work appeared, his novel The Fall. The book deals with a successful and admired lawyer who suddenly faces his conscience after he refuses to help a woman drowning in a suicide attempt. The confessions of his fraud and guilt contain precise and penetrating comments about contemporary society. It is not as ambitious or as lengthy as The Plague, but it is as polished a masterpiece as The Stranger.
The following year, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and two years later he was killed in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960. The many eulogistic essays which appeared afterward remarked on the absurdity of his death — its suddenness, its uselessness, and the lack of logic to explain why. Camus, however, was probably more aware of the significance of his individual life than any of his essayists: his meaningless death is the key witness to his body of literature.