Albert Camus

By Olivier Todd

“The people who create,” by which Albert Camus, writing in 1940, meant people like himself, “are almost always men of action.”

The comment goes a long way to describe the short but busy life of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Killed in a car accident in 1960, Camus had risen from desperately poor roots as a war orphan in French Algeria, through working as a journalist for Resistance newspapers during the Occupation, to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.

It was a writer’s life to be sure, but also the life of a man of action. This new biography – fast-paced and crowded with famous names – is testimony to the richness of its subject.

If it is surprisingly uncritical (on both the personal and the literary level), that, too, seems to flow naturally from an examination of a man of “endearing human warmth and goodness” whose work successfully combined metaphysical depth with popular appeal.

Camus often protested that he was not a philosopher, but he was an heir of the Enlightenment, which made him both a humanist and a revolutionary. Central to most of his work is a spirit of revolt against repressive systems (the Church, the totalitarian state) that he saw as hateful and absurd. That revolutionary spirit is sadly lacking today, but for Camus being an outsider still meant something.

Which is perhaps one reason why he has never gone out of style. Indeed, books like L’Etranger and La Peste have only gained in relevance over the years. In a recent French survey Camus was considered the 20th century author who interested readers the most. Now, thanks to Olivier Todd, they have a chance to learn something more about the man.

Picky readers will have no trouble finding things to complain about. First of all, this is not only a translation (by Benjamin Ivry), but an abridgement. The translator’s note informs us that “some material not of sufficient interest to the American general reader has been omitted to improve the narrative flow.” Unfortunately, the narrative does not flow. In addition, scholarly types will be disappointed to find that the notes have been left out and the index fails to be comprehensive. For example, one thing I found interesting is that Camus despised Celine’s Mort a Credit, but neither Celine’s name nor the name of his book has a reference.

But while these are annoying points they do not detract greatly from the whole. Overall, I was impressed with the work Todd has done. He respects his subject, has obviously done a great deal of research, and mixes opinion well with objectivity. He also has a rare sense of fun. Describing Camus’s reputation as a ladies man, for example, Todd refers to how he treated women “the way a bombardier pilot treats a target site: he would strike and, mission accomplished, he would get away quickly.”

Camus’s lungs were in such poor condition there was never any question of his living to be an old man. The last 10 years of his life were particularly difficult as his health worsened, his marriage broke down, and he became the whipping boy for the French left wing over his stand on the Algerian crisis. It also seems clear that his finest work was behind him.

And yet his death at the age of 46 was far too young.

Review first published December 27, 1997.


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