The Accidental Philosopher

Whether an Algerian-born street rat, a metaphysical quixoticist, or the James Dean of writers, the real Albert Camus steps forward in a new biography.

"A cigarette dangles between the lips," wrote Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay on Albert Camus in The New York Review of Books, "whether he wears a trench-coat, a sweater, an open shirt, or a business suit. It is in many ways an almost ideal face: boyish, good-looking but not too good-looking, lean, rough, the expression both intense and modest. One wants to know this man."

Now, finally, with French journalist Olivier Todd's Albert Camus--A Life (Knopf), we may feel that we do. In the 36 years since his death, Camus has almost taken on the aspect of a rock star, the Jim Morrison (or, considering he was killed in a car crash, the James Dean) of serious writers. In the early '70s, posters with the legend "In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer" (from L'Été) shared wall space with Jane Fonda and Jimi Hendrix. In the '80s, the Cure caused a minor ruckus with the song "Killing an Arab," inspired by an incident in Camus's best-known novel, The Stranger. And--talk about the absurd--a few weeks ago while watching an episode of the cartoon series Madeline with my six-year-old daughter, I was startled to see a nun taking French school children on a literary tour of Paris and stopping at a cafe frequented by "Monsieur Albert Camus, author of L'Etranger." (A cartoon Meursault is shown, behind bars, wondering, "Who am I? What am I? Why am I here?") One can't help but believe that Camus, who enjoyed The Big Sleep and was pleased to hear that Americans thought he looked like Humphrey Bogart, would have been amused at his elevation to pop icon.

Oddly enough, the more Camus's fame has solidified, the hazier the picture of Camus, the man, has become. As Todd points out, Camus's own books do little to bring him into focus. "I've used the Carnets," Todd writes in the preface, "but sometimes I feel that Camus wrote them with posterity looking over his shoulder, not the way Gide wrote his succulent Journals, but rather with the discretion of Johnson explaining himself to Boswell." Years ago, it was assumed that Camus's fiction, particularly The Fall, was highly autobiographical. It now seems that Camus was merely doing some selective borrowing from his own experiences. "The idea," he once wrote, "that every writer... portrays himself in his books is one of the puerilities that Romanticism has bequeathed us. A man's works often describe his longings or temptations, and almost never his own true story."

Nothing written on Camus to date has seemed like his own true story. Herbert Lottman's admirable 1979 biography, Albert Camus, gave us the facts of the life but animated it with little of Camus's spirit. French critics Albert Maquet and Germaine Bree and the English writer Philip Thody wrote useful studies of Camus's work presented against sketchy backdrops of his age. Patrick McCarthy and Conor Cruise O'Brien gave us self-serving books that criticized Camus for not seeing the complex political issues of his time as clearly as they did. Todd's is the first full-length treatment of Camus written with a sympathy for French culture, and its lack of ideological bias is refreshing.

Some of Todd's conclusions on Camus sound radical in short form, but most won't come as surprises to careful readers of Camus's work. For instance, no one who has read The Myth of Sisyphus and Sartre's Being and Nothingness needs to be told that Camus was never really an existentialist, though Camus continues to be lumped with that school whenever a journalist is stuck for a handle. Camus was mistrustful of systematic philosophies in general, and Sartre's in particular. He "saluted the powerful literary originality of Le Mur and La Nausee," Todd writes, "but criticized their metaphysical and moral baseness." For Camus, a belief in the absurdity of existence was a fact which, once accepted, should be quickly superceded.

Better than any book to date, Albert Camus--A Life fixes Camus's unique position in the French intellectual tradition. Camus, Todd argues, was never a philosopher in the technical sense. Instead, as Sartre wrote in a generous obituary, Camus was "the present heir of that long line of moralists whose work perhaps constitutes what is most original in French letters." Having made this point, Todd goes on to demolish the notion that Camus's lack of a rigorous philosophical attitude in some way diminishes his importance as a writer. "He contributed to philosophical awareness," writes Todd, "by being opposed to systematic thinking.... Not being a philosopher did not prevent him from being a stimulating thinker."

That no one has previously succeeded in reconstructing the world that shaped Camus's thought is due in large part to the fact that it no longer exists--at least not as Camus knew it. The Algeria of the French "Pied Noir," the poor, working-class grandchildren of the first French immigrants, had practically disappeared by the time of Camus's death (to call these people colonizers, in a modern imperialistic sense, hardly seems fair). Nearly four decades after the Algerian revolt, passions have cooled to where a more objective study of Camus's background is possible.

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