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.

Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, near Algeria, on November 8, 1913. He never knew his father, who was killed in World War I. Young Camus grew up in abject poverty, and though he proved to be a fine student, his academic advancement was hampered by a grandmother who, like many of her people, was not so much anti-intellectual as non-. She felt, no doubt with some justification, that Albert should have to work for a living like his older brother Lucien, who at age 14 took work as a messenger boy. Camus had the good fortune to be sent to a boys' primary school where an experienced teacher, Louis Germain, took him under his wing and gave him hours of free supplementary lessons. (Many years later, Camus repaid the kindly instructor by portraying him in his last novel, The First Man, though neither author nor subject lived to see it in print.)

"He wasn't a boy who was made for all that he tried to do," Jean-Paul Sartre, with uncanny insight, told his own biographer John Gerassi. "He should have been a little crook from Algeria, a very funny one, who might have managed to write a few books, but who mostly remains a crook. Instead of which, you had the impression that civilization had been stuck on top of him and he did what he could with it..." That Camus didn't wind up a professional, good-natured French-Algerian street rat may have been related to his contraction of tuberculosis while in his teens. He never completely rid himself of the disease, which probably would have killed him before age 50 even if he had survived the automobile accident. Like other famous consumptives such as the gambler Doc Holliday and country singer Jimmie Rogers, Camus adopted a fatalistic attitude toward life tinged with a sardonic humor; already intellectually precocious, the disease made him emotionally mature.

Many other factors conspired to give Camus his unique outlook on life and existence: his intense love for his quiet, unlettered mother; his classical French education; his instinctive love for the Greek philosophers and poets (in place of the German philosophers who influenced most of his French contemporaries) with whom he felt a Mediterranean kinship. But none of these was a stronger influence than the sun and sea of his native Algeria, which gave Camus the vision of the invincible summer he carried with him all his life. Far from Catholic France, surrounded by Moslems, the sea, and the desert, the Algerian Pied Noir culture developed a kind of modern pagan attitude imbued with Christian piety. "It's true that I don't believe in God," Todd quotes Camus as saying, "but that doesn't mean I'm an atheist, and I would argue with Benjamin Constant, who thought a lack of religion was vulgar and even hackneyed." Or as he told reporters in Stockholm at the Nobel Prize ceremony, "I have Christian concerns, but my nature is pagan"--surely a better combination than the other way around.

This was one of many times that Camus could sound as if he had more in common with C.S. Lewis than with Nietzsche or the French existentialists. Despite his popular image as a professional pessimist, Camus was in fact possessed of an almost unnatural optimism--"Metaphysical Quixotism," Sartre once called it. Given the difference between their temperaments, the much-chronicled quarrel between Camus and Sartre would seem to have been inevitable, even if politics had not become an issue. Of course, this was postwar France, and politics was always an issue. The anti-communist bent of Camus's The Rebel touched off a firestorm of controversy among European (and later English-speaking) intellectuals that set the tone for debates between Soviet supporters and the non-Marxist left for the next two decades.

Todd leaves no doubt, though, that there was more (or perhaps less) than politics involved in Camus's falling out with Sartre. The squat, bespeckled Sartre liked and respected the brilliant young bumpkin from Algeria, but he also resented his charm and popularity. Todd recounts how once, when tipsy, Sartre blurted out at Camus, "I'm more intelligent than you, huh? More intelligent!" Camus's response is not recorded, but he had his resentments, too: He bristled when journalists referred to him as "existentialism's number-two man," though whether he resented more being called an existentialist or being ranked behind Sartre is anyone's guess. And there were those who fanned the flames of their animus, particularly Simone de Beauvoir, who carried on a lengthy, public affair with Sartre but who, bitter over Camus's rejection of her advances, never missed a chance to bad-mouth him in public. The antipathy was mutual: "Imagine what [de Beauvoir] might say on the pillow afterwards," he said to Arthur Koestler. "It's horrible--with such a chatterbox, a total Blue Stocking, unbearable!"

All biographers must sooner or later decide whether they like their subjects, and it's to Todd's credit that he never hides his admiration for Camus. It's more to his credit that he doesn't try to make Camus look good in the Sartre quarrel. The episode shows Camus at his worst: pompous, patronizing, and snide. In his letter to Les Temps Modernes, Camus attacked not only Francis Jeanson, who wrote a negative review of The Rebel, but Sartre, whom he assumed to be behind it--perhaps mistakenly. At one point Camus went so low as to sling the ultimate French insult at Sartre: He called him bourgeois. Sartre's reply was on target: "Tell me, Camus, by what mystery may we not discuss your works without taking away humanity's reason for existing?" And: "You may indeed have once been poor, but you are no longer poor. You are a bourgeois, like Jeanson and myself."

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