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.

Unlike some who have written on the Camus-Sartre enmity, Todd doesn't allow the personal to obscure the larger picture. Camus, he writes, "used his novels and journalism to attack that obvious fortress of totalitarianism, and Communism, as well as bastions of Fascism like Franco's regime. He was more or less alone in his struggle, and another hardship was that he accepted and refused at the same time to present himself as a philosopher. Above all, he saw himself as an artist and a moralist..." As a result, Camus "was treated like a traitor by the Communists, because given the political climate in France, he was correct too early." Given the political climate in Britain and America, it's now evident that Camus was also correct too early here, too. Some 30 years after publication of The Rebel, Susan Sontag, who had once called Camus "not that emotionally tough, not tough in the way that Sartre is," angered old leftists by calling communism "fascism, with a human face"--a statement that pretty much sums up what Camus had been saying since the end of World War II. In 1957, still decades ahead of mainstream liberal thought, Camus declared that "the era of ideologies is over."

It was Sontag who gave what many thought to be the definitive judgment on Camus the writer in her review of Camus's notebooks. "Judged by the standards of art," she said, "his work solely as a literary accomplishment is not major enough to have the weight of admiration that readers want to give it." Camus's major strength, she felt, was moral beauty, and: "Unfortunately, moral beauty in art--like physical beauty in a person--is extremely perishable."

But there are a great many readers for whom Camus has not dated, and their number seems to grow, not diminish. Whatever their standards of art, many seem willing to judge Camus on his own terms, not as a philosopher or even a novelist in the usual meaning of the term, but, in his words, as an "artist who creates myths." Today, says Todd, "Camus has a varied public, which is always renewing itself. In a recent readers' survey in France, Camus is well placed among the classic favorites like Balzac, Cornielle, and Molière. Among twentieth-century writers, Camus leads the pack of those who interest readers most, followed by Marcel Pagnol and with Jean-Paul Sartre lagging far behind."

It seems safe to say that in the United States, Camus has been and remains the most popular serious French--and perhaps Continental--writer since World War II. It also seems safe to say that many of his readers would echo the sentiment of the philosopher Emmanuel Berl, who said that he had the paradoxical experience of "always feeling like I agree with Camus, without understanding him."

Moral beauty, perhaps, has a longer shelf life than some notions of artistic or intellectual beauty. Camus said, "I call truth that which lasts." If that's the case, then Olivier Todd may well prove to be the man who told the truth about the man who told the truth.

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