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.

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."

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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