Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Albert Camus was a writer, philosopher, journalist, and intellectual born in 1913 to French parents in Algeria during the period of French colonial rule that had begun in 1830. His father was killed seving in World War I a year later, and Camus grew up in abject poverty and suffered poor health although, as French citizens, he and his family enjoyed more rights than native Algerians. Throughout his life, Camus grappled with issues related to the French colonization of Algeria, especially as disenchantment with the French intensified into a war for independence that began in 1954 and ended with the French withdrawal in 1962, two years after Camus’s death.

Growing up poor in such an environment would have a lasting impact on Camus’s life, but his burgeoning intellect as a boy earned him a scholarship to a prominent secondary in 1924. He would later divide his time between working odd jobs and studying. He also played goalkeeper for his school football team and found that he was drawn to comradery and unambiguous rules of play for the game. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1930, Camus increasingly studied philosophy and was drawn to the philosophy of ancient Greece and to the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as to works by writers known for their philosophical viewpoints, including Stendhal, Herman Melville, and Franz Kafka. He attended the University of Algiers from 1933 until graduating with a degree in philosophy in 1936.

It was also during these years that Camus met his first wife, Simone Hié, and—partly in reaction against authoritarian colonialism—joined communist organizations. The marriage was an unhappy one and lasted only from 1934 to 1936. Camus, who had never subscribed to Marxist ideals and was poorly suited to the lack of dissent demaned by the communists groups, later broke with them over the repressive policies of Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin.

From 1935 to 1938, Camus ran the Théâtre de l’Equipe, an organization that attempted to attract working-class audiences to performances of great dramatic works. Starting in 1938, Camus worked for a leftist newspaper in Algiers, but when it was shut down by the authorities in 1940, he moved to Paris to work for a paper there—just as the rise of fascism in Europe was erupting into World War II, including the German invasion and subsequent occupation of France. During wartime, Camus developed his philosophy of the absurd. A major component of this philosophy was Camus’s assertion that life has no rational or redeeming meaning. The experience of World War II led many other intellectuals to similar conclusions. Faced with the horrors of Hitler’s Nazi regime and the unprecedented slaughter of the war, many could no longer accept that human existence had any purpose or discernible meaning. Existence seemed simply, to use Camus’s term, absurd.

After fleeing Paris at the advent of the German occupation, Camus spent some time in Lyon, where he married for a second time, to Francine Faure, with whom he would remain married until his death. Camus and Faure lived in Algeria for a while before moving to the French Alps before eventually returning to Paris. Camus, who had been turned down for army service in 1940 due to his bouts with tuberculosis, became a leading writer for the resistance movement, including serving as the editor of Combat, an important underground newspaper. By this time, Camus had completed his first set of three works dealing with the absurd.  These works were a novel, The Stranger, and a philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus—both published in 1942—as well as a play, Caligula.

Camus’s wartime activities had been carried out at great risk to himself, and when the anti-Nazi forces emerged victorious, his contributions were widely recognized and his stature grew. His reputation as a writer was also secured as his works that were published during the war were embraced by the leading intellectuals of the day, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone and Simon de Beauvoir. He traveled widely and completed work on a second cycle of works that he had begun during the war with his play The Misunderstanding. In 1947, his novel, The Plague, was published. Then in 1951, his philosophical essay, The Rebel—which carries on with many of the questions and ideas that he had previously examined in the Myth of Sisyphus—appeared. The Rebel also includes strong condemnation of communist totalitarianism, much to the irritation of many on the French Left, including Sartre.

Faure had given birth to twins in 1945, but their marriage was complicated by Camus’s affairs, including a public one with the actress María Casares. In 1957, Camus became one of the youngest people to ever be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He continued to write as well as work in theater productions—both writing and directing—until he was tragically killed in an automobile accident in January of 1960 at the age of 46.

Popular pages: The Myth of Sisyphus