Albert Camus: A Biography
(originally published in 1979, new edition released 1997) by Herbert R. Lottman, is a comprehensive biography
of Albert Camus (1913-1960), a Nobel Prize winner for literature, and a noted French philosopher, writer, journalist, and WWII hero. The biography made the 1979 ALA Notable Books for Adults list. The writing style is clean and descriptive. Lottman follows events of Camus’s life chronologically. In the middle of the book, Lottman includes photographs of Camus, his contemporaries, his obituary in Combat
, and even his gravesite.
The biography is separated into five parts: “Mediterraneans,” “Exile,” “Fame,” “Forty,” and “The Road Back.” Part I describes Camus’s lineage, childhood, young adulthood, his involvement with the Communist Party, his doomed first marriage and beginning of his second. His father was killed in WWI when Camus was barely a year old. Camus grows up in a poor, illiterate family in Belcourt, Algiers. Although he learns to read and write in school, “Home was a closed world, without a book, nor even a newspaper or a magazine.” In his youth, Camus plays team sports. Even though he is small for his age, he plays soccer fearlessly until his first bout of tuberculosis puts an end to his playing.
At university, Camus reinvents himself. Naturally discreet and determined to be a good student, he hides his poor upbringing by cultivating an image of elegance and wealth. In the mid-1930s, he becomes politically active and joins the Communist Party. He organizes a Labor Theater with other members of the group and writes his first play for it, Le Temps du mépris
. His school days behind him, his first marriage to a beautiful young drug addict ends in divorce. Subsequently, he cultivates a new image, drawing on his Mediterranean identity and begins writing for the Mediterranean literary/cultural movement, throwing himself into his theater group.
Part I ends with another debilitating tubercular attack. He and his wife, Francine, temporarily relocate from North Africa to France in 1942 for the good of his health. She returns to Algiers first to secure employment and living quarters, but an allied landing in Algiers and a German invasion effectively strands him on mainland France.
Part II: “Exile” begins with the German occupation of southern France. Camus is in dire financial straits, cut off from his home and family. He writes for money and is peripherally involved with the resistance by helping publish the underground newspaper Combat
—he was not, Lottman argues, involved in direct resistance activities like sabotage or intelligence gathering. In occupied Paris, he meets and befriends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In 1944, the newspaper emerges from the shadows with the massive insurrection that results in the liberation of Paris.
In 1945, he returns to a troubled Algiers. The country is gripped by famine and tensions between the Muslim community and the French. Camus is a moderate voice, writing against reactionary nationalism and advocating rights for the Muslim community. He also serves as a war correspondent, touring French occupied territory and reporting on it. Capitalizing on his post-War fame as part of the Combat
newspaper team, Camus is sent to New York where he has a press tour and lecture series.
Part III: “Fame” begins as Camus, returning to Paris from New York, is awarded the Resistance Medal. He writes a series of articles against murder, be it in a war with weapons of mass destruction, or executions (he had a lifelong abhorrence of the death penalty). He withdraws from politics, returning his attention to writing projects. His tuberculosis worsens, and he spends his convalescence reading and writing. Embattled, Combat
is in danger of folding; Camus contributes only a few articles a month, but between his health problems and creative differences between himself and the editors, he declines all offers to take control of the paper.
Meanwhile, with France returning to life after the war, his books garner more public and critical attention. His book La Peste
wins a literary prize, becoming a bestseller. Camus finds his newfound fame somewhat burdensome; he likes dining and going out at night, but now he is recognized. The upside to his fame is that now he has a bigger platform. At the beginning of the Cold War, he writes essays urging the world to turn away from war.
Part IV: “Forty” begins as Camus turns forty years old. He is still active in politics, still arguing for peace and against all forms of violence and murder, particularly when a protest escalates to police firing on the crowd. Meanwhile, his wife, Francine, falls ill, and the family withdraws to the Lake of Geneva for her convalescence. Once again, he turns to reading and writing, as his own poor health rules out physical activity. In 1954, he argues for peace, amnesty, and rights for the Algerian Muslims, blaming liberals and oppression for the rise in Arab terrorism. In 1955, he becomes a journalist again, writing for L’Express
, a weekly magazine with a liberal bent. He is also instrumental in a meeting between antagonistic Muslim and French forces in Algiers, to discuss a truce and peace. Violent right-wing extremists disrupt the meeting. Undaunted, he keeps working towards peace. Two years later, in 1957, he wins the Nobel Prize at the age of forty-four.
Part V: “The Road Back” chronicles his last few years. Camus dies suddenly in a car wreck. He is buried in the Catholic side of the graveyard (even though he never ascribed to any religion, let alone Christianity). He was eulogized and mourned throughout Europe. One of the most moving eulogies came from his one-time friend turned enemy, Sartre. Sartre recognized Camus’s morality and humanism as driving forces in his public and private life.