Camus has overtaken Sartre to become the popular hero of existentialismby Paul Barker / December 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Like the Brontes or James Joyce, Albert Camus doesn’t just have readers; he has fans. If his home town, Algiers, wasn’t torn apart by civil war, you would expect it to have a Camus tourism walk, ending up at a Camus brasserie. Meanwhile, his name features on one of those larky philosophy football T-shirts, with the slightly doctored quote, “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” The notion persists that he played in goal for Algeria or even France (in fact, he was briefly on an Algiers junior team, before tuberculosis put an end to soccer-playing). A Camus website gives you a quote of the day. As I write, it is: “At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman.”
More than four decades after he died in a car crash at 46, Camus remains a vivid figure. He was born on 7th November 1913. If he’d lived, he might this winter be a crusty 90-year-old great man of French literature, having revoked his earlier refusal to join the diehard Academie Francaise. As it is, he retains a youthful spirit of danger.
Thus, in discussing the film Young Adam, starring Ewan McGregor, the Guardian recently described Alexander Trocchi, the hard-bitten author of the 1957 novel it is based on, as “the Scottish Camus.” The Guardian also thought it significant that the favourite novel of the first man arrested on suspicion of murdering the Swedish foreign minister, Anna Lindh, was reportedly Camus’s L’Etranger (The Outsider). In photographs Camus often has a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. It’s a film noir image, which is no accident. Camus was devoted to Humphrey Bogart, especially his performance in The Big Sleep, and there were many approximations to Lauren Bacall in Camus’s life. He was delighted when one of his many mistresses, Arthur Koestler’s wife Mamaine, gave him a Burberry raincoat. He thought it made him even more like Bogart.
Camus’s first and best-known novel, L’Etranger, written in his twenties, is a short moral tale, in the tradition of Voltairean contes, about a meaningless (“absurd”) murder. Its flat short sentences have a permanent appeal to adolescent angst. It was first published by Gallimard in 1942, in a Paris under German occupation. L’Etranger is Gallimard’s all-time bestseller; the revenue helps them continue to dominate French literary publishing. Far more people read the novels of Camus than…