A definitive account of Albert Camus and tries to disentangle his fiction from his lifeby Douglas Johnson / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
It has all been said before. Camus wrote the same novel under different titles. He was fascinated by himself, but there wasn’t much to be fascinated by. He was a philosopher whose philosophy hadn’t proceeded beyond the school leaving grade; a communist with the prejudices of the lower middle class; a liberal who backed French colonisation in Algeria; a moralist who was relentlessly selfish in his many affairs with women.
Periodically, a biographer or a critic would say that Camus had fallen into neglect. Whether or not this was true, the result was a new book on the author. Scholars regularly gather to discuss Camus’ work, and the French government provides money for the publication of Les Cahiers d’Albert Camus. His novel L’Etranger, first published in 1942 and now translated into 55 languages, is the most successful book Gallimard ever published, with 6m copies sold in France and 4m in English translations. La Chute (The Fall) sold nearly 180,000 copies in its first six months of publication in 1957. In opinion polls of favourite French authors, Camus tops the list, with Sartre well behind. Supporters of Camus are certainly well placed to ask who, today, reads Sartre’s novels or shows any interest in his plays. Sartre was primarily a biographer; Michael Scriven estimates that in 1946-80 he devoted some 2m words to biographical projects. That on Baudelaire is slim, that on Mallarmé mislaid, while those on Genet and Flaubert are unreadable.
But the real admirers of Camus do not proceed by denigrating Sartre. They compare him to Kafka and Dostoevsky; they place him together with Orwell and Solzhenitsyn; they mention his refinement, wisdom and insight. In his novels in particular the sense of the tragic is insistent and exceptional.
In his new biography, Albert Camus: A Life, Olivier Todd explains that he has set out to tell Camus’ life, without forgetting that he was also a writer. Moving easily in French literary circles, and knowing a great many people, Todd has relied largely upon their comments and recollections. Many had been reluctant to speak before the death of Francine Camus, his widow, in 1979. Todd also draws on unpublished notes from a journal.
He follows Camus in the belief that the French critics were wrong to interpret him in terms of his ideas. Todd gives Camus various voices in a book that is bristling with information and becomes more compulsive…