The prolific life and tragic death of Albert Camus

The Franco-Algerian essayist and writer was one of the great theorists of existentialism and absurdism, which he developed through his extensive work.

Albert Camus
Imagen: Getty Images.

Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria in 1913. Being a pied-noire, a colloquial and derogatory name by which French settlers were known by when living in Algeria, he was born into a very poor family and economic problems would accompany him for the majority of his life. At the beginning of the first World War, his father was recruited to fight in France and died from the wounds he suffered during the first battle of the Marne. Albert hadn’t even turned one and his mother had to take care of him by working as a housekeeper.

An aid program for the children of soldiers killed in combat gave him access to his first books, which awakened the young Camus' incredible intellect. He spent his youth in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Algiers and found a refuge in reading and football, a sport he practiced as a member of the Racing Universitaire d'Alger team and which according to him brought him great lessons for life in his early years. At the age of 17 he became ill with tuberculosis and during his convalescence he began to read philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and great authors of the Hellenistic world such as Epictetus. His contact with these authors would profoundly mark his thinking and lead him to study philosophy and letters.

At the age of 25 he decided to move to Paris, where he would end up working as a journalist. At this time, he started as a soldier in the Communist Party but was expelled because of the discrepancies that arose as to the direction and measures to be taken by the party. During the second World War he joined the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation and participated in the clandestine newspaper Combat, of which he became the editor. It is precisely during this conflict that Albert Camus wrote some of his first great works.

From 'The Plague' to 'The Myth of Sisyphus'

Philosopher, essayist, playwright and writer, the Franco-Algerian author developed his thinking in all his works simultaneously, so that these are better understood if they are seen as a whole in which theory (essays) and practical cases (novels) are correlated.

Existentialism was a key pillar in Camus' philosophy. This theory stems from human detachment and disillusionment with the world, casting doubt on universal principles considered absolute for centuries and coming to the conclusion that one cannot seek meaning in life because it has no greater meaning or purpose. Thus, existentialism denies that there are gods and denies religious beliefs that are built on the promise of a divine plan of which we are all part. While some took this disillusionment to the extreme with nihilism, others approached absurdism and argued that since nothing makes sense (everything is absurd), everyone can seek their own meaning in life.

Camus begins to earn a name in 1942 when he publishes The Stranger (L’Étranger), a short novel in which the protagonist shows a total apathy and anomie for the world around him that he does not fully understand. The prologue of the work begins in a way as devastating as revealing, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” As the plot advances we deepen in the disappointment of Meursault, who rejects the hypocrisy and falsehood of society and prefers to break its rules by questioning concepts as assumed as family, friendship, love, politics or work. The novel of just over a hundred pages already shows the talent of Camus both for its style and the depth of the story told.

Perhaps his other great book is The Plague (La Peste) written in 1947. It recounts how the city of Oran is subjected to terrible isolation due to an epidemic that has spread through the city and is wreaking havoc on the population. This extreme situation allows Camus to peek into the human soul and deal with both the good and the bad that is hidden there; providing scenes in which the kindness and collaboration of the human being as a community stands out above all and in which they are subjected to fear, hatred, selfishness and resentment. The Plague is one of the most discussed and studied works of French literature due to the many readings that can be taken from it. Camus ends up warning everyone who wants to hear him, as a sort of cyclical warning, that the plague is on all of us even if we are only aware of its presence when dead rats pile up in the streets.

Of his essays, The Rebel and, most of all, The Myth of Sisyphus must be highlighted. This second text is probably his most famous because it develops his philosophical thinking, which can be found in his novels and which marked his way of living life. Starting from the premise of existentialism that life has no meaning, Albert Camus argues that this does not mean that life cannot be enjoyed and that people must seek its own meaning by appreciating the beauty of each moment. The author illustrates it through the myth of Sisyphus, an ancient Greek king who was condemned by the gods to push a huge rock to the top of a hill for all eternity. Camus claims that, although the work of Sisyphus makes no sense because when he reaches the top the rock will fall and he will have to start again, the condemned man continues to strive and be happy in carrying out his task.

Albert and existentialism

The statement defended in The Myth of Sisyphus is supported both by other texts of Camus and by his own life. As a writer, Albert Camus knew how to express in a simple and sincere way the beauty, joy of everyday life and all those details that the monotony and the weight of society often hide. Exalting things like a naked body, a dance, a landscape, a kiss, an aroma or a hug, Camus made these small pleasures an incomparable elegy to the good things of life, which according to him could give meaning to nonsense.

Through his biography, it is not difficult to see that this winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1957) followed his preaching religiously. Even in his humble origins Albert Camus lived the best he could through football or literature. He was an attractive, athletic man who took great care of his image and style and had great success with women. From 1943 until his death he married 10 women and had countless lovers. His genius and the success of his works made him a very popular celebrity of sorts who, even though he generated some sort of rejection by the intellectual elite of Paris, was present at all the great social events and even posed for the cover of Vogue magazine.

Coche Albert Camus
Coche en el que viajaba Albert Camus tras el accidente. Imagen: Getty Images.

The death of Camus

On 4 January 1960, at the age of 46, Albert Camus was killed in a car accident. He was on a trip from the French town of Villeblevin in a Facel-Vega, a car lent to him by his publisher, when he crashed into a tree by the road and died. On his body was found a train ticket that Camus had decided not to use at the last moment and in the car a black briefcase containing those that, without his knowledge, would be the closest thing to his memories: The First Man, an autobiographical novel published posthumously.

In his legacy, in addition to his novels and 28 essays, Albert Camus left numerous stories, half a dozen plays and countless journalistic texts, commentary and book prologues. It also maintains its important role in the philosophy of the second half of the twentieth century and its well-known confrontation with Jean Paul Sartre, derived from the discrepancies in their respective philosophical approaches and Camus' criticisms of communist regimes.

Continue reading