Albert Camus (1913-1960)


Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

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Albert Camus (1913-1960)

French novelist, essayist and playwright, who received the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature. Camus was closely linked to his fellow existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1940s, but he broke with him over Sartre’s support to Stalinist politics. Camus died at the age of forty-six in a car accident near Sens, France. Among his best-known novels are The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947).

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have happened yesterday.” (from The Stranger)

Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria, into a working-class family. Camus’s mother, Catherine Hélène Sintés, was an illiterate cleaning woman. She came from a family of Spanish origin. Lucien Auguste Camus, his father, was an itinerant agricultural laborer. He died of his wounds in 1914 after the Battle of the Marne – Camus was less than a year old at that time. His body was never sent to Algeria. During the war, Catherine Hélène worked in a factory. She was partly deaf, due to a stroke that permanently impaired her speech, but she was able to read lips. In their home “things had no names”, as Camus later recalled. But he loved his mother intensely: “When my mother’s eyes were not resting on me, I have never been able to look at her without tears springing into my eyes.”

In 1923 Camus won a scholarship to the lycée in Algiers, where he studied from 1924 to 1932. Incipient tuberculosis put an end to his athletic activities. The disease was to trouble Camus for the rest of his life. Between the years 1935 and 1939 Camus held various jobs in Algiers. He also joined the Communist Party, but his interest in the works of Marx and Engels was rather superficial. More important writers in his circle were André Malraux and André Gide.

In 1936 Camus received his diplôme d’étudies supérieures from the University of Algiers in philosophy. To recover his health he made his first visit to Europe. Camus’ first book, L’ENVERS ET L’ENDROIT (1937), was a collection of essays, which he wrote at the age of twenty-two. Camus dedicated it to his philosophy teacher, Jean Grenier. The philosopher Brice Parain maintained that the little book contained Camus’ best work, although the author himself considered the form of his writings clumsy.

By this time Camus’ reputation in Algeria as a leading writer was growing. He was also active in theater. In 1938 Camus moved to France. Next year he divorced his first wife, Simone Hié, who was a morphine addict. From 1938 to 1940 Camus worked for the Alger-Républicain, reviewing among others Sartre’s books, and in 1940 for Paris-Soir. In 1940 he married Francine Faure, a pianist and mathematician.

During WW II Camus was member of the French resistance. From 1943 he worked as a reader and editor of Espoir series at Gallimard publisher. With Sartre he founded the left-wing Resistance newspaper Combat, serving as its editor. His second novel, L’ÉTRANGER (The Stranger), which he had begun in Algeria before the war, appeared in 1942. It has been considered one of the greatest of all hard-boiled novels. Camus admired the American tough novel and wrote in The Rebel (1951) that “it does not choose feelings or passions to give a detailed description of, such as we find in classic French novels. It rejects analysis and the search for a fundamental psychological motive that could explain and recapitulate the behavior of a character…”

The story of The Stranger is narrated by a doomed character, Mersault, and is set between two deaths, his mother’s and his own. Mersault is a clerk, who seems to have no feelings and spends afternoons in lovemaking and empty nights in the cinema. Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment (1866), he reaches self-knowledge by committing a crime – he shoots an Arab on the beach without explicit reason and motivation – it was hot, the Arab had earlier terrorized him and his friend Raymond, and he had an headache. Mersault is condemned to die as much for his refusal to accept the standards of social behavior as for the crime itself. “The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions, and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the “divine irresponsibility” of the condemned man.” (from Sartre analysis of Mersault, in Literary and Philosophical Essays, 1943)

In the cell Mersault faces the reality for the first time, and his consciousness awakens. “It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.” Luchino Visconti’s film version from 1967 meticulously reconstructed an Algiers street so that it looked exactly as it had during 1938-39, when the story takes place. But the 43-year-old Marcello Mastroianni, playing 30-year-old Mesault, was considered too old, although otherwise his performance was praised.

In 1942 also appeared Camus’ philosophical essay LE MYTHE DE SISYPHE. It starts with the famous statement: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” Camus compares the absurdity of the existence of humanity to the labours of the mythical character Sisyphus, who was condemned through all eternity to push a boulder to the top of a hill and watch helplessly as it rolled down again. Camus takes the nonexistence of God granted and finds meaning in the struggle itself.

“A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images,” Camus wrote. He admired Sartre’s gift’s as a novelist, but did not find his two sides, philosophy and storytelling, both equally convincing. In an essay written in 1952 he praises Melville’s Billy Budd. Melville, according to Camus, “never cut himself off from flesh or nature, which are barely perceptible in Kafka’s work.” Camus also admired William Faulkner and made a dramatic adaptation of Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. In 1946 Camus spent some time in New York, and wrote: “I don’t have a precise idea about New York myself, even after so many days, but it continues to irritate me and seduce me at the same time.”

“It is not rebellion itself which is noble but the demands it makes upon us.” (from The Plague, 1947)

In 1947 Camus resigned from Combat and published in the same year his third novel, LA PESTE, an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. A small town is abruptly forced to live within narrow boundaries under a terror – death is loose on the streets. In the besieged city some people try to act morally, some are cowards, some lovers. “None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could be one of a final victory. It could only be the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”

Before his break with Sartre Camus wrote L’HOMME RÉVOLTÉ (1951), which explores the theories and forms of humanity’s revolt against authority. The book was criticized in Sartre’s Temps modernes. Camus was offended and Sartre responded with a scornful letter. From 1955 to 1956 Camus worked as a journalist for L’Express. Among his major works from the late-1950s are LA CHUTE (1956), an ironic novel in which the penitent judge Jean-Baptiste Clamence confesses his own moral crimes to a strager in an Amsterdam bar. Jean-Baptiste reveals his hypocrisy, but at the same time his monologue becomes an attack on modern man.

At the time of his death, Camus was planning to direct a theater company of his own and to write a major novel about growing up in Algeria. Several of the short stories in L’EXILE ET LA ROYAUME (1957) were set in Algeria’s coastal towns and inhospitale sands. The unfinished novel LA MORT HEUREUSE (1970) was written in 1936-38. It presented the young Camus, or Patrice Mersault, seeking his happiness from Prague to his hometown in Algiers, announcing towards the end of the book “What matters – all that matters, really – is the will to happiness, a kind of enormous, ever-present consciousness. The rest – women, art, success – is nothing but excuses.” In LE PREMIER HOMME (1994), the story of Jacques Cormery, Camus charted the history of his family and his lycée years. The manuscript was found in the car, a Facel Vega, in which he died on January 4, 1960.

For further reading: Albert Camus in New York by Herbert R. Lottman(1997); Albert Camus: Une Vie by O.Todd (1996); Camus’ “L’Étranger”: Fifty Years On, ed. by Adele King (1992; Albert Camus by P.H. Rhein (1989); Camus: A Critical Study of His Life and Work by P. McCarthy (1982); The Theater of Albert Camus by E. Freeman (1971); The Sea and the Prison by R. Quillot (1970); A Pagan Hero: An Interpretation of Mersault in Camus’ “The Stranger” by Robert Champigny (1969); Albert Camus: The Artist in the Arena by E. Parker (1965); Albert Camus, 1913-1969: A Biographical Study by P. Thody (1961) – SEE ALSO: Little Blue Light ; André Gide

External link: The Albert Camus Society UK

Selected bibliography:

* Révolte dans les Asturies, 1936 (with others)
* L’Envers at l’endroit, 1937 – The Wrong Side and the Right Side (tr. 1968) – Esseitä (suom. Leena Löfstedt)
* Noces, 1939 – Nuptials (tr. 1968)
* L’Étranger, 1942 – The Stranger (tr. 1946) – Sivullinen (suom. Kalle Salo) – film 1967, dir. by Luchino Visconti, starring Marcello Mastroianni
* Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942 – The Myth of Sisyphos and Other Essays (transl. by Justin O’Brien) – Esseitä (suom. Leena Löfstedt); Kapinoiva ihminen: esseitä ja katkelmia (suom. Ulla-Kaarina Jokinen ja Maija Lehtonen)
* Le malentendu, 1944 – Cross Purposes (tr. 1947)
* Lettres à un ami allemand, 1945 – Letters to a German Friend (tr. 1961)
* Caligula, 1945 – Caligula and Three Other Plays (tr. S. Gilbert and others, 1958) / Caligula; A Drama in Two Acts (adapted from the French by Justin O’Brien)
* La Peste, 1947 – The Plague (transl. by Stuart Gilbert) – Rutto (suom. Juha Mannerkorpi)
* L’état de siège, 1948 – State of Siege (in Caligula and Three Other Plays, tr. by S. Gilbert and others, 1958)
* Les Justes, 1950 – The Just Assassins (in Caligula and Three Other Plays, tr. by S. Gilbert and others, 1958) / The Just (translated by Henry Jones)
* Actuelles I, 1950 – Kapinoiva ihminen: esseitä ja katkelmia (suom. Ulla-Kaarina Jokinen ja Maija Lehtonen)
* L’Homme révolté, 1951 – The Rebel (transl. by Anthony Bower) – Kapinoiva ihminen (suom. Ulla-Kaarina Jokinen, Maija Lehtonen)
* Actuelles II, 1953
* L’été, 1954 – Summer (tr. 1968) – Esseitä (suom. Leena Löfstedt)
* Requiem pour une nonne, 1956
* La Chute, 1956 – The Fall (transl. by Justin O’Brien) – Putoaminen (suom. Maijaliisa Auterinen)
* L’éxil et le royaume, 1957 – Exile and the Kingdom (transl. by Justin O’Brien) – Maanpako ja Valtakunta (suom. Maija Lehtonen)
* Actuelles III, Chroniques algériennes, 1958
* Discours de Suède, 1958
* Les possédés, 1959 – The Possessed: A Play in Three Parts (transl. by Justin O’Brien)
* Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, 1961 (transl. by Justin O’Brien)
* Carnets, mai 1935-fevrier 1942, 1962 – Notebooks 1935-1942 (transl. by by Philip Thody)
* Carnets, janvier 1942-mars 1951, 1964 – Notebooks 1942-1951 (transl. by Justin O’Brien)
* Caligula and Three Other Plays, 1958 (transl. by Justin O’Brien)
* Essais, 1965
* Lyrical and Critical Essays, 1968 (ed. by Philip Thody, transl. by Ellen Kennedy)
* Selected Essays and Notebooks, 1970 (edited and translated by Philip Thody)
* La Mort heureuse, 1970 – A Happy Death (transl. by Richard Howard) – Onnellinen kuolema (suom. Elina Hytönen)
* Ecrits de jeunesse, 1973 – Youthful Writings of Albert Camus (translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy)
* Journaux de voyage, 1979 – American Journals (tr. by Hugh Levick)
* Oeuvres complètes, 1983 (9 vols.)
* Carnets, mars 1951-décembre 1959, 1989 – Notebooks 1951-1959 (tr. by Ryan Bloom)
* Le Premier Homme, 1994 – The First Man (transl. by David Hapgood) – Ensimmäinen ihminen (suom. Sirkka Suomi)
* Camus à Combat: éditoriaux et articles d’Albert Camus, 1944-1947, 2002 – Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947 (translated by Arthur Goldhammer)

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