Life and times of Albert Camus
Jon Bryant charts the life of the football-loving indifferentist whose life was tragically cut short
When you picture the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, the vision is always very intense. A grainy, black and white photograph of a 1950s anti-hero with a cigarette hanging laconically out of his mouth, his face half-covered in shadow and his skin furrowed into a pensive trident where his nose meets his forehead. Camus has become an almost mythical figure, not just because of his early death in a car crash but because he was there when the last century ‘happened’.
Morning coffee in the late 1940s at Les Deux Magots or the Café de Flore on the Left Bank with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir must have been entertaining. Newspapers slammed down, cigarettes gnarled into an already full ashtray, drinks splattered into faces. They all fell out dramatically. The writer Roger Grenier, who knew all three, reckons Sartre didn’t care much for the work of Camus but liked the man, whom he saw as a bit of a rogue, and for Camus it was the opposite. He appreciated Sartre’s work but thought the man was a bourgeois. Only after Camus’ death did they ‘come together’ again when Sartre wrote a beautiful piece about his former friend and rival in France Observateur.
There are many stories. Once, Camus got in the way of a punch from the Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler that was meant for Sartre. He had a pair of black eyes and the following day was speaking at a conference on non-violence. He turned up in dark glasses and when he lifted them up, told the audience to laugh now and get it over with and then he could start.
Sartre and Camus came from very different backgrounds. Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria on 7 November 1913 and grew up in poverty (his father was killed at the Battle of the Marne in 1914). Thanks to a dedicated teacher, Louis Germain, he won a scholarship to the lycée on the other side of Algiers. He was a gifted student but preferred football (he played in goal).
Debilitating tuberculosis prevented him ever playing professionally and deprived the Racing Universitaire d’Alger of their top goalkeeper. While he was recovering, he stayed with his butcher uncle who had a large library which gave him, perhaps unwanted, the time to read.
In 1934, Camus married the actress Simone Hié and began working in the prefecture in Algiers issuing car tax permits while he completed his studies at the university. They had a tempestuous marriage: she was addicted to morphine and neither was faithful and they eventually divorced in 1940.
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Camus was writing for a left-wing Algerian paper but when the war broke out, he moved to Paris, married the pianist Francine Faure and got a job on Paris-Soir magazine. It spelled the start of his literary career. He began writing L’Etranger which was published in 1942 and a few months later, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, the story of man’s acceptance that life is an absurd struggle. La Peste, L’État de Siège and L’Homme Révolté appeared over the next decade as his literary reputation grew.
Philosophically, Camus never seemed at ease with Communism or Marxism or even anarchy and never agreed that he was an existentialist. He was happiest being seen as something of a literary tough guy, an absurdist, libertarian, an ‘indifferentist’ who was both loving family man and Don Juan, a rebel writer in goalkeeper’s gloves (though he could no longer play). In 1957, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature which he dedicated to his first teacher, Germain.
On 4 January, 1960, he was returning to Paris in the Facel Vega car of his publisher Michel Gallimard when they crashed in Villeblevin. Camus died at the scene and Gallimard a few days later. In the car wreckage was his unfinished autobiography, Le Premier Homme, and in his pocket, an unused train ticket. Was it a last minute decision to drive?
Camus’ is buried nearby in a very simple grave surrounded by rosemary and laurel. His coffin was carried there by the local football team.
BORN: Mondovi, Algeria, 7 November 1913
DIED: Villeblevin, 4 January, 1960
Did you know: Camus was the second youngest writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature after Rudyard Kipling. He always claimed that everything he knew about morality came from the theatre and football, ‘my two universities’ he called them.
VISIT: His grave in Lourmarin cemetery and the Albert Camus Documentation Centre at Mejanes Library in Aix-en-Provence which is open from Tuesday to Friday.
SEE: Luchino Visconti’s 1967 film of L’Étranger (The Stranger) with Marcello Mastroianni has been newly restored.