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Lonesome Dove

ALBERT CAMUS: A Life. By Olivier Todd . Translated from the French by Benjamin Ivry . Alfred A. Knopf: 436 pp., $30

December 21, 1997|ELIZABETH HAWES | Elizabeth Hawes is the author of "New York, New York: How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City, 1869-1930" (Alfred A. Knopf)

For a generation of young intellectuals, Albert Camus was a uniquely personal hero. He was more than a novelist, essayist and playwright, and he was more than his characters and his prose, although this quality of transcendence necessarily came from his work. Rather than offer historical explanations or a philosophical system, Camus only bore witness and described the modern world, the world he called the Absurd, in such terms that it was intimately recognizable. He made a virtue of simple awareness and, as William Styron wrote in "Darkness Visible," he set the tone of a new view of life and history. Confronting the mal d'esprit of his times, Camus offered an intellectual pronouncement: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." Even in his pessimism, Camus provided a sense of solidarity and moral support that amounted to a message of courage. After the publication of his first books, he became a beloved everyman, the incarnation of the potential for nobility in nihilism, and he made his readers feel like moral revolutionaries for simply appreciating his message.

When Camus died in a car crash outside Paris in 1960, it was a tragic event in the world of letters. The photographs remain unforgettable: the lean boyish man with the sad eyes and dangling cigarette, the Facel-Vega wrapped around a tree. Camus was only 46, but it wasn't just the youth or the accomplishments or the promise of this writer that made his loss so unbearable but something singular about his presence. As Susan Sontag wrote: "Kafka arouses pity and terror, Joyce admiration. Proust and Gide respect, but no modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love."

For a legion of readers, Camus was a shadowy figure, however, part mystery and part myth. He evoked feelings of intimacy, but one knew little more about the man than the curriculum vitae, the friendship with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the fame. Fame came early, when, in the 1940s, the young journalist from Algeria raised a courageous voice in the Resistance newspaper Combat and then published in rapid succession a novel, "The Stranger," a play, "Caligula," and an essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus"--his triptych of the Absurd--and rose almost overnight to his celebrated role as "the moral conscience of his times" or, as his detractors would later call him, "Saint Just." In the next decade, Camus produced "The Plague," the philosophical study "The Rebel," "The Fall," plays, short stories and political essays, an oeuvre that in 1957 was honored with the Nobel Prize. By that time, however, Camus was in trouble, estranged from Sartre and his cohorts by their criticism of "The Rebel," anguished over the explosion of the war in Algeria and suffering from writer's block and his own success. On his death, he left behind only the rough beginnings of a novel titled "The First Man" and his private journals, which, when published in part in the 1960s, were remarkably devoid of personal revelations. "My whole effort has been in reality to depersonalize myself," Camus noted in an entry. "Later on, I shall be able to speak in my own name."

In the decades after his death, Camus was effectively forgotten by all but academicians and university students. In Herbert Lottman's 1979 biography, "Albert Camus," which was valiantly researched but did not enjoy full access to Camus' family, who was still withholding his private papers, the writer remained distant, a mere actor in his own compelling story. The 1995 publication of the unfinished manuscript of "The First Man" took the world by surprise: In those unabashedly autobiographical pages, Camus' voice was dramatically his own, fresh, unguarded and profoundly personal. The timing was propitious because, in recent years, history has turned in a way that Camus might have predicted. With the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and subsequent discrediting of totalitarianism and Algeria again in trouble, Camus' beliefs have acquired the added weight of prescience; today, in an era stuck in egocentrism and materialism, his humanism falls on needy ears. Contrary to popular perception, Camus was not an "existentialist" (such categorizations angered him): He had no system or philosophy to sell beyond his belief in experience, reason, justice and the value of life. His view of human existence derived from something simpler and more personal.

"Poverty prevented me from believing that all is well in history and in the world," he wrote. "The sun taught me that history is not everything."

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