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Albert Camus | Biography


Albert Camus was born in Mondovi (now Dréan), Algeria, on November 7, 1913. Algeria, in North Africa, was at the time under French rule, which lasted from 1830 to 1962. His father, Lucien Auguste Camus, who earned a modest salary working at a vineyard, enlisted in the French military during World War I. He died on October 11, 1914, from wounds suffered at the Battle of Marne. Albert had not yet celebrated his first birthday. Soon after, Albert moved with his mother and elder brother to a two-room apartment located in a poor district of Algiers, where they lived with Albert's maternal grandmother. The grandmother was domineering and often used cruel disciplinary methods, such as a whip made from a bull ligament.

Camus's mother and grandmother were both illiterate. However, a teacher named Louis Germain recognized young Albert's intelligence and tutored him in preparation for a scholarship. In 1923 Camus won a scholarship that enabled him to attend the high school in Algiers. There, he flourished as a student and also enjoyed playing sports, especially soccer. However, in 1930, Camus was stricken with attacks of tuberculosis. Because of the fear he might infect others, Camus was forced to leave school and home. He went to live with his aunt and uncle, a successful butcher. Under their care, he recovered enough to return to school. However, Camus dealt with attacks of tuberculosis throughout his life.

After graduating from high school, Camus attended the University of Algiers, where he majored in philosophy. Under the guidance of writer and professor Jean Grenier, Camus devoured French classics by authors like André Malraux and André Gide. Malraux often wrote novels that focused on the complexities and ambiguities of revolutionary action and political idealism. Gide was a writer and critic of conventional morality who emphasized the honesty and self-awareness of the individual and praised the notion of the individual liberating himself "from family, tradition and morality," in the words of Camus biographer Patrick McCarthy. Also at the university, Camus became interested in theater and wrote and acted in several plays.

In the mid-1930s, Camus joined the Communist Party, but he never felt comfortable with this group. For example, communists downplayed opposition to French colonial rule in an effort to win France's support of the Soviet Union; Camus believed in French rule of Algeria but was critical of the government. In 1937 Camus was expelled from the Communist Party and traveled with friends to Paris. During this trip, Camus expressed feeling a "nameless fear," which often struck him when traveling. Upon returning to Algiers, Camus accepted a job doing boring office work for a meteorology institute. Soon he was hired to write editorials and literary articles for a leftist paper called Alger-Républicain. Many of these articles focused on the travesties of the legal system and the inhumane treatment and humiliation of social outcasts and impoverished people. When World War II broke out, Camus took the unusual position of being against both Stalin, who favored a strong France, and against Hitler, who later invaded France. Despite having signed a nonaggression pact in 1939, the two dictators had different motives for signing the pact, which would end when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Around this time, Camus began working on an essay called The Myth of Sisyphus, which posed the absurdist view that life has no meaning and humans must live with an understanding of this void. He also began working on an absurdist novel: The Stranger.

A perfectionist who believed that the attainment of perfection was never possible, Camus worked tirelessly on the novel. Apparently, Camus based the character of Meursault on one of his girlfriend's brothers. Meursault is not at all like Camus in that the character seems to have no goals and never analyzes himself. In contrast, Camus had a strong ambition to be a successful writer and was plagued with anxieties and self-doubt. Even so, The Stranger reflects many of Camus's influences. Malraux's interest in the ambiguities of political idealism is illustrated in the courtroom chapters where the legal system and the Church attempt to instill their ideals in Meursault. Also, Gide's emphasis on individual honesty is illustrated in Meursault's refusal to lie. Camus even used his experience doing dull work for the meteorology institute as a basis for Meursault's work handling freight invoices.

After The Stranger was published during World War II in 1942, it received huge critical acclaim. Camus was accepted into France's intellectual community, which included the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. The two existentialists would famously split in 1952 over the Cold War between East and West. Camus rejected the justification of violence to remake the world, as was practiced both in the Soviet Union and which was central to the civil war in Algeria by those opposed to colonialism.

During World War II, Camus wrote for Combat, the main intellectual vehicle for the French Resistance. After the war, he went on to write works that have come to be regarded as classics of French literature, including the novels The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956), and the essay The Rebel (1951). In 1957 Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature. On January 4, 1960, he lost his life in a car accident.

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