Absurd person singular

ALBERT CAMUS by Olivier Todd, trs Benjamin Ivry, Chatto pounds 20

Few, perhaps no mid-century writer has been as influential as Albert Camus. There are other names associated with his, the Left Bank existentialists and Britain's Angry Young Men, but none has been quite as widely read. First with The Stranger then The Plague, his depiction of men battling alone to conjure values from a meaningless universe seems to have articulated something deep in his generation and the next. Camus became famous for being an outsider. His marginality made him central.

As a working class French Algerian - and tubercular to boot - Camus' claims to outsidership were genuine enough. But one thing that comes out clearly from Todd's brisk but strangely unpenetrating life is that Camus had a richer, more complex identity than is captured by the "outsider" formula. By virtue of his education he was French, but he liked to think of himself as Spanish, or Latin or African. He was a rebel, but also a moderate, a nihilist who still believed in the worth of human life, an intellectual who worshipped the sun and the sea. He moved back and forth from France to Algeria, and town to country; although in the end he gravitated to Paris, he claimed to detest it. "Neither executioners nor victims" became a famous slogan: his whole life seemed to be determined by such oppositions. He wanted to go beyond atheism, religion, imperialism, communism; beyond intellectualism, beyond everything.

Biographically these antinomies, evasions and ambivalences make Camus an elusive but fascinating subject - all the more so as he put so much of himself into his writing. It is a moot point, though, whether they make for profoundity, or something more incoherent, less resolved.

It matters to Camus' ambivalent sense of Frenchness that his father was killed fighting for the Republic in the First World War, and that, as a result, Camus was brought up in poverty by his mother. Owing to hard work, good luck and a diligent teacher, Camus was able to secure a scholarship to the Lycee in Algiers, although this rags-to-riches story is slightly complicated by the shadowy existence of a cultured uncle, an ardent Voltairian, with whom Camus lived for a while. Todd characteristically refuses to speculate about this figure, although he must have exercised an importance influence on Camus' life.

In 1930, aged 17, Camus had his first attack of tuberculosis, and had to leave his over-crowded home. The disease put a stop to his dreams of becoming a professional footballer, or adopting the more likely career of teacher or civil servant. Perhaps it was this brush with death that deflected him from a life of "happy barbarianism" on the beach, to philosophy and an interest in the absurd. But then again perhaps it was not - Todd has nothing to say. What does seem certain is that Camus lived the rest of his life with the intensity of someone who expected to die: he often nearly did.

Camus followed many of his university friends into the Communist Party, but broke with it, within a few years, over its reactionary attitude towards the Arabs. For a small radical paper, Alger Republicain, Camus wrote bravely about the famine afflicting the Kabyle Arabs and campaigned consistently for the gradual extension of political rights to native Algerians. This was at a time when the Parisian Left had little time for the plight of France's Arab subjects.

Yet up to his death in a car accident in 1960, Camus always opposed Algerian independence, and Conor Cruise O'Brien has argued persuasively that Camus' Algerian novels simply pass over the Arab experience as if Arabs didn't exist - the Oran of La Peste is weirdly Arab-free. O'Brien might have added that Camus' writings pass over women in just the same way. He retained many of the prejudices of the small-town colonial.

Camus' TB prevented him from enlisting at the outbreak of war, and instead he moved to Paris, where he worked on the page lay-out of a Paris daily. The experience proved useful when he went into clandestine journalism later in the War, but at this stage most of his real energies were devoted to his three "absurd" works - The Outsider, the play Caligula, and The Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay. The latter has always been seen as providing the theoretical background against which the novel and the play are set. The Outsider, published by Gallimard, was an instant success.

Camus once saw Sartre showing off to a girl and asked him why he was going to go much trouble. Sartre replied, honestly enough, "Have you seen my mug?" On the other hand Camus, who might have earned a living as a Humphrey Bogart lookalike, had to make no such effort; he was compulsively attractive to women. He was married twice, once at 21 to a young junkie, then again at 27, to Francine Faure, an introverted teacher from Algiers who moved with him to Paris but was never at ease with his glamorous friends and bohemian life. Neither marriage was happy. Todd writes more openly than anyone before him about Camus' feverish carry-on. "His heart and body", we are told "required the right to unlimited love." That may have been so, but in the end, as Francine suffered a mental breakdown, it all got rather sordid. As a writer Camus was brave and principled, even where, as with his stance on Algeria, his principles some times led him astray, but on the domestic side the story is hardly a flattering one.

Olivier Todd is a distinguished writer and critic, and if his book offers less than might have been hoped, it is not entirely his own fault. Not only is the translation less than fluent, but Benjamin Ivry, the translator, has taken it upon himself to "delete" all Todd's copious notes and "some" of the text, the latter on the grounds that it added no "relevant information" and halted "the narrative flow". I think I can guess what Todd feels about that.

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