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Albert Camus

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Main

 French author

Albert Camus, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
[Credits : Henri Cartier-Bresson—Magnum]

French novelist, essayist, and playwright, best known for such novels as L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger), La Peste (1947; The Plague), and La Chute (1956; The Fall) and for his work in leftist causes. He received the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Early years

Less than a year after Camus was born, his father, an impoverished worker of Alsatian origin, was killed in World War I during the First Battle of the Marne. His mother, of Spanish descent, did housework to support her family. Camus and his elder brother Lucien moved with their mother to a working-class district of Algiers, where all three lived, together with the maternal grandmother and a paralyzed uncle, in a two-room apartment. Camus’s first published collection of essays, L’Envers et l’endroit (1937; “The Wrong Side and the Right Side”), describes the physical setting of these early years and includes portraits of his mother, grandmother, and uncle. A second collection of essays, Noces (1938; “Nuptials”), contains intensely lyrical meditations on the Algerian countryside and presents natural beauty as a form of wealth that even the very poor can enjoy. Both collections contrast the fragile mortality of human beings with the enduring nature of the physical world.

In 1918 Camus entered primary school and was fortunate enough to be taught by an outstanding teacher, Louis Germain, who helped him to win a scholarship to the Algiers lycée (high school) in 1923. (It was typical of Camus’s sense of loyalty that 34 years later his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature was dedicated to Germain.) A period of intellectual awakening followed, accompanied by great enthusiasm for sport, especially football (soccer), swimming, and boxing. In 1930, however, the first of several severe attacks of tuberculosis put an end to his sporting career and interrupted his studies. Camus had to leave the unhealthy apartment that had been his home for 15 years, and, after a short period spent with an uncle, Camus decided to live on his own, supporting himself by a variety of jobs while registered as a philosophy student at the University of Algiers.

At the university, Camus was particularly influenced by one of his teachers, Jean Grenier, who helped him to develop his literary and philosophical ideas and shared his enthusiasm for football. He obtained a diplôme d’études supérieures in 1936 for a thesis on the relationship between Greek and Christian thought in the philosophical writings of Plotinus and St. Augustine. His candidature for the agrégation (a qualification that would have enabled him to take up a university career) was cut short by another attack of tuberculosis. To regain his health he went to a resort in the French Alps—his first visit to Europe—and eventually returned to Algiers via Florence, Pisa, and Genoa.

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