Biography of Albert Camus, French-Algerian Philosopher and Author

Albert Camus
French author, playwright and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, shown here on October 18, 1957.

 Bettmann / Getty Images

Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) was a French-Algerian writer, dramatist, and moralist. He was known for his prolific philosophical essays and novels and is considered one of the forefathers of the existentialist movement, even though he rejected the label. His complicated relationship with the Parisian salon community, especially with Jean-Paul Sartre, fueled controversy over many of his moral works. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957 at age 43, one of the youngest recipients of the award.

Fast Facts Albert Camus

  • Known For: Nobel Prize-winning French-Algerian writer whose absurdist works explored humanism and moral responsibility.
  • Born: November 7, 1913 in Mondovi, Algeria
  • Parents: Catherine Hélène Sintès and Lucien Camus
  • Died: January 4, 1960 in Villeblevin, France
  • Education: University of Algiers
  • Selected Works: The Stranger, The Plague, The Fall, Reflections on the Guillotine, The First Man
  • Awards and Honors: 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature
  • Spouses: Simone Hié, Francine Faure
  • Children: Catherine, Jean
  • Notable Quote: “Courage in one’s life and talent in one’s works, that’s not bad at all. And then the writer is engaged when he wishes. His merit lies in this movement and fluctuation.” And “I am a writer. It is not I but my pen that thinks, remembers and discovers.”

Early Life and Education

Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria. His father, Lucien Camus, came from a family of French migrants and worked at a winery until he was brought into service during World War I. On October 11, 1914, Lucien died after being wounded in the Battle of the Marne. The Camus family moved to the working-class district in Algiers shortly after Lucien’s death, where Albert lived with his mother Catherine, his older brother Lucien, his grandmother, and two uncles. Albert was very devoted to his mother, even though they had difficulty communicating due to her hearing and speech impediments.

Camus’ early poverty was formative, and much of his later writing focused on the “awful wear and tear of poverty.” The family didn’t have electricity or running water in their cramped three-room apartment. However, as a Pied-Noir, or European-Algerian, his poverty was not as complete as that faced by Arab and Berber populations in Algeria, who were considered second-class citizens in the French-controlled state. Albert generally enjoyed his youth in Algiers, particularly the beach and the children's street games.

In the workshop of Camus' uncle (Etienne, cooper) in Algiers in 1920 : Albert Camus (7 years old) is in the c with black suit
In the workshop of Albert Camus' uncle in Algiers in 1920. Albert Camus (7 years old) is in the center with black suit. Apic / Getty Images

Camus’ primary school teacher, Louis Germain, saw promise in Albert and tutored him for the scholarship exam to attend the French secondary school, known as the lycée. Albert passed and thus continued his education instead of starting work like his brother Lucien. In secondary school, Camus studied under the philosophy teacher Jean Grenier. Later, Camus wrote that Grenier’s book Islands helped remind him of “holy things” and compensated for his lack of religious upbringing. Camus was diagnosed with tuberculosis and for the rest of his life suffered from debilitating bouts of illness.

In 1933, Camus began studying philosophy at the University of Algiers and, despite many false starts, he kept very busy. In 1934, he married the bohemian morphine addict Simone Hié, whose mother financially supported the couple during their brief marriage. Camus learned that Simone conducted affairs with doctors in exchange for drugs and the pair separated. By 1936, Camus wrote as a journalist for the left-wing Alger Républican, participated in a theater troupe as an actor and playwright, and joined the Communist Party. However, in 1937 Camus was expelled from the party for supporting Arab civil rights. He then wrote a novel, A Happy Death, which wasn’t considered strong enough for publication, so he published his essay collection instead in 1937, The Wrong Side and the Right Side.

Nobel Prize Winning Author Albert Camus
French writer Albert Camus, 1957. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Camus' grades were not exceptional, but should have made him eligible for doctoral study and certification as a philosophy professor. However, in 1938 his application for this degree was rejected by the Surgeon General of Algiers, so that the government would not have to pay for medical care for someone with Camus' history. In 1939, Camus tried to enlist to fight in World War II, but was rejected for health reasons.

Early Work and World War II (1940-46)

  • The Stranger (1942)
  • The Myth of Sisyphus (1943)
  • The Misunderstanding (1944)
  • Caligula (1945)
  • Letters to a German Friend (1945)
  • Neither Victims Nor Executioners (1946)
  • “The Human Crisis” (1946)

In 1940, Camus married a math teacher, Francine Faure. The German occupation prompted the censorship of the Alger Républican, but Camus got a new job working on the layout of the Paris-Soir magazine, so the couple moved to occupied Paris. 

Camus published The Stranger  (L ‘Etranger) in 1942, and the essay collection The Myth of Sisyphus in 1943. The success of these works got him a job as an editor working with his publisher, Michel Gallimard. In 1943, he also became the editor for the resistance newspaper Combat.

In 1944, he wrote and produced the play The Misunderstanding, followed by Caligula in 1945. He developed a robust community and became a part of the Parisian literary scene, befriending Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others around the same time that Francine gave birth to twins: Catherine and Jean. Camus gained international fame as a moral thinker after the end of World War II. He wrote two collections of essays: Letters to a German Friend in 1945 and Neither Victims Nor Executioners in 1946. 

Nobel Prize Winner Albert Camus and His Wife
Albert Camus with his wife as they were interviewed by a newsman in Paris after it was announced that Camus had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Sartre had given a lecture tour in America in 1945 and proclaimed Camus one of France’s best new literary minds. Riding off that endorsement, in 1946 Camus took his own tour, and spent time in New York and Boston. He gave a speech (in French) to the students at Columbia University on the current state of France called, “The Human Crisis.” While the speech was meant to talk about literature and theater, his speech instead focused on “the struggle for life and for humanity.” Explaining the philosophy and morality of his generation, Camus said:

Faced with the absurd world its elders had concocted, they believed in nothing and were forced to rebel...Nationalism seemed an outmoded truth and religion, an escape. 25 years of international politics had taught us to question any notion of purity, and to conclude that no one was ever wrong, because everyone might be right.

Political Conflict and Revolution (1947-1955)

  • The Plague (1947)
  • State of Siege (1948)
  • The Just Assassins (1949)
  • The Rebel (1951)
  • Summer (1954)

The Cold War and human struggles under totalitarianism became increasingly important in Camus' work, and he began focusing more on tyranny and revolution than German moral quandaries. Camus' second novel, The Plague, follows a devastating and randomly destructive plague in French Algeria and was published in 1947, followed by his plays State of Siege in 1948 and The Just Assassins in 1949. 

Camus wrote a treatise on communism, The Rebel, in 1951. In his text, he wrote that Marx misread the declamatory sort of atheism of Nietzsche and Hegel and saw ideas as eternal, thus overriding the importance of man’s daily struggle. “For Marx, nature is to be subjugated in order to obey history.” The treatise suggested that Marxist Soviet communism was a greater evil than capitalism, a view that opposed Sartre’s.

Sartre and Camus had been disagreeing over the historical long game and the importance of the individual for a few years, but their discord came to a head with The Rebel. When a chapter from the treatise was preemptively published in Sartre’s newspaper Les Temps Modernes, Sartre did not review the work himself, but assigned it to an editor that tried to dismantle The Rebel. Camus wrote a long rebuttal, suggesting that “theoretically [liberating] the individual” was not enough if people continued to face hardship. Sartre responded in the same issue, publicly announcing the end of their friendship. Camus became disillusioned with the Parisian intellectual scene and wrote another rebuttal, but never published it.

Wall Street Protest Continues In New York
A woman holds a book by French literary activist Albert Camus in Zuccotti Park along with members of the Occupy Wall Street movement before they marched to the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011 in New York City. Mario Tama / Getty Images

Camus standing in Algeria became fraught in the 50s. He published a nostalgic collection of essays about Algeria, Summer, in 1954, a few months before the Algerian revolutionary National Liberation Front (FLN) started killing pied-noirs to protest inequality. The French retaliated in 1955 and indiscriminately killed and tortured Arab and Berber FLN fighters and civilians. Camus was against both the FLN’s violent tactics and the French government’s racist attitudes. Conflicted, he ultimately sort of sided with the French, saying “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” Sartre sided with the FLN, further deepening their schism. Camus went to Algeria and suggested Algerian autonomy within a French empire coupled with a civilian truce, which neither side supported. The conflict lasted until 1962, when Algeria gained independence, prompting the flight of pied-noirs and marking the end of the Algeria Camus remembered.

Nobel Prize and The First Man (1956-1960)

Camus turned away from the Algerian conflict to write The Fall in 1956, a meditative novel that focused on a French lawyer recounting his life and failings. In 1957, Camus published a short story collection, Exile and the Kingdom, and an essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which condemned the death penalty. 

When Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he thought it a political move. Although he believed André Malraux deserved the award, as a “Frenchman from Algeria,” he hoped the award might foster camaraderie during the conflict, and thus did not turn it down. Camus was isolated and in poor standing with both his communities in Paris and Algeria, yet he remained true to the political nature of his own work, saying in his acceptance speech:

Art must not compromise with lies and servitude which, wherever they rule, breed solitude. Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.

Even though he was the second-youngest recipient in Nobel history, he told reporters that the lifetime achievement award made him question the work he would do after: “The Nobel gave me the sudden feeling of being old.”

Albert Camus Signing Books
Albert Camus, pictured at a book signing after recently being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In January 1959, Camus used his winnings to write and produce an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. He also bought a farmhouse in the French countryside and began working in earnest on his auto-fictional novel, The First Man. But this family idyll was not harmonious. Francine was suffering from mental illness and Camus carried out several simultaneous affairs. At the end of 1959, he was writing love letters to a Danish artist known as Mi, American Patricia Blake, actress Catherine Sellers, and the actress Maria Casares, who Camus had been dating for over 15 years.

Literary Style and Themes

Camus described himself as an atheist with “Christian preoccupations,” as he focused on the meaning of life, reasons for living, and morality, unlike his contemporaries who were more preoccupied with consciousness and free will. Camus cited ancient Greek philosophy as a defining influence, saying in an interview that “I feel I have a Greek heart... the Greeks did not deny their gods, but they only gave them their portion.” He found inspiration in the work of Blaise Pascal, particularly his Pensées, a five-part argument on the merits of believing in a God. He also enjoyed War and Peace and Don Quixote, which he admired for featuring a hero who lived outside the realities of life.

Camus divided his work into cycles ruminating on a single moral problem, yet he was only able to complete two of the planned five before his death. The first cycle, The Absurd, contained The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Misunderstanding, and Caligula. The second cycle, Revolt, was made up of The Plague, The Rebel, and The Just Assassins. The third cycle was to have focused on Judgement and contained The First Man, while sketches for the fourth (Love) and fifth (Creation) cycles were incomplete.

Camus did not consider himself an existentialist, even though he found inspiration in existentialist works by Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. He also thought himself a moral writer, rather than a philosopher, claiming that “I am not a philosopher, and for me thought is an interior adventure that matures, that hurts or transports one.”

Death

After celebrating Christmas and New Year at their country home in Lourmarin, the Camus family headed back to Paris. Francine, Catherine, and Jean took the train, while Camus drove with the Gallimard family. They left Lourmarin on January 3, and the drive was expected to take two days. On the afternoon of January 4, Camus' car swerved, leaving the road in Villeblevin, and struck two trees. Camus died immediately, and Michel passed away in the hospital a few days later. In the wreckage, the police recovered a briefcase containing the unfinished handwritten manuscript for The First Man, which was set in Algeria and was dedicated to his mother, despite her illiteracy. 

Car in which Albert Camus Died
Rescuers take a last look at the shattered wreck of the powerful, custom built Facel Vega auto in which famed French author Albert Camus met death east of Paris. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Fifty years after Camus' death, diary entries were uncovered suggesting that Soviet agents had punctured the tires in Camus' car to prompt the accident. Most scholars discount this theory, as traffic fatalities in France in the 1960s far exceeded the numbers in neighboring states due to a French fascination with fast cars.

Legacy

Despite their public falling out, Sartre wrote a moving obituary for Camus, saying that:

Whatever he did or decided subsequently, Camus would never have ceased to be one of the chief forces of our cultural activity or to represent in his way the history of France and of this century. But we should probably have known and understood his itinerary. He said so himself: "My work lies ahead." Now it is over. The particular scandal of his death is the abolition of the human order by the inhuman.

In a later interview, Sartre described Camus as “probably my last good friend.”

Camus considered The First Man to be his most important work and expressed to friends that it would mark the beginning of his real writing career. The Algerian war precluded The First Man’s publication after Camus' death, and it wasn't until 1994 when the unfinished text was published, in part due to the civil war in Algeria and support by some Algerian writers and publishers, who identified with Camus' work.

His legacy as an Algerian and French writer is a contested one. While he is celebrated in France as a French author, suggestions that he be re-interred in the Panthéon in Paris along with other French literary icons was met with disgust by Jean Camus and French liberals. In Algeria, Camus remains the nation’s only Nobel Prize winner, yet many align him with colonialist attitudes and a continued French cultural imperialism, rejecting his inclusion in an Algerian literary tradition. A tour of events celebrating Camus on the 50th anniversary of his death was prevented in Algeria, following a controversial petition—Alert for the Anticolonial Conscience—against the events.

Sources

  • Beaumont, Peter. “Albert Camus, the Outsider, Is Still Dividing Opinion in Algeria 50 Years after His Death.” The Guardian, 27 Feb. 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/28/albert-camus-algeria-anniversary-row.
  • Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Translated by Anthony Bower, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
  • Camus, Albert. “Albert Camus’ Speech at the Nobel Banquet December 10, 1957.” The Caravan Project, http://www.caravanproject.org/albert-camus-speech-nobel-banquet-december-10-1957/.
  • Hage, Volker. “The Falling-Out of Camus and Sartre.” Spiegel Online, 6 Nov. 2013, https://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/camus-and-sartre-friendship-troubled-by-ideological-feud-a-931969-2.html.
  • Hammer, Joshua. “Why Is Albert Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria?” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 2013.
  • Hughes, Edward J. Albert Camus. Reaktion Books, 2015.
  • Kamber, Richard. On Camus. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.
  • Lennon, Peter. “Camus and His Women.” The Guardian, 15 Oct. 1997, https://www.theguardian.com/books/1997/oct/15/biography.albertcamus.
  • Mortensen, Viggo, performer. Albert Camus's “The Human Crisis” Read by Viggo Mortensen, 70 Years Later. Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaFZJ_ymueA.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Tribute to Albert Camus.” The Reporter Magazine, 4 Feb. 1960, p. 34, http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/philosophy/existentialism/camus/sartre-tribute.html.
  • Sharpe, Matthew. Camus, Philosophe: To Return to Our Beginnings. BRILL, 2015.
  • Zaretsky, Robert. Albert Camus: Elements of a Life. Cornell University Press, 2013.
  • Zaretsky, Robert. “A Russian Plot? No, a French Obsession.” New York Times, 13 Aug. 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/opinion/sunday/the-kgb-killed-camus-how-absurd.html.