Camus (1913-43) Algeria years, birth to The Stranger
Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria on 7th November 1913, the second son of Lucien and Catherine Camus. His father worked as a cellarman and his mother was a cleaning woman. Albert lived with his father for just eight months, until the outbreak of World War I. Lucien was called up and was among the first to be wounded in the Battle of Marne. He died of his wounds on October 11th 1914.
Camus spent his childhood years living in a small three-bedroom apartment, on the Rue de Lyon in the working class suburb of Belcourt in Algiers. The apartment had no electricity or running water; the toilets were on the landing and shared with the two other apartments in the block. The household was run under the domineering hand of his maternal grandmother – a hand that carried a whip made from the neck ligament of a bull. Fierce, occasionally cruel, and prone to histrionics she ruled over the family living under her roof: her daughter Catherine and two sons Joseph and Etienne as well as Catherine’s sons, Lucien and Albert.
In 1923, Camus went to school. He was a bright and eager student, whose abilities did not go unnoticed by his teacher Louis Germain. It was Germain who encouraged the young Camus to seek the scholarship that would allow him to continue on to high school. Camus’s mother and grandmother were both illiterate, Catherine was also partially deaf and spoke so little that some people mistakenly believed her to be mute. The family expected Albert to follow in his brother’s footsteps, leaving school as a soon as possible, getting a job, and bringing home some much needed income. Catherine’s widow’s pension was eight-hundred francs plus three hundred for each child, her cleaning job brought in about a thousand francs a month. Her brother Etienne worked as a barrel-maker in the nearby cooperage. Camus would draw on his uncle’s experiences later in the short story, Les Muets. The other uncle, Joseph, had a job on the railway and Camus’ brother took labouring jobs. However, Germain was able to convince the grandmother that if Albert had a secondary education he’d be able to get better paying jobs after graduation. With her permission, he included her grandson in the small group of students seeking scholarship he tutored for a couple of hours every day. Camus took advantage of this opportunity and was rewarded with a scholarship in June 1924.
Scholarship children were entitled to a free breakfast. For Camus, this meant getting up at 5.30am in order to be at school before seven to eat his meal. A new school meant meeting new friends. Belcourt was a multicultural area; there were French settlers, Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and, of course, Arabs, but it was at high school that Camus first mixed with children from different economic backgrounds. On one occasion he was embarrassed to fill in his mother’s occupation on a school form as a ‘domestic’ – and then felt shame at his embarrassment. Camus was never ashamed of his poverty but it was he who wanted to be the one to share this information, not be made to share details about his background. This strictly need-to-know attitude to personal information, Camus would carry with him his whole life. Later close friends were astonished, for example, to discover Camus’s first marriage; a fact he’d never felt the need to share with people he didn’t think needed to know.
School was a happy time for Camus: he loved swimming and playing football but he also enjoyed the intellectual challenge, reading Gide and Malraux in his spare time. These two authors would have a lasting impression on him. Little could the boy in Algiers have suspected that one day he’d be living in Gide’s Paris Apartment and that his books would be recommended by Malraux.
In 1930 an attack of tuberculosis meant that Camus could not return to school. It also meant leaving the cramped apartment on the Rue de Lyon where there was too great a risk of him infecting the brother with whom he shared a room. He moved in with Gustave and Antoinette Acault, an uncle and aunt. The Acaults owned a butchers shop, which meant plenty of red meat for Camus, which was then believed to be good for TB sufferers. In a time before antibiotics, folk remedies were considered an important complement to the painful lung-collapse therapy that had to be endured. Uncle Acault’s red meat certainly would have done Camus no harm but would have had no effect on his lungs. Another widely held belief at the time was that high altitudes were good for lung patients. Throughout his life, Camus would retire to the mountains in the hope of combating his illness.
Uncle Gustave was an unusual fellow, a local character who preferred holding court in the cafe across the road to chopping meat in his shop. He was self-educated, owned complete volumes of writers such as Balzac, Hugo and Zola, and professed anarchist politics. The charismatic butcher took care over his appearance, dressing like a dandy and reportedly adding a few drops of blood to his clothes to complete the look. Camus had come from a home with no books and little in the way of conversation, certainly not discussions of literature and politics. Gustave took a real shine to his nephew and having no children of his own had hopes that Albert would one day take over the shop. As business owners the Acaults were better off than the Camus’s and Gustave gave his nephew a generous allowance as well as occasional use of his car at a time when cars were relatively rare on the streets of Algiers.
Back at school Camus met the man who arguably had the greatest influence in his life. Jean Grenier taught philosophy, he had written a book, Islands, and was friends with Camus’s idol André Malraux. Almost thirty years later Camus, in a preface for Islands, acknowledged the debt he owed Grenier’s book for the overwhelming effect and influence it had on him.
Thanks to his uncle’s influence and money Camus started dressing like a dandy. This, coupled with an aloof, almost haughty attitude stood him apart from most of his classmates. He liked to quote Chestov and Proust, and to discuss literature, poetry and classical music with his friends Claude de Fréminville and André Belamich. However, although he was slightly smaller than some of the other boys, he was no weakling, ready to settle a score with his fists if needed. Nor was he foppish; pretentious quotes notwithstanding, he could be verbally aggressive, cold or sarcastic depending on the situation. Some of his circle of friends complained that he seemed always to be making fun of them. One such friend, Louis Benisti, who was ten years older than Camus, once shouted at him, ‘We’re all doing our best, so why be ironic?’1 Taken aback by this outburst, Camus paled and the two became firm friends.
There was another side of Camus that contrasted with the reserved manner and air of intellectual superiority, a congenial Camus ready to entertain others with a dirty joke or obscene song. The boys liked to go to cafes and bars to discuss literature, poetry and politics. Two places, representative of the two sides of Camus’ character, that the friends liked to go were a cafe near the Kasbah that was frequented by Gide during his stays in Algiers, and a seedy bar called ‘The Lower Depths’ run by a dwarf called Coco, which was decorated in the corner with a guillotine and a skeleton fitted with a mechanical phallus.
Max-Pol Fouchet, who would find notoriety as an art historian and fame as a television presenter, was a classmate and one-time friend of Camus. Fouchet was in a four year relationship with Simone Hié, whom he’d met when she was fifteen. Simone was good looking and vampish, seductive with a strong personality. She was also a drug addict, addicted to the morphine given to her for menstrual pain when she was fourteen. Among Camus’s friends she was seen as wild and dangerous to know. And they were all, to varying degrees, attracted to her. When Camus seduced her, or she seduced him, Simone was unofficially engaged to Fouchet, with some idea of getting married once his military service was completed. Suddenly, for Fouchet, Simone disappeared. Days went past without sign and then he received a message from Camus that he wanted to meet. Strolling along the beach, Camus told his friend, ‘She won’t come back. She has chosen.’2
Fouchet took the news quite well and told his rival, and friend, that he was glad it was him rather than anyone else who had won Simone’s heart. Camus replied, ‘I was wondering if you had genius, and you’re proving that you do.’3 Fouchet considered this way of seeing things as part of the game they played at that time, and indeed it smacks of self-justifying pretentiousness on Camus’s part. To be fair to Camus, he and Simone were in their late teens, an age when pretentiousness can be forgiven. However, despite Fouchet’s comments, gracious in defeat, it appears he could not forgive his friend; he and Camus would soon drift apart never to be reconciled.
During his last year at school, Camus began to get some of his articles published, encouraged by Jean Grenier, in a small literary magazine, Sud. If he hadn’t before, Camus now had serious ambitions to write and be published. It was also around this time that his formidable grandmother died. Camus would draw on his experience of her death in The Wrong Side and the Right Side. In 1933, Camus entered the University of Algiers, studying once more under Jean Grenier who had joined the philosophy department. But things at home were not going well. Uncle Acault did not approve of Simone and Camus had clashed with his uncle over taking other girls back to his room. Perhaps this was the tipping point. Relations between Gustave and Albert had been slowly deteriorating, the younger man now beginning to view the older man’s strong personality as domineering and patronizing with the result that Camus left the Acaults to live with his brother Lucien. Leaving the butcher shop meant saying goodbye to his allowance and Camus had to find odd jobs to support himself. A year after enrolling at University of Algiers, on June 16th 1934, he and Simone were married.
Camus studied for two diplomas and in 1935 received an honorable mention in History of Philosophy and Logic. It is around this time that he toyed with the idea of writing a play about the despotic Roman Emperor Caligula. However, many years would pass and there would be several rewrites before the play reached the final form we have today. One possible career choice for Camus, which had been a semi-plan ever since Louis Germain persuaded the boy’s grandmother to let him go to high school, was teaching. Camus now actively pursued this goal, getting a student loan of 4500 francs. A requirement for the teacher’s license was a written thesis of around a hundred pages. Camus chose the title ‘Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism: Plotinus and Augustine’. The thesis was submitted on May 8th 1936 and on the 25 th he was granted his diploma. Camus, however, would never become a teacher. Two years after being awarded his diploma and given a clean bill of health (although this was probably exaggerated by a sympathetic doctor) he was rejected on medical grounds.
Camus’ marriage was in a precarious state. He had believed that Simone, once married, would settle down, get off the drugs and tone down her more eccentric behaviour. Still using drugs, still flirting with his friends, Simone proved impossible to control and Camus was a man who needed control in his life. Things came to a head in July of 1936, on a kayaking holiday with his wife and his friend Yves Bourgeois. Paddling across Europe wasn’t the ideal activity for a man with a lung condition and a few days into the trip Camus awoke in severe pain. He had to leave his canoe behind and travel by bus and on foot while Simone and Yves paddled on without him. In Salzburg, Camus told his friend that he planned to split with his wife.
It was possible to pick up mail along the way. On one pickup Camus discovered a letter addressed to his wife. It was from Simone’s doctor, Camus read it and discovered that this doctor was also her lover. The loneliness and depression experienced by Camus at this time is written up in his essay Death in the Soul and appears in his abandoned (and posthumously published) novel The Happy Death. It was also on this trip that he passed through the Czech city Budejovice, which would later become the setting for his play Cross Purpose (also known as The Misunderstanding).
Encouraged by his friends and his mentor Jean Grenier, Camus joined the Communist Party. This was a period of his life that he was later never comfortable elaborating upon (unsurprising considering his later animosity towards the Communists). Camus’s role within the party was as a kind of touring propaganda agent. He would deliver lectures, run front organizations, and put together plays that at times were little more than blatant political propaganda. One such play, adapted from Malraux’s novel Le Temps du mépris, had Camus’ friend Marguerite Dobrenn acting the part of Lenin’s widow standing in the audience proclaiming, ‘Vladimir Ilich loved the people deeply’4. In seeking permission to adapt the play, Camus was thrilled to receive a one word reply from his idol Malraux (pictured above left); it read simply ‘joue’ (‘play’ in the familiar tu form).
The second effort, a play about striking miners in fascist Spain, Révolte dans les Asturies, was effectively banned by the right-wing mayor of Algiers, Augustin Rozis. With performance prohibited, the script was published instead. The original hand-written manuscript was lost and how much was written by Camus is not known, although it is probable that he wrote most of it. Other duties for the Party included the tiresome newspaper selling and fly-posting, as well as the organization and running of study groups. Camus was part of an anti-fascist group at the university. The sketch drawn by Patrick McCarthy of Camus at this time is one of a hard-line militant: ‘… some students met to discuss how they could combat the right’s overwhelming influence in Algiers. Camus frequently showed his intransigent character; then he would castigate them for their weakness and lay down the line to follow.’5 In later life Camus would search for a viable left-wing alternative to the Communist Party, so it is notable that one of his duties as a militant at this time was to speak at a meeting intending to persuade left-leaning students to join the Party. He was shouted down by the crowd and left the hall in a fury.6
It is unclear exactly when Camus left the Communist Party. What is known is that he waited to be kicked out rather than tear-up his Party card, unlike many of his friends who quit over the Party’s position on the Arabs. The Algerian Communist Party held the kind of subordinate position to the French Party that the French Party held to the Soviets. Stalin, concerned about the threat posed by Hitler, favoured a strong France. Consequently, Communist opposition to militarism in France was played down, as well as the anti-colonial stance that might also weaken the French. This message was relayed to the Algerian Party and Arab nationalists, former allies, were now political enemies. Camus’s failure to toe the Party line, in particular his continuing support for nationalists such as Messali Hadj, led to his expulsion in 1937.
Camus had long been concerned that his political activities might get in the way of his writing. So it must have taken the sting out of his expulsion from the Party that around this time his first collection of essays, The Wrong Side and the Right Side, was published by Charlot, the publisher of his play Révolte dans les Asturies. The run was limited to 350 copies and no-one in Paris took the slightest notice. There was a small reaction in Algeria; the Oran Républicain accused him of mimicking Grenier and considered the essays pessimistic and bitter. Camus, starting a pattern he would continue throughout his life, took the responses badly and blamed his critics for not understanding his work and himself for not making himself understood.
In 1937 Camus, along with friends, travelled from Algiers to Paris. In Avignon Camus was struck with anxiety, feeling ill with a ‘nameless fear’ that often overcame him when traveling. In Lyon, he was already feeling homesick. After visiting the World’s Fair in Paris, he moved on alone to Embron, where he decided to stay for a month. Here Camus focused on his novel, The Happy Death, as well as making some notes on a new work that would become The Stranger. When the friends met up again, they travelled to Italy. Back in Algiers Marguerite showed him some pictures she took of him on the trip; Camus was appalled. Handing her back the photos he complained of looking like a barber’s assistant and would ‘prefer not to know the truth.’7 Camus was offered a job as a substitute teacher 60km from Oran but turned it down. This was a brave decision made with his mind set on a writing career; to make ends meet he took up a temporary post carrying out mundane tasks for the meteorology institute.
Those who resigned or were expelled from the Communist Party could no longer participate in their theatre company, and so a new group needed to be formed. In a manifesto published by Charlot the Théâtre de l’Equipe declared itself free of political and religious tendencies. One of the plays they chose to perform was written by André Gide, who as we have already seen was an early idol of Camus, and was an interesting choice as Gide’s anti-Stalinism was currently being reviled by the Communists. Around this time Camus was losing hope in his novel, A Happy Death, realizing that the book just didn’t work.
The possibility of a different type of writing, one that could possibly solve his current job problems, was journalism. Camus, who would work on various papers in various roles throughout his life, did not consider journalism as any kind of vocation, in fact he complained to Grenier of the ‘lowly pleasures’ of writing for the papers. However lowly these pleasures were they were preferable to the mind-numbing jobs he’d taken so far. Whilst putting together an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for the Théâtre de l’Equipe, Camus sought work on a new paper about to be launched, the Alger Républicain.
Denied the chance of being a teacher and his work at the meteorology institute over he saw a new opportunity open with the opening of a new newspaper, Algiers Républicain. In 1937 Camus joined the staff of the left-wing newspaper run by the anarchic Pascal Pia. His job was to write editorials, political and literary articles.
As court reporter he covers local miscarriages of justice, notably the Hodent and Sheik El Okbi trial and as an investigative journalist he writes a series of challenging articles of the poverty in Kabylia. He is upset that, when covering story about conditions on a prison ship he is unable to give a cigarette to one of the prisoners. The sight of fashionable ladies out to gawk at the imprisoned men also gets to Camus. A theme that runs through his journalism is humiliation: men in chains, miscarriages of justice, and the degradation of extreme poverty.
Camus was making notes for The Stranger at this time and his experiences as a court reporter will be put to use in this novel. Indeed, Camus even writes himself into the novel with a small cameo as a young reporter in a blue suit. One of his other responsibilities was a section of the paper called ‘The Reading Room’ for which he would write, sometimes self-serving, book reviews (his Nuptials received a favourable write-up). It is for the Algiers Républicain that Camus reviews Sartre’s Nausea and Le Mur. Working on the paper got in the way of his theatre work, which was put on pause at this time, but Camus continued to chip away at his works.
As mentioned, he made notes for The Stranger and published his second collection of essays, Nuptials. He is also working on his play Caligula and essay on the absurd that will become The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus was not a writer to start projects and then abandon them. Once he started on something, he would grind away at it until the job was done even if the finished manuscript was to end up put away in a drawer like A Happy Death.
The outbreak of the second world war brought about the end of The Algiers Républicain. Paper shortages didn’t help matters but it was the left-wing, almost anarchic, position on war taken by the paper that couldn’t be tolerated. Camus took the unusual position of being both anti-Hitler and anti-Stalin, accusing Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR of being predatory. At a time when being a pacifist was politically dangerous, Camus and Pia were publishing anti-war sentiments. The paper was heavily censored, even passages taken from the treaty of Versailles had to be cut. Attacks on the mayor, Camus’ nemesis who had effectively banned Révolte dans les Asturies, meant that the paper has no friends in power. The paper was closed with only the evening edition, Le Soir, running; Camus, Pia and one other writer made up the staff. On January 10th 1940, this paper was also shut down with the police seizing any copies they could find. Camus was once again jobless.
From September 1939 Camus attempted several times to enlist. His notebooks are filled with entries on the humiliation of the men who didn’t sign up. Ticket collectors are slapped, men out of uniform leave their apartments early in the morning and wait until late at night to sneak home. Camus was too ill to join the men he considered his brothers in battle and for a man’s man like Camus this reality was deeply humiliating. At least he had time for what he was now referring to as ‘his works’. In July of 1939, he thought he had completed Caligula but after reading through the type-written pages (Camus sent manuscripts away to be typed) he felt the work was not good enough and needed rewriting. He was also working through what he called his ‘essay on the absurd’ which would become The Myth of Sisyphus.
Things were hard for Camus after his paper was shut down. He found himself lonely and depressed in Algiers. However, things looked up slightly after his back pay from the paper came through and, thanks to Pia, he managed to get a job in Paris working as an editorial secretary on Paris-Soir. He leaves for Paris in March of 1940.
Camus didn’t like Paris. He didn’t like most of the people whom he thought were phonies and dreadful thinkers. Work for Paris-Soir was uninspiring but it was a good job nonetheless; Camus was an editorial secretary on 3000 francs a month. There were no writing duties, which was no tragedy for Camus who wanted to work on his own writing, and the hours were short, just five a day. The Myth of Sisyphus was now half-written and he was estimating the end of summer for the completion of The Stranger and Caligula. At the same time Camus was filled with doubt.
Unlike his character Meursault, who has no ambition and gave up analysing himself, Camus is plagued by self-doubt and is obsessed with the idea that he may end up wasting his life. He swung between hopeful optimism and dejected pessimism. At times he wondered if he hadn’t been too ambitious, taking on more than he was capable of. And later he found himself almost marveling at his lucidity and power.8
There was, of course, a war on and by May of 1940 the Germans were bombarding Paris as Camus was finishing The Stranger. Holland was taken by the Germans and couple of months later Italy declared war on France. Camus attempted to enlist as a volunteer and was, yet again, rejected on medical grounds. A couple of days before the German army marched through Paris, Camus, along with the staff of Paris-Soir, evacuated to Clermont. The paper then got to work publishing anti-Semitic articles as well as pieces in favour of Marshal Pétain (Camus didn’t contribute a single article). Camus was concerned at this time that due to his past, as a militant for the Communists and editor of a Jewish-owned anti-Hitler newspaper, that his name might be on some Nazi hit-list.
In September, his divorce from Simone Hié was made final. Camus had several girlfriends since the breakdown of his marriage, most of these relationships ran concurrently. For the rest of his life he would never commit himself to one woman. He and Simone split in late 1936, and in the January of 1937 he was in a relationship with Christiane Galindo, introduced to him by two of his female friends, Marguerite Dobrenn and Jeanne Sicard. It is Christiane’s brother, Pierre, who will become Camus’ inspiration for Meursault in The Stranger. Later that summer, Camus meets Francine Faure, whom he will later marry, and then in December he meets, through the theatre group, a pharmacology student and part-time actress, Lucette Meurer.
It was very rare for Camus to discuss his work with men; he preferred to share this burden with the women in his life and was regularly exchanging letters with Christiane, Francine and Lucette. He wrote to Lucette about Sartre’s Nausea shortly before he published his 1938 review for ‘The Reading Room’. With Francine he shared, in 1939, his worries and doubts over his novel (The Stranger) and essay (The Myth of Sisyphus). Earlier that year he had written to Christiane about his dissatisfaction over the current state of his play Caligula. In Paris, while he was working for Paris-Soir, Camus writes to another girlfriend Yvonne Ducailar, a woman he’d met during his time at the Alger Républicain, about his concerns over ‘wasting his life’9 and his probable decision to marry Francine.
This letter is more than just a sharing of woes; it’s a ‘dear John’ or in this case, a ‘dear Yvonne’. However, their relationship doesn’t finally end until September of 1940; his divorce from Simone was now through and he had promised to marry Francine when he was free to do so. She arrived in Lyon that November and the two were married on December 3rd 1940.
Camus is let go by Paris-Soir shortly afterwards and he and his new wife return to Algeria . However, by January of 1941, Camus already felt suffocated and wanted to leave. He would write several letters to Yvonne about his unhappiness. In one letter, dated February 21st, 1941, he writes that Sisyphus is completed and so are his three absurds. On a trip to the beach with friends he reads in the newspaper about a crime: a man turns up to a hotel run by his family, they don’t recognise who he is and murder him for his money. This story will be used for his darkest play, Cross Purpose. Much to the understandable annoyance of Francine’s family, Camus goes camping with Yvonne and Christiane. He is still in communication with Lucette, and now that his absurds are over, he writes to her asking for books on the plague from university libraries in Algiers .
In April of 1941 Camus sent the completed manuscripts of The Stranger and Caligula to Pascal Pia and Jean Grenier. Pia likes them both whereas Grenier is unsure about the play. Through their connections these men get Camus’s manuscripts passed on to André Malraux who likes the work but believes that Camus will be compared to Sartre (he wrote to Camus advising him ‘not to give a fuck’)10.
Based on recommendations by Malraux The Stranger is accepted for publication by Gallimard. Encouraged by the warm reception, Camus then sends out his essay. He wants the works to be published together and Malraux thinks he can persuade Gallimard to publish The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus together.
Just months before the publication of his first novel in May 1942, Camus fell ill. He wanted to go to Paris where the action was but the poor condition of his health prevented it. Francine had family in the Le Panelier, a small village not far from Lyons, and Camus was advised to spend the approaching winter there. Meanwhile, The Stranger was causing a stir in Paris. In September Sartre wrote his, now famous, ‘Explication on The Stranger’ and Gallimard was confident of the book’s success. Camus, however, was not satisfied with the reviews. He felt he’d been misunderstood just as he had been in Algeria when his essay collections were under, the far more limited, spotlight.
Francine stayed with Camus for while in Le Panelier but had to return to her work in Oran when the summer was over. In November 1942 the Allied landing in North Africa cut Camus off from Francine; the two would not be reunited until after the Liberation of Paris. Separated from his novel in Paris and his wife in Oran, Camus spend his time visiting St. Etienne for lung treatments and working on his new play Cross Purpose. Finally, three days before the new year, Camus’s travel permit was approved which allowed him to travel to Paris and a hero’s welcome.
1.Herbert R. Lottman, Albert Camus: A Biography , Axis Publishing (1997) p.52
5.Patrick McCarthy, Camus , Random House (1982) p.77
7.Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life , Vintage (1998) p.66