This Day In Writing History
On November 7th, 1913, the legendary French writer, journalist, and philosopher Albert Camus was born in El Taref, Algeria. Throughout his life, Algeria was a French colony, and what he saw of colonial life was reflected in his writings and philosophy.
Camus never knew his father Lucien, who died when he was a year old. Lucien was killed in the Battle of the Marne during the first world war. Albert and his mother, who was Spanish and half-deaf, lived in poverty in the Belcourt section of Algiers.
While studying at the University of Algiers, Camus excelled at both academics and soccer. His career as a star goalkeeper was cut short when he contracted tuberculosis. The disease would come and go over the years.
After graduating from university, Camus joined the French Communist Party. He was not a hardcore communist, and when he became involved with the Algerian People's Party, the Soviet Union denounced him as a Trotskyite and had the French Communist Party expel him.
The Algerian People's Party was a socialist party led by prominent Algerian nationalist Messali Hadji - one of many leftist parties that had formed a coalition centered around Algerian independence from French rule.
The fragile coalition would break apart due to infighting; the Soviet Union was determined to see a communist Algeria under its control, but the parties not allied with it were calling for a fully independent Algeria.
After being expelled by the French Communist Party, Albert Camus would associate himself with the French anarchist movement. He began a career in journalism and wrote for socialist newspapers. Meanwhile, the looming threat of Hitler increased.
Camus went to France and tried to enlist in the military but was disqualified because of his recurring tuberculosis. During the Nazi occupation of France, he joined the French Resistance.
The French Resistance cell Camus joined was called Combat, and he served as the editor-in-chief of its underground newspaper of the same name, writing under the pseudonym Beauchard.
When the Allies liberated France, Camus was there to witness and report on the defeat of the Nazis. Later, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he was one of the few French newspaper editors to speak out against the bombing and express disgust.
It was during the Nazi occupation of France that Albert Camus would publish his first novel. The Stranger (1942) was a classic work of existentialist and absurdist philosophical fiction.
Meursault, a young Algerian, drifts aimlessly through the tumultuous French Algerian landscape. Unable to feel for anyone including himself, he attends his mother's funeral, meets a girl, becomes entangled in the life of a local pimp, and ends up inexplicably killing a man.
Arrested, jailed, and put through an absurd trial, Meursault's defense is obviously a deficiency of character - the product of his environment. In telling his story, Camus explores the paradox of existentialism - the search for meaning in a meaningless world.
A year after The Stranger was published, Camus met the legendary French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre at the dress rehearsal of Sartre's play, The Flies. The two men became close friends. Camus referred to Sartre as his "study partner."
In 1947, Camus published his second novel, The Plague. Although set in the 1940s, this classic novel was inspired by an epidemic of cholera that ravaged the population of the Algerian city of Oran in 1849 - right after France colonized Algeria.
In the novel, the streets of modern Oran become infested with rats carrying the plague. The rats start dying en masse, but not before transmitting the disease to the human population.
Dr. Bernard Rieux, a wealthy physician, is the first to recognize that a plague is spreading. He alerts the authorities, who waste time quibbling over what action to take. Rieux opens a plague ward in the town hospital, and its 80 beds are filled in three days.
As the city struggles to contain the plague, the authorities are left with no option but to seal the city to keep the plague from ravaging all of Algeria. One man tries to get criminals to smuggle him out of the city.
Dr. Rieux teams up with civil servant Joseph Grand and tourist Jean Tarrou to treat all the incoming plague cases. Meanwhile, Father Paneloux, an ambitious Catholic priest, declares that the plague is an act of God unleashed to punish the citizens for their sins.
The desperate people of Oran flock to the Church in droves and a new plague begins to ravage the city - the plague of religion. When Father Paneloux witnesses firsthand the efforts to contain the rat plague and the horrors that the disease causes, the priest has a change of heart.
In the 1950s, Camus devoted his life to human rights causes. He worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), but resigned when the UN decided to recognize Spain's fascist dictatorship under General Franco.
When the Algerian War broke out in 1954, Camus found himself at a political crossroad. He was in favor of Algerian independence, but opposed the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) freedom fighters - Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas backed by the Soviet Union.
As the vicious FLN guerrillas fought the equally vicious French colonial army, Camus feared for the lives of the innocent Algerian and French citizens caught in the crossfire. He ultimately sided with the French, alienating himself from his friends, including Jean-Paul Sartre.
Undaunted by the criticism, Camus worked behind the scenes to save the lives of imprisoned Algerians who had been sentenced to death by the French colonial government. He was a vocal opponent of capital punishment, a position he expressed in his classic essay, Reflections on the Guillotine.
In 1956, The Fall, Camus' last novel published during his lifetime was released. The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In addition to his novels, he wrote plays, short stories, essays, and works of non-fiction.
Four years later, on January 4th, 1960, Albert Camus was riding in a car driven by his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard, when they were both killed in an accident. Camus had originally intended to travel by train with his wife and twin daughters, but decided to ride with Gallimard instead. He was 46 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself." - Albert Camus
Today's video features a rare 1959 French TV interview with Albert Camus. In French with English subtitles. Enjoy!