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Albert Camus, a biography, and: Camus: A Critical Study of his Life and Work (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 8, Number 1, April 1984
pp. 104-118 | 10.1353/phl.1984.0060

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Critical Discussions Albert Camus, a biography, by Herbert R. Lottman ; xii & 753 pp. New York: Doubleday & Company , 1979, $16.95. Camus: A Critical Study of his Life and Work, by Patrick McCarthy; 359 pp. London : Hamish Hamilton, 1982, £12.50. Discussed by Patrick Henry I It is certainly significant, though not surprising, that both major Camus biographies we now possess, and a good deal of the lasting criticism of Camus's work, have been written by non-Frenchmen. Although he enjoyed overnight fame after the Liberation and despite the fact that by 1972 more than ten million of his books had been sold in France,1 Camus, as early as 1951, had fallen into disrepute in the left-wing intellectual circles of Paris. But at the same time and for the very reasons that his reputation suffered in France — the publication of The Rebel, the subsequent break with Sartre, his Algerian stance — it flourished elsewhere, particularly in the United States, a country he did not especially admire. Today, however, twenty-four years after his death, some critics claim that there is in fact a rehabilitation of Camus in his adopted homeland.2 Herbert Lottman, an American free-lance journalist living in Paris, utilizing documents, journals, and above all interviews, offers us the first major biography of Camus, an exhaustive seven-hundred-and-fifty-page study. Henceforth, it will serve as an indispensable source book for scholars and, as in the case of Patrick McCarthy, for biographers of Camus. Lottman stresses throughout the four-fold vocation of Camus in literature, theatre, politics, and journalism and emphasizes his predominant character traits — his sense of justice, his love of women, his need for friendship, his excessive vulnerability, his passion to create — as he takes us on a detailed journey that begins in the 104 Patrick Henry105 slums of the Belcourt district of Algiers in a home with no books. There is an attack of tuberculosis at the age of seventeen. We move from the newspapers and theatres of Algeria to the newspapers, theatres, and the Resistance of occupied Paris, from one marriage to the next, into liberated France and the veritable stardom ofAlbert Camus to the 1950s and his domestic and public fall, his continued struggle with tuberculosis, his years of writing block during which, ironically, he received the Nobel Prize, and his sudden attacks of claustrophobia and agoraphobia that began shortly after his selection in Stockholm. Abruptly this tragic journey ends with his death in an automobile accident at the age of forty-six, at a moment when he finally seemed to have come to grips with his difficulties, was about to assume the directorship of Le Théâtre de l'Athénée in Paris and, above all, had completed 80,000 words of his most autobiographical work, The First Man, which has yet to see the light ofday. Lottman's study is characterized by careful scholarship, devotion to his subject , and the weaving together of interviews and the documentary record. The Camus heirs gave him access to documents and unpublished manuscripts, including The First Man. He spoke with scores of people in several countries and perhaps succeeds best in grasping Camus in the first section, devoted to Camus's youth. Although his sympathy for Camus is obvious and deep, Lottman's work is not hagiography. He records negative views about Camus and criticizes him specifically, for example, over the break with Pascal Pia (p. 352) and the nervous breakdown of his second wife, Francine (p. 527). Lottman is also generally objective in his narration of the Sartre/Camus falling out, although he did not interview either Sartre or Beauvoir. To ascertain their point of view, he relies heavily on the tatter's memoirs and on conversations with FrancisJeanson who, in 1952, wrote the scathing review of The Rebel in Les Temps Modernes. The importance of Lottman's book resides in the fact that he has greatly expanded our knowledge of Camus, making available an enormous amount of new information that covers not only historical events but deeper and more meaningful facts about his life. While it would be possible to fill pages with this new information, I will limit my discussion...