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Reviewed by:
  • Albert Camus by Edward J. Hughes
  • Peter Dunwoodie
Albert Camus. By Edward J. Hughes. (Critical Lives.) London: Reaktion Books, 2015. 215 pp., ill.

The back cover of this book claims that it ‘unravels the life of a complex personality’. Fortunately, it doesn’t. Instead, while it opens with a falsely naïve question ‘Who is Camus?’, and while it confronts all the well-known nodal points of his biography, it leaves one with the feeling that Albert Camus may well have been a very reluctant (and bruised) fellow-traveller of the ‘iconic writer Camus’, with whom he could never quite coincide. In allowing this reading Edward J. Hughes remains faithful to a 1958 entry from Camus’s diary and now placed, in anticipation, in the book’s Introduction: ‘Muted and unformulated, that is how life is rich for me’ (p. 11). For Hughes, Camus felt ‘acutely the isolation and estrangement that [came] with his experience as a high-profile writer’ (p. 118), and the collective and public/private chronologies that he examines—the well-known context and events of a life between 1913 and 1960, between Algeria and France—produce not a narrative of uncovering or unravelling but an accretion of emotional and intellectual crises. In tracing the ‘achievements, [ ... ] limitations and the impasses encountered’ by Camus (p. 15), Hughes eschews artificial coherence and prefers to offer for perusal the available textual evidence, not just the oft-mined Notebooks and journalism but items from the Ponge, Char, and Guilloux correspondence published since the last major biography (Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: une vie (Paris: Gallimard, 1996)), and a highly personal intellectual biography by Michel Onfray (L’Ordre libertaire: la vie philosophique d’Albert Camus (Paris: Flammarion, 2012)): in the young schoolboy uneasy at growing away from an illiterate family; in the author recalling what is ‘blind and instinctive’ (p. 35) in him or his ‘horrible anarchy’ (p. 176) and his struggle with self-discipline; in the ‘extenuating effort’ needed to write (p. 104); in his ‘acute isolation’ (p. 118) as an outsider in Paris; in the ‘doubt about [his] vocation’ (p. 120); in the acute anxiety and isolation that dogged him throughout the 1950s; and, finally, in his grinding to a halt. To complement this, Hughes points—as is common in biographical approaches to the œuvre—to elements of the fiction seen as incorporating (L’Étranger, La Peste, Le Premier Homme), or at times staging (L’Envers et l’endroit, La Chute), strands of the tension and anguish experienced by Camus. The biography constructs Camus’s ‘time’ as a series of dislocations, to which he was [End Page 620] forced to react but which he was rarely able to shape; and his œuvre, despite the implication of duration/progression inherent in the term, as something wrested out of shape: by war and fascism; by the intellectual feud with Sartre and the Communist Left; by the Algerian War of Independence ... Or as something just begun: the unfinished Premier Homme being, wrote Camus, ‘starting for real’ (p. 174). Anguish and pessimism thus haunt this biography, but that is the unavoidable result of the biographer’s success in setting before the reader the portrait of a writer forced, as he acknowledged in a letter to Jean Grenier in 1959, to become ‘resigned to cohabiting with oneself ’ (p. 166).

Peter Dunwoodie
Goldsmiths, University of London


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