Albert Camus

Another famous figure who found refuge in Lourmarin is Albert Camus, a French-Algerian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 at the age of 44, the second youngest recipient in history (Rudyard Kipling was 42). His best-known works, including The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947), are exemplars of absurdism. Camus died in a car accident and is buried in Lourmarin.

Albert Camus was born in Mondavi, French Algeria to a poor family, lived without many basic material possessions during his childhood. His mother, Catherine, was of Spanish descent. She could only hear with her left ear. His father, Lucien, a poor French-Algerian agricultural worker, died in the Battle of the Marne in 1914 during World War I; Camus never knew him.

His paternal grandfather, along with many others of his generation, had moved to Africa for a better life during the first decades of the 19th century. Camus he was called pied-noir, or ‘black foot’, a slang term for French who were born in Algeria. His binational identity and his poor background had a substantial effect on his later life.

He did well at school and studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. He played goalie for the soccer team – in match reports he was often praised for playing with passion and courage – but he quit after contracting tuberculosis, instead focusing on his academic studies. By 1936, he had obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy.

Personal life

Camus, a handsome man, was a bit of a womaniser. He married and divorced twice as a young man, stating his disapproval of the institution of marriage throughout, and had many extramarital affairs.

When he was just 20 he met a beautiful drug addict named Simone Hié. She was addicted to morphine, and despite his family’s disapproval Camus married her to help her fight her addiction. He later discovered she was in a relationship with her doctor at the same time and the couple divorced.

As the Germans were marching towards Paris in 1940, Camus fled. He ended up in Lyon where he married pianist and mathematician Francine Faure, with whom he had twins in 1945. The couple moved back to Algeria where he taught in primary schools but because of his tuberculosis he was forced to move to the French Alps. There he began writing his works dealing with revolt: a novel (The Plague) and a play (The Misunderstanding).

Camus had numerous affairs, particularly an irregular and eventually public one with the Spanish-born actress María Casares, with whom he had an extensive correspondence. Faure did not take this affair lightly. She had a mental breakdown and needed hospitalisation in the early 1950s. Camus, who felt guilty, withdrew from public life and was slightly depressed for some time.

Literary career and politics

Camus became political during his student years, joining first the Communist Party and then the Algerian People’s Party. In 1938, Camus began working for the leftist newspaper Alger Républicain as he had strong anti-fascist feelings, and the rise of fascist regimes in Europe was worrying him. By then, Camus had developed strong feelings against authoritative colonialism as he witnessed the harsh treatment of the Arabs and Berbers by French authorities.

As a champion of individual rights, he opposed French colonisation and argued for the empowerment and equality of Algerians. He would later be associated with the French anarchist movement. He was in Paris when the Germans invaded France during World War II. Camus volunteered to join the army but was not accepted having suffered from tuberculosis. Instead he joined the resistance and served as editor-in-chief at Combat, an outlawed newspaper.

When he returned to Paris in 1943 he met and became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre. He also joined a circle of intellectuals – Simone de Beauvoir, André Breton and others. Like Sartre, Camus wrote and published political commentary on the war. In 1945, he was one of the few Allied journalists to condemn the American use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. He was also an outspoken critic of communist theory, eventually leading to a rift with Sartre.

As an Algerian, Camus brought a fresh, outsider perspective to French literature of the period – related to but distinct from the metropolitan literature of Paris.

The dominant philosophical contribution of Camus’s work is absurdism. While he is often associated with existentialism, he rejected the label, expressing surprise that he would be viewed as a philosophical ally of Sartre. Elements of absurdism and existentialism are present in Camus’s most celebrated writing especially in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). The protagonists of The Stranger and The Plague must also confront the absurdity of social and cultural orthodoxies, with dire results.

Albert Camus  (1913–1960)
Albert Camus  (1913–1960)

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus

Albert Camus is laid to rest in Lourmarin
Albert Camus is laid to rest in Lourmarin

Later years

In addition to novels, he wrote and adapted plays, and was active in the theatre in the 1940s and ’50s. His later literary works include The Fall (1956) and Exile and the Kingdom (1957). In 1957, Camus was shocked to receive the news, while dining with girlfriend Patricia Blake, that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Using his prize money as funding, he adapted and directed for the stage Dostoyesvsky‘s novel Demons. In January of 1959, The Possessed opened at the Antoine Theatre in Paris to mixed reviews. In order to try and make money the decision was made to go on tour with the play and this plan was successful with over 600 performances.

For Francine’s benefit, Maria Casares was not cast, although his latest mistress, Catherine Sellers, was given a role. Francine knew they were lovers but pretended ignorance. Meanwhile, Maria and Camus were still together and took a trip to Greece. A new girlfriend was also on the scene, a young Danish art student called Mi.

Ties with Lourmarin

Camus spent the last few years of his life suffering intense anxiety and panic attacks, not least because of the political situation in Algeria and his fears for the safety of his mother, who had refused to leave. The publication of his collection of writings on Algeria was a disaster and a meeting with Algerian students left him in tears after one of them called him a coward.

He sought refuge away from Paris, in the small village of Lourmarin, in Provence. Here he bought a home in which he could escape from people to work alone in monastic style. Camus felt he needed solitude to write but he also found it difficult to be alone. Francine and the children would visit, as would Mi, who stayed in a nearby farmhouse.

Camus died on 4 January 1960 at the age of 46, in a car accident in Villeblevin, Burgandy.  He and his publisher, who was driving, were returning to Paris after spending Christmas with their families in Lourmarin.

144 pages of a handwritten manuscript entitled Le premier homme were found in the wreckage. This unfinished novel was based on his childhood in Algeria.

Camus was buried in the Lourmarin cemetery. His friend Sartre read a eulogy, paying tribute to Camus’ heroic “stubborn humanism”.

Perhaps one of Camus’ most poignant quotes – still painfully relevant today – is from Helen’s Exile: “Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard. It steels itself to attain the absolute and authority; it wants to transfigure the world before having exhausted it, to set it to rights before having understood it. Whatever it may say, our era is deserting this world.”

One of our favourites attributed to him though is: “Autumn is a second Spring when every leaf is a flowerWe can only imagine that he was inspired to write that in the colourful harvest-time vineyards of Provence.

Watch this fascinating feature-length documentary (in French) about the life and death of Albert Camus.

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