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11/07/2013 07:38 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

7 Things You Didn't Know About Albert Camus

Today, Albert Camus would have been 100 years young. The voice of the Nobel Prize winning author of The Stranger and The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel remains as vital today as it was during his own lifetime. Raised in a working class neighborhood of Algiers by an illiterate grandmother who slapped more often than she spoke, and a partly mute mother who worked as a cleaning woman, Camus confronted the absurd at an early age. Not only did it pursue him through his youth - a serious soccer player, he began to cough blood one day and found he had tuberculosis - but it also struck France in 1940, when the nation collapsed in the face of the German onslaught, transforming it into the collaborationist regime of Vichy. After returning to France from Algeria in 1942, Camus joined the Resistance and eventually became the editor of the great clandestine newspaper, Combat.

From the liberation of France to the end of his life, Camus continued to resist. Whether it was France's brutal treatment of the Arab and Berber inhabitants of Algeria or the glaring social and economic inequities in both Algeria and France, the institution of capital punishment or the use of the atomic bomb, the practice of torture and terrorism by both the French Army and Algerian nationalists during the bloody war of independence, Camus resisted the ways in which we turn fellow men and women into abstractions and we justify inexcusable means by citing impossible ends. On his centenary, we could do worse than recall his words on the duty of the writer: The nobility of our métier, he declared, "will forever be rooted in two engagements difficult to keep: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance against oppression."

1) Camus was not an existentialist. Smoking a Gauloise cigarette over an espresso in a Parisian café does not an existentialist make. Nor does an intense, but brief friendship with the poster child for existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus always, and rightly, reminded interviewers he wasn't part of that fashionable postwar movement, largely because it refused to move. Rather than offering an answer to its bleak diagnosis of the human condition, existentialists instead embraced it--a response unacceptable to the author of The Rebel and The Plague.

albert camus

2) Camus was not French. Strictly speaking, he was a pied-noir, the moniker given to the mostly European colonists who settled in Algeria during the 19th and 20th centuries and, with their offspring, became French citizens. While Camus' father was from Bordeaux (Camus however always believed he was from Alsace-Lorraine), his mother was from Spain and Camus' roots dug deep into Algeria. A half-century after Camus' death, Algerian writers and intellectuals are beginning to agree: for the novelist (and member of the Academie française) Assia Djebar, Camus is both a native son of Algeria and one of its great martyrs.

3) Camus was not a philosopher. Though he took a philosophy degree from the University of Algiers--his thesis was on the thinker he liked to call "the other North African," namely Saint Augustine--he disliked the term "philosopher" as much as he did "existentialist." His two "philosophical essays," "The Myth of Sisyphus" and "The Rebel", were precisely that, essays: in other words, provisional efforts to make sense of the human condition. As with so much else in his life and work, the essays seek to pose questions, not provide answers.

4) Camus was not a pessimist. Sure, he liked to remind us that there was no reason to hope. How could one in a universe of "tender indifference" to our repeated demands for meaning? But this was never a reason for despair. Think of the scene from "Annie Hall," where Woody Allen puts the moves on a young woman who, while staring at a Jackson Pollock canvas, replies with an apocalyptic vision of the world. Like Allen, Camus would have asked if she was busy tomorrow night and, upon hearing she planned to commit suicide then, would pause only a moment before asking if she was busy tonight.

albert camus

5) Camus was not anti-American. Which is not to see he was pro-American. He was, in a way, a bit like a first-time visitor to the Himalayas: their sublimity fills one with awe as well as dread. During his one brief visit to New York City right after the war, Camus was overwhelmed by the contrasts: the poverty of the Bowery and privilege of the East Side. At the end of his public lecture at Columbia University, it was announced that the evening's receipts, earmarked for a charity, had been stolen. The audience spontaneously made up the difference: an act of generosity that deeply impressed Camus. Yet, he was also impressed by "the army of starlets who recline on the lawns with their long legs crossed" he saw at Vassar. "What they do for young people here is worth remembering." Clearly, Camus didn't think the "starlets" themselves would bother to remember.

6) Camus was not always a novelist. Like the writer with whose style he has often been compared, Ernest Hemingway, Camus began his writing career as a journalist. As a reporter for an independent newspaper, "L'Alger Républicain," he wrote in 1939 a series of searing accounts of the condition of the Berber tribes, whose miserable lot was largely the result of France's indifference. He continued his muckraking until the eve of WWII, when the authorities were relieved to have an excuse to shut down the paper. His journalism, like the rest of his writing, was marked by the conviction that whenever we "replace a political problem with a human problem, we take a step forward."

7) Camus was not George Orwell's twin who, separated at birth, was raised in French Algeria. Orwell was taller and wore tweed. The rumor is, however, understandable. Both men smoked relentlessly, both men were tubercular, both men died too young and both men acted on their political convictions: Orwell during the Spanish Civil War, Camus during World War II. (Camus had also wanted to join the republicans in France, but his tuberculosis prevented him from doing so.) Both men remained on the Left, despite the very best efforts of the French and British Lefts, mesmerized by communism, to disown them. Both men, with their moral lucidity and personal courage, were essential witnesses not just to their age, but remain so for our own age as well.

Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the University of Houston, is the author of "A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning" [Belknap Press, $22.95].

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