Albert Camus, one of the most famous French philosophers and novelists, has a diverse fan base. British alternative rockers The Cure sang about The Stranger in their first big hit, “Killing an Arab”, released in 1980. George W. Bush announced that the novel was his summer reading in 2006 (considering the book’s central plot point and what he had unleashed in Iraq, this raised a few eyebrows). In 2009 there was a call to move his remains to the Pantheon. Camus’ concept of the “absurd” continues to resonant with those alienated by late capitalism and The Myth of Sisyphus is regularly invoked by faculty members dealing with university bureaucracies.
But few critics properly place Camus and his work in the context of French colonialism. Born in Algeria to an impoverished pied-noir family, he was quite the outsider (dare we say “étranger”?) to the privileged world of French letters. Once a member of the Communist Party, he became a staunch critic of Stalinism and groupthink. When Camus dared to break ranks with the orthodoxy of the Latin Quarter, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Francis Jeanson, and others turned on him. Despite winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, his reputation was further tarnished as he struggled to come to terms with the Algerian war for independence. When he died an “absurd” death in a car accident in 1960, his closest associates suppressed the pro-colonial manuscript found in the wreckage. For several decades, Camus was not a central figure in French letters. Yet, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of Sartre’s influence there was a Camus revival. Now he has the posthumous stature of a fallen rock-star.
Camus and his legacy are obviously complex. Fortunately, Oliver Gloag’s Albert Camus: A Very Brief Introduction (Oxford UP, 2020) offer a concise yet nuanced account of his life and his work. Gloag excels at making Camus’ complicated philosophy accessible, and he successfully contextualizes the author as a settler colonist torn between justice and love of the country of his birth.
Oliver Gloag is Associate Professor of French and Francophone Literature at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. He was educated at Columbia University, Tulane University (J.D.), and Duke University (Ph.D.); he specializes in francophone and postcolonial literature, twentieth century French literature, and cultural history. He has published on Sartre and Camus and contributed to The Sartrean Mind. He is the author of Oublier Camus, a forthcoming book on the ideological and political claiming of Camus in contemporary France. His essay “The Colonial Contradictions of Albert Camus” on Camus were featured in Jacobin.
Michael G. Vann is a professor of world history at California State University, Sacramento. A specialist in imperialism and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he is the author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empires, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2018).
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