Reading this month’s inspiring biography about the French-Algerian philosopher, writer and journalist Albert Camus, who came from nothing and became a Nobel Prize winner, let me learn many things about him and some things about myself. For example, the urgency to write.
Albert Camus was born in 1913 in French Algeria into a very poor French family. He never met his father, who died in combat in World War I, and his mother was partially deaf and hardly spoke to her two sons. He grew up in Algiers, at the sea, and he would remember his childhood as a wonderfully slow, simple, Mediterranean way of living – despite his grandmother beating him regularly as a form of punishment and his mother never hugging him. Inspired and influenced by his teacher, he went on to study philosophy in Algiers and made it out of the poverty ridden neighborhood he grew up in and he became one of the forerunners of existentialism.
Since 1930 he had tuberculosis, and he would suffer from it until his death in a car accident in1960.
Early on he was politically engaged. He started a theatre group in 1937, and being unhappy with his situation and far off his own ambitions he started writing on his novel The Stranger (1942) during the time he worked in the meteorological institute in Algiers. He described himself as someone who tried to escape the world but fell prey to all its seductions.
Later on, when he was a successful author and well known journalist in Paris, he would reminisce about his childhood and early youth and yearn to return to the poverty, simplicity and the light of the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1940 he went to Paris and had a day job as a newspaper editor. In the evenings, he continued writing on The Stranger which would make him immortal in the literary world. In the years and decades after the world war, Camus’ cold way of writing would resonate with generations of Europeans and Americans who felt just as detached from their time and surroundings as the main character in his novel.
His own biographical split – growing up in Algiers and ending up in modern, Nazi Germany occupied Paris – often influenced his writing.
One of the most interesting things about him is his integrity. Unlike other famous French writers and philosophers, he never published any of this journalistic or literary work in a media house that collaborated with Nazi Germany during the war. His first book, The Stranger, received some harsh reviews when it first came out in 1942 because of the censorship, but it went on to receive mainstream stardom in the years to come. After 1942 he radicalized himself and worked for the Resistance by night while working for a collaborating newspaper by day.
The author of the biography, Iris Radisch, also mentions an inner crisis he went through at the time of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. How incredible! He struggled because he couldn’t implement the way he wanted to live his life, and because he was never satisfied with his writing – so clearly, the external recognition and status symbol of receiving the Nobel Prize did nothing for him in terms of self belief and finding your own voice and own truth. Also his chronic illness tuberculosis worsened at the time causing him panic attacks and respiratory distress. This really resonated with me. If you are not happy with yourself and your life, sometimes not even the highest praise and award can change that. Towards the end of his life he seems to have achieved a form of peace or self-fulfillment in his writing and also his life – he did buy his dream house at the French Mediterranean sea, a few years before his tragic accident.
What I like about the biography by Iris Radisch so much is her sense of time. Throughout the book she relates Camus and what he is going through in each chapter against his time of death “in the future”. She writes about his struggles, achievements and private life and then lets the reader know how much time is left for Camus until his death in 1960. There he was, a successful author struggling with a chronic illness that’s hanging over his head like a Damocles sword and making him write for his life but who is still living life fast and filled with romantic affairs. Just when he finally found his dream home at the sea, had left Paris and his critics behind, and found simplicity in his life and work, in other words found his truth, he died.
Although Camus died in a car accident, he had felt rushed and out of time for the majority of his life, because of the tuberculosis. The author Radisch describes him as feeling rushed to complete his life’s work and writing because he felt he had more to say than what he had time for. In a way, he was beating himself with this stick for most of his life and although he was a prolific writer and journalist, he was never satisfied with his level of output.
I couldn’t help but think about my own time left on this earth, and if I would do things differently if I knew how much time I still have. What if I have one year left? What would I do? What would I change?
Would I quit my job and only spend time with my family and friends? Would I double down and push more to achieve my creative dreams and goals?
Maybe it’s my ‘recent awakening’ to being serious about my writing and having recently published my first short story collection, that gives me this sense of urgency, but I can’t help but feel rushed to advance and take small daily steps to achieve my creative goals.
Sometimes it feels necessary to put things in life or death perspective to give you that necessary push to go out and do it, even if it’s messy and imperfect.
Torn between two countries, and always chasing his writing goals, Albert Camus might have never become this prolific writer if it hadn’t been for that feeling of urgency.
What would you focus on in your life, or strip off, if you knew how much time you still had?