Camus at 100

Albert Camus was born 100 years ago. But he never got to age. Instead, he died in a car crash in his 40s, still handsome, vital, emotionally alive, his work incomplete. Comparing our lasting image of him with that of his friend who became his adversary, Jean-Paul Sartre, it is striking how differently we recall someone cut down at the peak of his powers with one who was fortunate enough to age. Sartre managed to sum up and say his farewells, but he had already lost most of his sight and needed constant companions, ending life as most of us do, a shadow of his once-formidable self. We remember this final Sartre in decline. Camus died suddenly, brutally, saying no goodbyes, his unfinished manuscript of "The First Man" found at the scene of the accident, leaving tangled relationships and two children still in their teens. Unlike Sartre, he will always be a tragic figure to us -- and he will always be young.

This is not the only reason Camus' life and work have special appeal for the young. He overcame enormous early obstacles to make himself into who he was. He was born a working-class pied-noir Algerian in 1913, and his father was killed a year later at the battle of the Marne. His mother became a washerwoman, and the family lived in poverty in the mixed European and Arab Belcourt quarter. Benefiting from the opportunities offered talented working-class whites by the French educational system, Camus completed the equivalent of a master's degree in philosophy at the University of Algiers. But having been diagnosed with tuberculosis, Camus was considered medically unfit to teach. And so he fully pursued his interests as well as his convictions, becoming a political activist, director and actor in an amateur theater troupe, a journalist, an essayist and a newspaper editor -- all well before he was 30.

When the war broke out, he was declared medically unfit to serve in the military. By 1943 Camus moved to France, where The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus were published to great acclaim. Having earlier downplayed the menace of Hitler and Nazism and opposed French entry into the war, Camus now composed a series of "Letters to a German Friend" explaining why someone who abhorred violence felt it necessary to join the struggle against the German Occupation. He entered into the Resistance movement and became the editor of the clandestine newspaper, Combat. As the Germans were departing from Paris in August, 1944, Combat, having taken over an abandoned printing plant, now appeared openly and immediately became the leading daily in Paris. Its editor became a spokesperson for the Resistance and its widely-shared hopes to transform France into a more equal society where money no longer ruled. Its masthead said: "From Resistance to Revolution."

Camus's role in the Resistance, his outspoken daily editorials and his sensitive good looks made this young writer, along with friends Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the talk of liberated Paris. Indeed, he was the very exemplar of Sartre's famous theory of the politically committed writer. Camus's relationship with Sartre is one of the great and tragic stories of the 20th century. It includes their early kinship, mutual influence, intense friendship during the Occupation, shared hopes at the Liberation, postwar fame, common political projects, growing apart under the pressure of the developing Cold War, embrace of its opposite poles to the point of each man becoming the main spokesperson of his own side, and then finally, the public rupture that riveted Paris.

One hundred years after his birth Camus's writing has aged no more than the man himself. His prose, a masterpiece of sensuousness and charged simplicity, still strikes us with its freshness. The sense of absurdity conveyed in The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, the admonition to live with it rather than seek to eliminate it, and yet the awareness that we will not stop trying to overcome it, all ring a bell with young spirits trying to make their way. And yet these have a common quality that makes Camus' appeal reach well beyond the young: They convey life's ambiguities but are not defeated by them. The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall graphically present people, actions and situations that defy simple understanding. Yet, ranging from defiance to lucid awareness, these books are fundamentally moral, exploring stances to live or die by. Each one remains as urgent today as when they were written.

And so does much of Camus's political writing. He could be self-righteous and dogmatic, sometimes confusing personal slights with the great issues of the day, but Camus developed an unparalleled analysis of revolutionary violence and terrorism that has much to teach us today. Although, as Sartre came to point out, he tended to ignore systemic or structural violence, Camus was keenly aware of the potential for disaster of attempting to bring about social change by force.

Young and old, we can also be inspired by his sheer political courage. The two strengths came together in his brave but futile campaign to end attacks on civilians during the Algerian War, which he hoped would reduce suffering and might lead to dialogue. On January 22, 1956, 1,200 people, half of them Europeans and half Algerians, filled a hall in Algiers that was surrounded by irate Europeans throwing stones at the windows. Under siege inside, Camus made his appeal for a "civilian truce." A riot was narrowly avoided as the meeting ended and the participants left, protected by a circle of Algerians surrounding the Europeans. But it failed, and Camus's futile project was the last major effort to bring together the two peoples. No "realist" would have attempted this, only a spirit that was deeply moral, independent and courageous -- quixotic enough to go against what others saw as the inevitable trends of history.