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Great European Lives: French author and philosopher Albert Camus

French writer Albert Camus during a rehearsal of "Les Possedes" at the Parisian Theatre Antoine, in January 1959. Photo: Getty - Credit: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Charlie Connelly explores the absurd life and death of the Nobel Prize winning French author and philosopher Albert Camus

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the death of Albert Camus was the unused train ticket in his pocket. The 46-year-old author had intended to travel by rail to Paris from his home in Provence after the Christmas holidays with his wife and their twin children but when his publisher and friend Michel Gallimard offered to drive him in his new Facel Vega Camus chose the car journey instead, possibly for the opportunity to discuss with Gallimard the handwritten manuscript for a new book he carried with him, The First Man, a novel based on his Algerian childhood.

Travelling also with Gallimard’s wife and daughter, the group had broken the 500-mile journey with an overnight stop at Thoissey and by the next afternoon were barely 100 miles from Paris when they passed through Villeblevin, south-east of the capital. Just outside the village Gallimard suddenly lost control of the car, possibly due to a tyre blowing out at speed. They veered off the road, struck one tree and then smashed into another, killing Camus instantly and throwing Gallimard through the windscreen.

The publisher died five days later, his wife and daughter were injured but survived. The rain-soaked manuscript of The First Man was found on the grass nearby in a briefcase with copies of Shakespeare’s Othello and a volume of Nietzsche. The train ticket was found in a pocket of Camus’ coat.

According to Mme. Galliard, as her husband accelerated out of Villeblevin in the moments before the crash Camus, who disliked fast cars, had turned to his friend and asked what the big hurry was. A notoriously cautious driver himself, Camus had once said, ‘I can think of nothing more stupid than to die in a car accident’.

The Paris-Presse announced his death with a single word headline: ‘Absurd’. It was a word loaded with meaning when it came to the death of Albert Camus as in much of his writing he had explored and developed the philosophy of the absurd, being man’s tendency to believe the universe was somehow concerned with him and his welfare when the universe was in fact a wholly uncaring place in which everyone was effectively helpless and useless.

From his own lifetime Camus could draw on the horrors of Nazism, the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and the dropping of nuclear bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to demonstrate how the universe was clearly quite happy letting man, collectively and individually, turn himself into a lost cause capable of dreadful acts. The way through this, he felt, was for man to embrace the absurdity of life and to look within for meaning, not without.

In his collection of philosophical essays The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942 – the same year as his most famous work and debut novel The Outsider – Camus takes the story of the eponymous king of Ephyra who was punished for a reign of avarice and deceit with condemnation for eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain only for the boulder to roll back to the bottom every time he approached the summit. Camus argued that Sisyphus’s inevitable acceptance of the situation, despite its infinite frustrations, would have given the task a creativity its protagonist would have appreciated.

‘He too concludes that all is well,’ he wrote. ‘The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’

Three years before his death Camus had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded, according to the Academy, for his ‘important literary work which has with penetrating seriousness thrown light on the problems of human consciousness in our times’.

The greatest global literary prize wasn’t exactly greeted with wild abandon by its victor. At the time Camus was suffering from a combination of crippling writer’s block and a resurgence of the tuberculosis that had afflicted him since his teens. The spotlight thrown onto him by the Nobel Prize, not to mention the fear that it was awarded to writers whose best work was behind them, only exacerbated Camus’ anxieties and health issues. When he was told the news of the award – by a waiter in a restaurant on Paris’s Left Bank who had just heard it announced on the radio – he put his head in his hands and wailed, ‘I am castrated’.

Camus’ visit to Stockholm to accept the prize did little to confound his reservations. He arrived to find a newspaper trumpeting an interview with him that he said never took place, with additional comment criticising him for not speaking out regarding the anti-colonial uprising in Algeria. A group of Swedish students labelled him a ‘political coward’ and his tuberculosis got worse, probably exacerbated by the stress.

‘Probably every generation sees itself charged with remaking the world,’ he said in his acceptance speech. ‘Mine, however, knows that it will not remake the world. But its task is even greater, for it consists of keeping the world from destroying itself.’

Given the success of L’Étranger, translated as The Stranger in the US and The Outsider in Britain, Camus might have feared that his best work really was behind him, but on the threshold of the 1960s he had emerged from his post-Nobel funk and had an inkling The First Man might be his best work yet.

Unfinished at the time of his death, the book wouldn’t be published until 1994 when his daughter Catherine transcribed the mud-streaked handwritten pages found at the crash site. Although it concerns a protagonist named Jacques Cormery, The First Man is a thinly-disguised autobiographical analysis of the making of Albert Camus.

He was born in 1913 into a poor family, his father Lucien working as a labourer in a vineyard and his mother Catherine as a domestic cleaner. Lucien had joined the Zouave, the Algerian light infantry unit of the French army, at the outbreak of the First World War and been killed at the Battle of the Marne, the first major action of the conflict, leaving Catherine, who suffered from a serious speech impediment and was deaf in one ear, to bring up two young sons alone in their two-room apartment in Belcourt in the working class districts of Algiers.

A working life in manual labour seemed to lay ahead but one of Camus’ schoolteachers noticed a raw intelligence in the boy and persuaded the family to allow Camus to try for a scholarship to the lycée. From there he progressed to the University of Algiers where he graduated in 1936 with a degree in philosophy and a strong streak of communism in his political outlook.

He took up radical journalism and eventually gravitated to Paris where he found himself trapped by the German invasion. He immersed himself in the Resistance and became editor of Combat, a radical Resistance mouthpiece, but the success of The Outsider brought him financial security, fame and persuaded him to move away from journalism and into longer form authorship.

A tale suffused with melancholy, The Outsider is the story of an office worker named Meursault who shoots an Arab dead on a beach for no apparent reason then passes through the French-Algerian justice system as if in a dream. The Outsider was Camus’ most eloquent investigation of what he called ‘the tender indifference of the world’, beginning with Meursault’s apparent indifference to the death of his mother before he comes to accept his own death in the form of execution for murder as the only way to validate the absurdity of his own existence.

The ‘tender indifference of the world’ is what killed Camus that rainy afternoon in 1960 on a rural road outside Paris. The Paris-Presse had it exactly right: take into account the unused train ticket, antipathy for fast cars and blown-out tyre and it’s clear the death of the most eloquent and enduring analyst of the absurd was in itself inherently absurd.

Born: November 7, 1913

Died: January 4, 1960

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