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France marks 100th birthday of literary ‘rebel’ Camus

© Robert Edwards

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2013-11-07

France on Thursday remembers one of its best-loved and most controversial literary figures, Albert Camus, who was born on November 7, 1913. The writer is best known outside France for his 1942 novel “L’Etranger” (The Outsider/The Stranger).

France on Thursday marks the 100th birthday of Albert Camus, one of France’s most significant and controversial 20th century literary figures.

Camus is probably best known outside France for his novel “L’Etranger” ( “The Outsider” or “The Stranger” in English), which has been translated into more than 40 languages.

Set in colonial-era Algeria, “L’Etranger” is a morally-ambiguous tale of murder, punishment and despair in a cultural milieu few modern readers would recognise or truly empathise with.

But the book remains a popular staple of school and university French literature courses around the world, and made its way into British popular culture with The Cure’s 1980 single “Killing an Arab”.

“L’Etranger” has, rightly or wrongly, cemented a stereotype of mid-20th century French literature as obsessed with the absurdity of the human condition, and has been sited as an example of "existentialist" thinking, a label Camus fiercely rejected. 

Camus’ own image, captured in numerous photographs complete with the ubiquitous Gaulouise cigarette dangling from his lips, has become the very picture of the intellectual 1950s French literary type.

The football-mad Nobel Laureate

Camus was born into a poor family of French origin in then-colonial Algeria on November 7, 1913.

Against his illiterate mother’s wishes (his father was killed at the beginning of the First World War) and encouraged by teachers who recognised his intellectual potential, he went on to study at the University of Algiers where he was goalkeeper for the Racing Universitaire d'Alger (RUA) football team.

While his sporting career was cut short by tuberculosis, Camus would continue to be obsessed by football, declaring later in life that "after many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA”.

Joining the Communist Party in 1935 (from which he was expelled two years later for his lack of orthodoxy), Camus later moved to Nazi-occupied France and published his first novel "L’Etranger" in 1942 while contributing to “Combat”, an underground resistance newspaper.

Five novels and a plethora of short stories and articles later, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. He died in a car accident in 1960, aged 46.

Six decades after his death, Camus’ contribution to French culture remains as potent as ever and sales of his works, according to his publisher Gallimard, rose by five percent between 2008 and 2012.

Gallimard puts some of this success down to his growing popularity among football fans for his musings on the sport.

“The Rebel”

Camus’ popular image also led to then-president Nicolas Sarkozy proposing, in 2010, to re-inter the writer’s body in the Pantheon of national heroes in Paris.

The plan was rejected by Camus’ son Jean, who objected to the memory of his “Rebel” father (a reference to his 1951 work “L’Homme Revolté”, or “The Rebel” in English) being hijacked by politicians.

And controversy continues to follow Camus. Plans for an exhibition in southern French city Aix-en-Provence titled “Camus the Rebel” to mark his centenary were abandoned after the sacking of curator Benjamin Stora for his portrayal of colonial Algeria.

After the French ministry of culture withdrew funding, a much-reduced exhibition – “Camus, Citizen of the World” – has gone ahead, along with a new stage production of “L’Etranger”.

Date created : 2013-11-07

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