A very short, but woefully inaccurate introduction to Albert Camus

Image: Oxford University Press

Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction.
By Oliver Gloag
Oxford University Press, 2020
Paperback $16.95

Albert Camus was one of the most prominent and influential French philosophical writers of the 20th century, exploring the great themes of existentialist philosophy in enduring masterpieces such as The Stranger and The Plague.

Camus was a pied-noir, a descendent of the French settlers who moved to Algeria during France’s colonialist conquest of North Africa in the middle of the 19th century.

Camus was brought up by his mother, an illiterate cleaner partly of Spanish descent, and his strict maternal grandmother. His father was killed fighting in the French Army in the First World War.

Camus belonged to the poorer part of the French community in Algeria, heavily outnumbered by the even poorer and disenfranchised Arab and Berber majority.

A writer’s background is likely to play a large role in shaping their work, and this applies as much to Camus as to any other writer. However, the main failing in Oliver Gloag’s discussion is that he distorts the influence of Camus' pied-noir background beyond measure into an all-encompassing, if largely unconscious, attachment to French colonialism.

As a result he makes a series of absurd claims.

According to Gloag, "nothing is more important to Camus than France’s presence in Algeria".  This attachment to French colonialism and its values is invoked by Gloag to explain certain features of Camus’ life and work.

For example, Gloag claims it motivated Camus to join the Algerian Communist Party in the mid-1930s. According to Gloag, Camus did so "to prevent Arab resisters from starting their own party".

Gloag then claims this very same attachment to French colonialism motivated Camus’ hostility to communism. For Gloag, Camus was hostile to the communist movement because it threatened France’s empire (for example, in Vietnam).

Gloag also invokes Camus’s attachment to French colonialism to explain his anti-historicism, which is, according to Gloag grounded in "fear of a narrative that would end with the liberation of Algeria".

Most implausibly of all, attachment to French colonialism is even invoked to explain Camus’s love of nature. Gloag sates that Camus' "veneration of nature" is grounded in an often "implicit or unvarnished emotional defence … of the racism of French pied-noirs in Algeria".

I will return to Gloag’s comments on Camus’ love of nature below, but first it is worth noting that even where French colonialism isn’t invoked, Gloag is unjustifiably uncharitable towards Camus. For example, he questions Camus’ motives for joining the French Resistance late — in 1943. Gloag contends that "Camus probably understood that not to join the resistance, which his friends had already done, would doom his literary career".

This is wildly implausible.

As Olivier Todd explains in his authoritative biography Albert Camus: A Life, Camus risked torture and execution for the role he played in producing an underground newspaper for the Resistance. Todd recounts one episode in which Camus, carrying in his pocket a layout page for a Resistance newspaper he was working on, came close to being uncovered on being questioned by German and collaborationist police at a road block in Paris.

It seems implausible that Camus would risk torture and death just for the sake of advancing his literary career, and in any event Gloag offers no evidence whatsoever to back up this claim.

Unfortunately, this type of inaccuracy and uncharitable speculation are characteristic of much of the book. I’ll give a few examples to illustrate this.

In 1944, Camus wrote and published clandestinely a number of Letters to a German Friend, later reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion and Death. In his description of the third letter in the series, Gloag writes: "Further linking colonial status to power and prestige, Camus wrote that France’s superiority over Germany was that the former was a colonial power. Camus clearly believed that the key to France’s prestige and power was its colonies."

An inspection of the third letter, however, shows that Camus wrote no such thing. In the relevant passage, Camus writes to his imaginary German interlocutor: "You speak of Europe, but the difference is that for you Europe is a property, whereas we feel that we belong to it. You never spoke this way until you lost Africa."

Clearly, the reference here is to Germany’s losing the African Campaign in 1943, and the point Camus is making is that Germany now primarily sees itself as coloniser of Europe, whereas France by contrast sees itself as part of Europe. The passage thus concerns France’s status as a part of Europe and not its status as a colonial power.

Predictably, Gloag attempts to make much of Camus’ remarks to a supporter of the Algerian independence movement at a press conference following his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm in 1957.

Camus was challenged to explain why he defended Eastern Europeans resisting domination by the Soviet Union but not Algerians fighting for independence from France, and Gloag repeats the standard rendition of Camus’ reply, "I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice."

Camus appears to be putting filial love for his pied-noir mother above justice for the oppressed native Algerian population. On the face of it this appears to be grist to Gloag’s mill, once again exhibiting Camus’ indifference to the Arab population even while reluctantly acknowledging the justice of their cause.

However, as Alice Kaplan shows in her introduction to Camus’ Algerian Chronicles, this is actually a misquotation. Kaplan explains that what Camus actually said should be translated: "People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother."

Clearly, the conditional form of Camus’ comment about justice and his mother doesn’t involve elevating her status above that of the Arabs. Rather, Camus is reasserting his view (familiar from The Just Assassins and The Rebel) that a political movement loses its claim to be a just cause as soon as it begins directing acts of terrorism and violence towards innocent civilians.

This may be controversial, but one doesn’t have to be a supporter of French (or any other) colonialism to make it.

Gloag’s penchant for uncharitable speculation about Camus’ motives reaches its climax with his account of Camus’ love of nature: "Camus favoured space (nature) over time (history) not because of a love of nature per se, but rather because he saw human history as leading to the liberation of indigenous people, and thus to the downfall of French Algeria."

The idea that antipathy to the liberation of indigenous people might be behind the lyrical celebration of the sun, sea, sky and wind in Camus’ essays and fiction is so outlandish it would need to be backed up by a mass of evidence to deserve any degree of credence. Gloag fails to provide any.

Overall, this is a very poor book, badly argued and displaying an almost obsessive bias against its subject. And making stuff up does nothing to help those fighting colonial oppression.

[A version of this review first appeared in Philosophy in Review]