Albert Camus: A Life
by Olivier Todd, Translated from the French by Benjamin Ivry
Knopf, 434 pp., $30.00
It has to be said that this English version of Olivier Todd’s book is not altogether satisfactory. According to an introductory note, “Some material not of sufficient interest to the American general reader has been omitted to improve the narrative flow.” Actually, a volume some 800 pages long in French has been reduced to 400 pages in English, and it is difficult to tell on what principle the abridgement has been made, because the sections that have been removed often seem of no less importance or interest than those that have been left in. Besides, if the American reader bothers to read foreign books, it is surely in the hope of discovering the possible interest of things with which he is not already familiar.
It is true that the French original presents a challenge. Todd writes in a racy, idiomatic, allusive style that would test the ingenuity of the best translator. What we have here is a simplified, rather stilted text, from which all personal flavor has been ironed out. This is hardly fair to either Todd or Camus.
After Herbert Lottman’s excellent study of 1978 the main justification for this new biography is that Todd has carried his researches further than Lottman was able to do. Earlier, certain circumstances made it difficult to tell the whole story. Camus’s second wife, Francine, the mother of his two children, was still alive (she died in 1979), and since the marriage had been fraught with tensions, friends and relatives of the couple could hardly speak openly of what they knew. Secondly, the last phase of Camus’s career was clouded—one might almost say blighted—by his notorious falling-out with Jean-Paul Sartre in connection with two major issues: the USSR and the war in Algeria. Since then, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union has demonstrated how completely Sartre misjudged the situation, while the recent bloody events in Algeria seem to indicate that Camus’s reservations about granting immediate and total independence to the territory he regarded as his homeland were perhaps more valid than was generally believed in left-wing circles. But, at the time, Sartre’s hypnotic sway over the introverted world of the Parisian intelligentsia was such that Camus, although undeniably in the right on the Soviet issue, didn’t get a fair hearing, and felt extremely hurt.
Moreover, for some years after his death, it remained fashionable—in Paris at least, though not so much abroad—to treat him and his works rather dismissively. The tide has now turned, and so Todd has been able to benefit from the greater willingness of the surviving witnesses to appreciate Camus in his own right, independently of Sartre. Todd himself does full justice to Camus on the Soviet issue, and also quotes evidence to show that Camus, far from being considered as a reactionary colonialist, is well regarded by progressive Algerian Arab intellectuals.
Todd has spared no pains in his search for significant details. He has followed Camus …