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CRF Blog » Blog Archive » Existential Hero

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Existential Hero

by Bill Hayes

In Existential Hero, Smithsonian magazine looks at Albert Camus (1913–1960) and his relationship with Algeria, where he was born.

Camus is regarded as a giant of French literature, but it was his North African birthplace that most shaped his life and his art. In a 1936 essay, composed during a bout of homesickness in Prague, he wrote of pining for “my own town on the shores of the Mediterranean…the summer evenings that I love so much, so gentle in the green light and full of young and beautiful women.” Camus set his two most famous works, the novels The Stranger and The Plague, in Algeria, and his perception of existence, a joyful sensuality combined with a recognition of man’s loneliness in an indifferent universe, was formed here.

In 1957, Anders Österling, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, acknowledged the importance of Camus’ Algerian upbringing when he presented him with the Nobel Prize in Literature, a towering achievement, won when he was only 43. Österling attributed Camus’ view of the world in part to a “Mediterranean fatalism whose origin is the certainty that the sunny splendor of the world is only a fugitive moment bound to be blotted out by the shades.”

Camus is “the single reason people outside Algeria know about this country,” says Yazid Ait Mahieddine, a documentary filmmaker and Camus expert in Algiers, as we sit beneath a photograph of the writer in the El- Djazair bar, alongside images of other celebrities who have passed through here, from Dwight Eisenhower to Simone de Beauvoir. “He is our only ambassador.”

Yet despite Camus’ monumental achievements and deep attachment to his native land, Algeria has never reciprocated that love. Camus is not part of the school curriculum; his books can’t be found in libraries or bookshops. Few plaques or memorials commemorate him. “Algeria has erased him,” says Hamid Grine, an Algerian novelist whose 2011 Camus dans le Narguilé (Camus in the Hookah) imagines a young Algerian who discovers that he is Camus’ illegitimate son, and embarks on a quest to learn about his real father.

In 2010, the 50th anniversary of Camus’ death in a car accident in France, a committee of intellectuals organized an event they called a “Camus Caravan” — readings in seven Algerian cities. But “the authorities refused to allow it …” [more]