Magazine article The Spectator

The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty

Magazine article The Spectator

The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty

Article excerpt

ALBERT CAMUS: A LIFE by Olivier Todd, translated by Benjamin Ivry Chatto, 20, pp. 435

Nothing, Albert Camus once said, was more absurd than to die in a car crash. Yet his own death in a car crash in 1960, when he was only 46, did not just seem absurd, it also seemed a fitting end to a dashing and dangerous life which had already taken on the status of legend. L'Etranger and Le Mythe de Sisyphe had made him a lion in literary Paris from the moment they first appeared in 1942. After the war they grew, internationally, into cult classics for a generation which found in 'existentialism' or `the absurd' not so much key terms in a philosophy as catchwords signifying rebellion against the bleakness of the age. By the time Camus went to the USA in the 1950s he was feted as a Humphrey Bogart look-alike: 'I can get a film contract whenever I want,' he reported laconically. So it was virtually inevitable, when the Nobel Prizes were handed out in 1957, that he should have triumphed over older rivals like Sartre and Andre Malraux. And in the years after his death it was inevitable that people should wonder whether his place in Valhalla lay with the Nobel laureates or with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

Such legends always provoke a good deal of backbiting from contemporaries, and Camus certainly suffered his fair share. Some readers murmured that La Peste seemed plodding after the lapidary terseness of L'Etranger. The wrangles of postwar politics diminished the authority he had won as editor of Combat during the Occupation. Posterity can be even crueller, and for almost a generation critics have passed Camus over in embarrassed silence, as if scared to revisit the judgments made by their younger and more enthusiastic selves.

The appearance of Olivier Todd's biography broke the silence in France last year, though without attempting a reconsideration of Camus' achievement. It settled instead for a detailed chronicle of a life treated almost in isolation from the work. `In terms of philosophy, Camus cannot be placed in the Plato, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Wittgenstein league': this sort of nonsense is representative of passing judgments which never rise above the elementary and often sink into the naive. Its phrasing, too, is sadly representative of the English translation. …

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