Empire’s Wasteland


Vivian Gornick on Camus's Alegerian chronicles, in Boston Review:

Sixty years ago, in the decade following the Second World War, the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus was an international cultural hero. The Nazis and the atomic bomb had destroyed the historic illusion that there were limits to the damage civilized human beings could or would inflict on one another. Humanity, as an enterprise, had never seemed a more desolating proposition than at this moment. Postwar Europe produced a multitude of writers who reflected the mood of the times, but none spoke more directly to it than Camus.

He was born into an uneducated, working-class family in French Algeria in 1913 and grew up in near-poverty. Due to the efforts of a perceptive grade school teacher, the young Albert made it to the lycée and went on to study at the University of Algiers, from which he emerged a man of the left, intent on the dismaying conditions of life that the colonial regime had visited upon his native land. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, was associated with a number of revolutionary groups, and for a few years wrote for left-wing newspapers. At 25, having been blacklisted because of his anti-colonial journalism, Camus left Algeria for France against his will, and all the years he lived there felt himself to be in exile. Yet when the Germans marched into Paris, he joined the Resistance and soon became the editor of Combat, one of its clandestine newspapers.