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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, at Mondovi in Algiers. His father, Lucien Camus, worked as a cellar-man in the wine industry before he joined World War I, where he was killed in 1914. His mother was a Spanish illiterate, who was deaf and sullen. After her husband’s death, she found herself poverty stricken and struggled to raise her two young sons. As a result, Camus’ childhood was not a happy one. Once he started school, Camus spent as much time away from home as possible, playing athletics, studying, and working part-time. After graduating from high school, he entered the University of Algiers to study philosophy. In 1930, while a student at the university, Camus contracted tuberculosis, a disease from which he would suffer from time to time throughout his life.
Because of finances, Camus (like Mersault, the protagonist of The Stranger) was forced to discontinue his studies and go to work. Between 1930 and 1935, he held various jobs as a police clerk, a salesman, and a meteorologist. During this period, he also married and divorced. In addition, he joined and then left the Communist party. In 1935, he founded the Workers’ Theater, which performed plays in Algiers for the working class. Then in 1936, he finally completed his degree, graduating from the University of Algiers.
Before the Workers’ Theater closed in 1939, Camus had begun to devote himself to his literary career, writing book reviews and essays for periodicals. His first book was a collection of essays entitled Betwixt and Between; the essays deal with man’s isolation in the world and the finality and absurdity of death. Camus also became an outspoken critic of the French governmental control of Algeria, which made him unpopular with the French leadership. As a result, he had trouble finding a job in Algiers and went to live in Paris in 1940. He went to work as a journalist for the Paris-Soir, but his career was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. As a result, he returned to live in North Africa, remarried, and worked as a teacher in a private school. He also continued to write. In 1942, he published The Stranger, his first novel. In the same year, he also published "The Myth of Sisyphus," his most famous essay. He also returned to France to commit himself to the Resistance Movement and edited a newspaper called Combat.
In 1944 and 1945, his plays, Le Malentendu (The Misunderstood) and Caligula were presented and considered significant productions in the Theater of the Absurd. In 1945, he toured the United States as a lecturer. Another novel, The Plague, was published in 1947 and became an immediate success with both the critics and the public. In 1949, Camus toured South America. Upon his return, he became gravely ill and went into isolation. After his recovery, he published a collection of essays entitled The Rebel (1951). Another novel, The Fall, appeared in 1956. In 1957, he published a collection of short stories, called The Exile and the Kingdom.
In 1957, at the age of 44, Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Two years later, in January of 1960, he was killed in an automobile accident. Despite his early death, he had made significant contributions as a novelist, playwright, moralist, and political theorist. Today he is remembered for his existential ideas and his concern over the alienation of man in an indifferent world.
The Bubonic Plague was important in literature as early as Greek mythology. The scourge of Thebes is well known, and historical accounts of the disease were found in the works of Thucydides and Lucretius. In the 18 th and 19 th centuries, several works on the plague were published, including Papon’s Plague (1799), Clot- Bey’s The Plague (1840), and Berbrugger’s Memoirs of the Plague in Algeria (1847).
More modern works were directly responsible for Camus’ treatment of the plague. Antomin Artaud’s 1938 essay The Theater and the Plague influenced Camus to create the surrealistic depiction of the plague as a depersonalized force of destruction. The chronicle style incorporating Tarrou’s diaries was influenced by Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year
The events described in the novel take place in the 1940’s during the Nazi Occupation of France. However, the locale has been shifted to North Africa and the Resistance movement is organized against the scourge in the form of a disease. Camus had begun work on the book when he was actually living through the Occupation. The despair at the endless monotonous scourge reflects the pessimism of the French people when the atrocities of the Nazis were at its peak in 1943. Significantly, Camus presents only the European aspect of Oran and the Arab presence is barely felt in the novel.
An important aspect of the occupation was that the French people were divided. Self-interest made many Frenchmen collaborate with the Nazi authorities and support the Nazi puppet government at Vichy. Others were in the underground Resistance movement. In the novel, Cottard is a symbol of the collaborator, while Tarrou is in the resistance movement.