IT HAS LONG BEEN an axiom of French literary gossip that no Frenchman could possibly write the biography of the quixotic Albert Camus because of the controversy and contradiction that filled his all too brief life. So it is no surprise to find that an American who has lived in Paris for many years, Herbert R. Lottman, has only now composed the first full length biography of the second youngest Nobel prize winner (Kipling was the youngest).
Albert Camus was born on Nov. 7 1913 in a poor quarter of Algiers to a French father and a mother of Spanish descent. His father was killed in World War I when Camus was just two, and he was raised by his mother in his grandmother's cramped apartment. He contracted tuberculosis when he was 17 and suffered recurrent bouts of it for the rest of his life. His teacher and lifelong freind, Jean Grenier (author of a fine study of Camus), urged him to attend the university and first instilled in him the idea that the might become a writer.
While still a student, Camus made a disastrous first marriage to a daring young woman of dramatic beauty who was unfortunately hooked on drugs. Camus could not tolerate her infidelities, usually with young doctors who gave her drugs in exchange for her favors. Later his own subsequent infidelities probably caused a breakdown in his second wife, Francine Faure. During the war, he formed an attachment to the actress Maria Casares that lasted on and off until his death, and Lottman hints coyly throughout the book at other liasions as well.
Camus' Algerian Communist affiliations, his work with the French Resistance and the underground newspaper Combat, and his involvement in post-war French politics and journalism are well documented. These and his deep concern for Algerian dignity and personal suffering during the fight for Algerian independence are some of the best parts of the book.
Camus won the Nobel Prize when he was only 44, and he thought it should have gone to Andre Malraux, author of Man's Fate. It is chilling to read of the panic, depression, claustrophobia and illness that beset him afterwards when hostile critics shrilled that he would probably never write again. He turned to the theater as a way to overcome a severe writing block and threw himself into a frenzy of directing and adapting for the stage.
Then, with the Nobel Prize money, he bought a small house near his poet friend, Rene Char, in the village of Lourmarin and began to write a novel which he hoped would become an epic of Tolstoyan proportion and silence his critics. He never finished it.
Camus, the spokesman for the absurd, died absurdly: he had planned to take the train to Paris on Jan. 4 1960, even had his ticket in his pocket, but instead decided to drive with his French publisher. Something probably malfunctioned in the car, and Camus was killed instantly in a crash. A doctor, absurdly named Camus, was summoned from the next village, but Albert Camus was dead. A reporter described the expression on his corpse as "a look of horror."
This account of Camus' life suffers from unnecessary detail. Lottman was helped by the writer's widow and friends and he conducted painstaking research, but somehow the deatil he has gathered works not to reveal Camus but ot smother him. We all know what caused World War I, and we don't need the capsule biographies of every person Camus ever met. There are lives of Algerian school freinds, of casual acquaintances in Paris, of political rivals and cronies, even of the gardener of his last house.
Lottman tends to favor conditional verbs in his narrative, probably to give a sense of immediacy and vitality, but they only confuse the chronology. He poses rhetorical questions and then proceeds to answer them. All the details of Camus' career in journalism are here and given equal emphasis, from unsigned juvenile writings on Algerian student newspapers to major editorials in Combat, but Lottmann tends to glide superficially over the important novels, essays, and plays or else merely places them within the life. He also makes many facile connections between the persons Camus knew and the fictional characters he created. Most disturbing is the constant attribution to Camus of thoughts and feelings taken wholesale from his fiction.
Lottman says he was conducted "hundreds" of interviews, but for the major events of Camus' life he seems to rely on highly questionable sources. All that he tells us of the celebrated-(Continued on page 3) (Continued from page 1)--friendship and subsequent break-up between Camus and Jean-Paul Starte comes from two brief passages in Sartre's autobiographical writing; otherwise Lottman takes everything from Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs and novels. Nowhere in the quirky documentation is there an indication that Lottman ever interviewed Sartre or de Beauvoir. It is equally irritating to read time after time that some hitherto unknown fact of Camus' life is "from private conversations" between Lottman and an unnamed source, Camus deserves better.
A reader of this biography must work hard to Capture Camus' vivid personality, the scrupulous integrity of his political conscience, the curious contradictions that governed his personal behavior. Perhaps Andre Malraux best summed up the complex man and his achievement: "For over twenty years the work of Albert Camus was inseparable from the obsession with justice. We salute one of those through whom France remains present in the hearts of men." CAPTION: Picture, Albert Camus from the book