FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, in Language and Silence, George Steiner called on critics of modern literature to question with the greatest rigor the greatness of even our most revered writers. Was it not perhaps true, Steiner asked us, that even the sainted Albert Camus -- Resistance hero, defender of man's duty to rebel against any cause, philosopher of the Absurd, moralistic novelist-playwright, celebrant of Mediterranean hedonism -- was, after all, except for his first novel, The Stranger, rather second-rate?

A week ago, after reading Patrick McCarthy's biography of my generation's greatest cultural role model, I asked a French graduate student of mine what she and her generation -- the fans of Barthes, Derrida, Levi- Strauss -- thought of Camus. She smiled ruefully and answered, "Well, we had rather a lot of him, you know." And so they did, until all of educated France tired of him sometime in the mid-'60s, five or so years after the automobile accident that killed him. Camus is now safely in the Pl,eiade, there are numerous biographies, critical studies, volumes of picture books to grace one's coffee table; but no one reads him, no one mentions his name without that rueful smile.

In America, the situation is very nearly the same. The Stranger pops up on reading lists given to incoming freshmen at universities as suggested summer reading, but that's about it. In 1978 Herbert Lottman published what looked like the definitive biography, and it seemed to most of us -- even to those of us who loved him best, like me -- that Camus was not only dead, but now thoroughly buried as well.

Now comes Patrick McCarthy with a new entry into the already ponderous Camus bibliography, and we are bound to ask ourselves what he has to tell us that is new. The first five chapters (almost half the book) deal with Camus the pied noir, the non-African Algerian. This is appropriate enough, since Camus spent the first half of his life in Algeria; and McCarthy does say some interesting things about Camus' apprenticeships to his teacher, Jean Grenier, and his editor at Alger-R,epublicain, Pascal Pia. He seems well-informed about the birth and growth of political insurgency in Algeria, and of how the incipient rebellion appealed to the anarchistic streak in the young Camus.

But nowhere in these Algerian chapters is McCarthy as interestingly analytical about Camus' African background as was Conor Cruise O'Brien in his brief study, Albert Camus of Europe and Africa (1970). From McCarthy we learn mostly that what Camus picked up from Algeria and his various mentors there was a conviction that what counted most were dignity, virility, and a stubborn distrust in Reason. This, one suspects, is probably true; but such qualities are hardly unique to Algeria, and that Camus learned them there is hardly enough to justify McCarthy's subsequent implication that all of Camus -- and not just his womanizing, his trench-coated attitudinizing, but everything he wrote, too -- can be traced to his Algerian roots. No one, not even the least subtle of writers, can be circumscribed that easily.

What emerges from McCarthy's curiously unengaged work is a portrait of Camus as a man who was unable fully to dominate any part of his life or ambience, who drifted back and forth from one political and social extreme to the other, feeling at home nowhere: a man of the Left, but only up to a point; a literary innovator, but one with firmly classical proclivities. We see him wanting to support the Algerians' struggle for independence, but not being able to side with a movement that was in some part terrorist. We read yet again of the by-now-tiresome and historically mean split between Camus and the Sartre/de Beauvoir faction, who wanted the lionized editor of the clandestine Resistance newspaper, Combat, to join them in embracing the Communist Party. (Camus, typically, had belonged to the Party in Algeria, worked vigorously for it for a year, then quit in sudden disillusionment.) And we wonder (as McCarthy does not) just how much all of these backings-and-fillings, these shiftings from aggressiveness to depression that were a function of the chronic tuberculosis from which he suffered all his life, informed his philosophy and his art.

On Camus as thinker and writer (which is finally after all what interests us most about a man like Camus, once we have finished learning about his troubled marriages and manifold affairs, or about his slightly tardy entry into the Resistance), McCarthy is rather limited. His observations are often banal, except perhaps in his very perceptive summation of The Plague; and one senses either that he does not find the mind and the work interesting enough to probe very deeply into them, or that he assumes we have all been there many times already, and that cursory treatment will suffice.

A word on McCarthy's style: Unless he was deliberately in his own prose trying to mimic the level, understated voice of Meursault in The Stranger, I am at a loss to account for the leaden quality of what one might call the voice that tells his biography. One bald declarative sentence follows another, until one cries out for an occasional semicolon or subordinate clause. This sort of style may be praised for its clarity, but the ultimate effect is of near-monotony.

McCarthy says in his introduction that "it is the unsaintly, anguished and curiously indifferent Camus who is the subject of this book." It may well be that his indifference ("sporadic inertia" might be a more accurate description), especially, may come to be a kind of key to an understanding of Camus, his relation to his era, and his work. And it may be that an understanding of the phenomenon of Albert Camusswill become a key to an understanding of the age in which he lived. As McCarthy says, "He was trapped in the roles of lay saint and moral conscience of his generation. In a similar way he shaped and was shaped by his age." George Steiner's caveat may be true: McCarthy's book does indeed give us a Camus who was after all a second-rate mind. But he was a first-rate symbol, and is therefore well-worth retrieving. For nudging us in this direction, we must be grateful to Patrick McCarthy.