Camus’ years of teenage exuberance were cut short when, at the age of 17, doctors diagnosed tuberculosis. Constantly short of breath, he was forced to abandon a promising soccer career, and would suffer relapses throughout his life. Despite the often-debilitating illness, he graduated in 1936 from the University of Algiers with a philosophy degree. After a stint of uninspiring office work, Camus was hired in 1938 as a reporter for a new daily newspaper, the Alger Républicain, covering everything from murder trials to a famine in the mountain region of Kabylia, 50 miles east of Algiers. That exposé of government neglect infuriated colonial authorities. They shut down the paper and blacklisted Camus, making him unemployable as a journalist.
Said and I follow a trail along the cliffs, past grazing goats and gnarled olive trees. We thread through a field of truncated columns and tread gingerly across the disintegrating mosaic floor of a ruined villa. In “Nuptials at Tipasa,” one of four rapturous essays about his homeland published in 1938, Camus celebrated a world of sunshine and sensual pleasure. “In springtime, gods dwell in Tipasa,” he wrote, “speaking through the sun and wormwood perfume, the sea in its silver armor, and great bubbles of light in piles of rocks.”
One summer afternoon in 1939, on Bouisseville Beach, just west of Oran, an acquaintance of Camus’, Raoul Bensoussan, had a run-in with two Arabs who, he believed, had insulted his girlfriend. “Raoul returned with his brother to argue with the Arabs, and after a brawl he was injured by one of them, who had a knife,” Todd writes in his biography. Raoul came back armed with a small-caliber pistol, but the Arabs were arrested before he could pull the trigger.
From this encounter, Camus fashioned the novel that has come to define him. In the opening pages of The Stranger, his anthem of existentialism and alienation, Meursault, Camus’ strangely detached antihero, joins his mother’s funeral procession in the Algerian countryside. “The glare from the sky was unbearable,” he writes. “I could feel the blood pounding in my temples.” The sun of Tipasa has morphed into a sinister force in Meursault’s world—a catalyst for violence and symbol of a universe bleached of significance. Later, on a beach much like Bouisseville, Meursault encounters an Arab with a knife and shoots him to death for no other apparent reason than the unnerving brightness and heat. “It was the same sun as on the day I buried Maman and, like then,” he writes, “my forehead especially was hurting me, all of the veins pulsating together beneath the skin.”
Today the once-pristine beach that inspired Camus’ absurdist drama is barely recognizable. The sun that drove Meursault to distraction, then murder, is today buried behind a heavy cloud cover, typical of the Mediterranean winter. Trash covers the curving sweep of sand, a faint odor of urine is in the air and the beachfront is lined with dilapidated French villas, many abandoned. “My father used to see Camus and his wife here all the time,” a grizzled man who rents out sun umbrellas tells us. He directs us down the beach toward a trickle of raw sewage flowing into the sea. Seventy years ago, this stream might have been “the little spring, running down through the sand” where Meursault encountered the doomed Arab and his friends.
The Stranger concludes with Meursault in his cell, preparing for his execution, following a trial in which his lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral is cited as proof of his depravity. Facing imminent death on the guillotine, Camus’ protagonist acknowledges that existence is meaningless, yet he now rejoices in the sheer sensation of being alive. “For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the benign indifference of the world,” he declares in the last lines of the book, a cry of defiance and a joyful assertion of his humanity.
The Stranger was published in 1942, to ecstatic reviews. It earned the respect of Jean-Paul Sartre, the Left Bank philosopher with whom Camus soon formed a tempestuous friendship. Thanks in part to Sartre’s attention, Camus found himself transformed almost overnight from an obscure pied-noir journalist into a literary lion. In 1944, fifteen-year-old Olivier Todd found a dog-eared copy in the cupboard of a Jewish woman who had lent Todd and his mother her apartment in occupied Paris after she had fled the Nazis. “I went to the Luxembourg Garden, and read the novel there, 200 yards away from German sentries,” remembers Camus’ future biographer. He was taken, he says, by the “double-faced” nature of Camus, who found darkness and horror in the Algerian sunshine. “He will be remembered as a formidable prose writer, who was capable of dreaming up extraordinary stories,” Todd says.
In March 1940, unemployed in Algeria, Camus had gone into exile in France, arriving on the eve of the Nazi invasion. He found a job as a reporter for a newspaper in Lyon, a city under control of the collaborationist Vichy government. In January 1941, he married Francine Faure, a beautiful pianist and math teacher from Oran. But the same month, facing wartime privation, censorship and the threat of losing his job, Camus returned with his wife to Oran.