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By Alan Jacobs

Camus the Stranger

"I believe in justice," Camus said in 1957, amid the Algerian crisis, "but I will defend my mother before justice." His words enraged the French intelligentsia, and they still have the power to discomfit absolutists of every stripe. In the novel left unfinished at his death and published now for the first time, he answered his critics.

"The First Man"

By Albert Camus

Alfred A. Knopf

336 pp.; $23

When I think of Albert Camus, two photographic images come to mind. The first is of that face, both thoughtful and tough, a cigarette drooping from the lips, the collar of a trench coat showing. The second is of the crushed automobile in which he died early in January 1960. These images are not important just to me; they may be said to define the dominant impression many readers had (and perhaps still have) of Camus. If Hollywood had invented an existentialist writer, the homely, scholarly Jean-Paul Sartre, with his squat body and thick spectacles, would not have made the cut. No, it would be Camus: he looked like Humphrey Bogart and died like James Dean.

What is ironic about all this is the simple fact that Camus came closest to existentialism at the beginning of his career in his first published novel, "The Stranger," and in his first book of philosophy, "The Myth of Sisyphus," both of which were published in 1942--and Camus even claimed that the latter book was written as a conscious repudiation of existentialism. By the end of his life he had become completely alienated not just from existentialism as a philosophy but also from the whole French intellectual culture within which existentialism was then the dominant force. Perhaps if Camus had remained in lockstep with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir he would be more popular today. Instead, he remains perhaps the most neglected major author of the second half of this century--one of the few, along with W. H. Auden, Czeslaw Milosz, and a handful of others, who represent the nearly forgotten virtues of wisdom and courage.

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