When published in French in 1996, "Albert Camus: une vie" was, by consensus view, the most comprehensive and objective biography of Albert Camus to date. This English translation was published the next year. Unfortunately, when translated into English, Todd's original French biography also was abridged - "unfortunately" because I sense that the abridgement was clumsy. I suspect that much of the cropping occurred in the first part of the book, dealing with Camus's life from his birth in Algeria in 1913 until his move to Paris in 1941, since the first third of this biography (through 1941) is annoyingly choppy and poorly organized. Around page 130 the quality of this English version of ALBERT CAMUS: A LIFE improves.
Even so, the biography is on the dry side. The writing is only so-so -- but then, that too might be due at least in part to the translation. As a biography, it is more a collection than a synthesis; Todd inclines more to presenting facts and quoting others' assessments of Camus than he does to offering his own analysis and commentary. A real strength of this biography is that Todd does not succumb to hero-worship. Compared to two other works about Camus biographical in nature that I have read or skimmed, Todd is not blind to, nor does he gloss over, Camus's personal weaknesses and defects of character. Another strength of this biography is how it highlights people and events in Camus's life that he worked into various of his novels and plays. In the end, I applaud this biography for its objectivity, though I also fault how the workmanlike tone and approach virtually strips all sense of warmth for the book's subject.
Yet another notable aspect of this biography is its occasional gossipy tidbits, though they always are presented in a dead-pan manner. One example: For a few years Camus was a close associate of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. As Todd puts it, Beauvoir "felt amorous" towards Camus, but he, despite being a notorious womanizer (though his dalliances tended to be with young, slim, quite attractive women), steadfastly resisted her advances. (This fact should not be overlooked when considering Beauvoir's later castigation of Camus's politics and intellectual abilities.) On the other hand, Simone was able to coax Arthur Koestler into the sack. Ironically, Camus later said to Koestler (perhaps not knowing that for Koestler sex with Simone was not just a hypothetical), "Imagine what [Simone] might say on the pillow afterwards. It's horrible--with such a chatterbox, a total bluestocking, unbearable!"
This biography covers in reasonable detail all of the better-known episodes or aspects of Camus's life: his tuberculosis (which certainly gave him a deeper appreciation for the mystery and wonder of life, which in turn informed his opposition to terrorism and to capital punishment); his involvement with the Resistance; his friendship and then quarrel with Sartre; his controversial public silence in the late-1950s as regards his native Algeria; the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature; and his relations with numerous women.
Camus was an inveterate Don Juan, who could be very jealous and get quite upset upon learning that one of his lovers had been unfaithful to him but, as for himself, could come up with any number of reasons why fidelity or monogamy was not natural for him. It is nigh impossible to pardon him his conduct towards his second wife Francine, and it appears likely that his rampant philandering contributed to Francine's mental illness. From Todd's biography, it also appears that Camus had difficulty understanding that reasonable people could, in good faith, see political or moral matters differently than he. He comes across -- at least to those other than his closest friends - as having been rather smug, maybe even arrogant, which (especially when coupled with his enviable good looks, fame, and success with women) no doubt increased the number of enemies or critics he had among the French intelligentsia.
But by no means is Todd's biography a hatchet job. Todd, in his rather dry and somber manner, honors Camus for his distinctive achievements and defends him from the more shrill and knee-jerk attacks from the Left (which, for the most part, the course of history over the past thirty years has also exposed as misguided). Of Camus's literary works, Todd regards "The Stranger" and "The Fall" to be "masterpieces". Again and again Todd shows how Camus simply refused to be caught up in the ideologies that helped fuel the Cold War. When "The Rebel" was criticized by Sartre and his toadies on the grounds that some of its views were those of the right wing, Camus wrote, "One doesn't decide the truth of an idea according to whether it is left- or right-wing, and even less by what the left or right wing decides to make of it." (A maxim that many of our contemporary political pundits would do well to remember.) To the perturbation of the French Left of the late 1940s and the 1950s, Camus saw and pronounced the USSR to be a "land of slaves" and a lie. To those like Sartre who defended Communism and the USSR as the hope of the future, Camus responded, "We don't need hope, we only need truth." Finally, with regard to Algeria, Todd is not altogether clear or successful in explaining Camus's conflicted and complex position(s), but he certainly is on the mark when he concludes: "Camus wanted Algeria to remain somehow in the French Republic, but he did not have what is seen today as typical colonialist mentality, condoning the OAS counterterrorist groups' torturing Algerian nationalists. Those who claim that he did [such as Conor Cruise O'Brien and Edward Said] falsify his life and works."
Though not ideal, Todd's biography probably is essential to an English-speaking student of Camus who (like me) does not read French. For those who, understandably, have the time or inclination to read only one biography of Camus, I would instead recommend Elizabeth Hawes's "Camus, A Romance" (despite its idiosyncrasies, which I mention in my Amazon review of that work). Three-and-a-half stars, rounded up.