Albert Camus: Elements of a Life
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"Like many others of my generation, I first read Camus in high school. I carried him in my backpack while traveling across Europe, I carried him into (and out of) relationships, and I carried him into (and out of) difficult periods of my life. More recently, I have carried him into university classes that I have taught, coming out of them with a renewed appreciation of his art. To be sure, my idea of Camus thirty years ago scarcely resembles my idea of him today. While my admiration and attachment to his writings remain as great as they were long ago, the reasons are more complicated and critical."―Robert Zaretsky
On October 16, 1957, Albert Camus was dining in a small restaurant on Paris's Left Bank when a waiter approached him with news: the radio had just announced that Camus had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Camus insisted that a mistake had been made and that others were far more deserving of the honor than he. Yet Camus was already recognized around the world as the voice of a generation―a status he had achieved with dizzying speed. He published his first novel, The Stranger, in 1942 and emerged from the war as the spokesperson for the Resistance and, although he consistently rejected the label, for existentialism. Subsequent works of fiction (including the novels The Plague and The Fall), philosophy (notably, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel), drama, and social criticism secured his literary and intellectual reputation. And then on January 4, 1960, three years after accepting the Nobel Prize, he was killed in a car accident.
In a book distinguished by clarity and passion, Robert Zaretsky considers why Albert Camus mattered in his own lifetime and continues to matter today, focusing on key moments that shaped Camus's development as a writer, a public intellectual, and a man. Each chapter is devoted to a specific event: Camus's visit to Kabylia in 1939 to report on the conditions of the local Berber tribes; his decision in 1945 to sign a petition to commute the death sentence of collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach; his famous quarrel with Jean-Paul Sartre in 1952 over the nature of communism; and his silence about the war in Algeria in 1956. Both engaged and engaging, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life is a searching companion to a profoundly moral and lucid writer whose works provide a guide for those perplexed by the absurdity of the human condition and the world's resistance to meaning.
called for. Camus’s notebooks reveal that he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the austere conception of the absurd expressed in The Stranger. In the silence of Le Panelier, he reminded himself that to revise or reject what one had previously believed was not a weakness. For example, he asked himself, what should we make of the philosopher who announces, “Up to now I was going in the wrong direction. I am going to begin all over”? The public would ridicule him, of course: but what of it?
that Meursault now understood something he had previously failed to grasp: “How had I not seen that there was nothing more important than an execution, and that when you come right down to it, it was the only thing a man could truly be interested in?”38 Under the blazing sun of liberated France, Camus was not unlike Meursault standing on the beach in Algiers. Pushed by the overwhelming pressures of justice, Camus condemned a man to death. It was a decision that clashed with all the values he had
particularly in Sartre’s case. Spending the war years as an observer—as a “writer who resisted, not a resister who wrote”—Sartre was overwhelmed by the dashing action figure cut by Camus. Ronald Aronson suggests that Sartre “seemed to assimilate Camus to himself” in his newfound emphasis on engagement: “This young man was already the person Sartre was trying to become.”44 Several years later, while sifting through the wreckage of their quarrel, Sartre recalled that his former friend lived this
Thucydides’ presence in The Plague is limited to the Greek historian’s methodology and his account of the plague. 16. Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935–1942, trans. Philip Thody (New York: Marlowe, 1998), 185. 17. Ibid., 193. 18. Quoted in Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: Une vie (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 545. 19. Camus, The Plague, 236. 20. Ibid., 153. 21. Camus, The Plague, 138. 22. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 159. 23. Ibid., 48. 24. W. Robert Connor, Thucydides (Princeton:
might best be yoked to organized politics. Grenier had few illusions—a rarity at that time—about the radiant future projected by the PCF. In his lectures and essays—Grenier had a modest literary reputation in Paris, publishing from time to time in the country’s most prestigious literary journal, La Nouvelle Revue Française—he warned against the unequal struggle between the life of ideas and political idealism. As he warned Camus, “each time man creates new values, he creates new shackles.”19 But