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Albert Camus: Elements of a Life Hardcover – January 5, 2010
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"This elegantly written and beautifully paced book will appeal to many readers. Those already in sympathy with Camus's ideas will find extra nourishment; his detractors may want to nuance their criticisms in the light of Zaretsky's contribution, while those who are not familiar with Camus will have to look hard to find a clearer and more stimulating introduction to the man and his perception of the world."―David Drake, Times Literary Supplement, March 26, 2010
"A striking book. . . . One of the great benefits of examining Camus's life through a sequence of key encounters is that it emphasizes the combative, situated nature of his work, and Zaretsky's choice of key elements is perfect. The chaos of empirical details that so often overwhelms the biographer or historian is thereby given an order and intellectual integrity that may otherwise be dissolved by the corrosiveness of raw facts. These vignettes enable Zaretsky to bring out Camus's extreme attentiveness and responsiveness to the warring forces that emerge in particular locales; Camus expresses himself differently in accordance with those situational demands. Zaretsky shows how the diverse forms taken by Camus's work always have a specific ethical import, and the ways in which they don't say things prove as significant as their positive assertions."―Justin Clemens, The Australian, 17 April 2010
"This is Camus the moralist at his most human and humane, rebellious or silent, struggling to make his choices, courageously self-critical, and permanently uneasy. The pleasure of reading Robert Zaretsky's dramatic and often poetic book is heightened by the scholarly range of comparisons from Thucydides to J. M. Synge. It shows how challenging and troubling Camus still is: our own lucidity and attention to others are fundamentally at issue."―Rod Kedward, author of France and the French: A Modern History
"Camus is a writer of great nuance and sensitivity, and Robert Zaretsky interprets Camus in a way that is both intellectually sharp and deeply personal. This is a thoughtful and beautifully written book, and I highly recommend it."―Jeffrey C. Isaac, James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington, author of Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion
About the Author
Robert Zaretsky is Professor of French History in the Honors College of the University of Houston. He is author of several books, including Nimes at War and Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. Most recently, he is coauthor of The Philosophers' Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding.
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For anyone interested in Albert Camus and his thinking, this is a very worthwhile book. It is NOT, however, a biography, as is alluded to by the word "elements" in its subtitle and as is expressly stated by author Zaretsky on the second page. (Just two indicia of how the book is not a biography: there is no mention whatsoever of Camus's first wife Simone Hié, nor is there any mention of his closest friend Michel Gallimard, who was driving the car that ran off the road into a tree taking the lives of both him and Camus.) Instead, Zaretsky sets out to explore three different popular "ideas" or conceptions of Albert Camus: (a) the thinker who probed the notions of freedom and justice and how they might be reconcilable; (b) the "outsider" who wrote about exile, both from one's homeland and from a world overseen by a god; and (c) a 20th-Century guru of silence. Zaretsky traces the ways these ideas weave through four distinct episodes of Camus's life, which correspond to the four chapters of the book: (1) Camus's tenure as a journalist in Algeria in the late 1930s writing about the oppressed and impoverished conditions of the local Arabs; (2) his decision in 1945 to reverse his position on capital punishment as appropriate "justice" for the worst of the Nazi collaborators; (3) his famous quarrel with Jean-Paul Sartre over communism and whether, in politics, the (theoretical) ends justify the means; and (4) his self-imposed silence, beginning in 1956, over the war in Algeria.
Although the book is not a work of literary criticism, Zaretsky nonetheless discusses several of Camus's more famous literary works - especially "The Stranger", "The Plague", "The Myth of Sisyphus", and "The Rebel" (his take on "The Stranger" is both distinctive and provocative). He also draws upon some of Camus's more obscure writings, including some that have not been translated into English. As a result, the student of Camus finds many statements of his that are not widely available. Example: "All I can hope to do is show that generous forms of behavior can be engendered even in a world without God and that man alone in the universe can still create his own values."
I personally am intrigued by Camus, by his anomalous idealism (as reflected in the preceding quote), by his fundamental decency and honesty, and by his courage and willingness to go it alone as an intellectual, to refuse to kowtow to the liberal intellectual elite of Paris led by the likes of Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty. This book corroborates or reinforces that rather heroic image of Camus. I sense, however, that it is not the ideal book for a newcomer to Camus. I really don't have a book to recommend to a newcomer, though I am in the midst of reading a number of books by and about Camus and his thought, and when I have finished that project I hope to post a comment to this review with any such recommendations.
In the meantime, I found ALBERT CAMUS: ELEMENTS OF A LIFE a valuable contribution to the literature on Camus, although I don't agree with (or comprehend) Zaretsky on several of his more philosophical digressions. The book reflects considerable scholarship but it is not unduly "scholarly" or "academic" in tone and style. It is relatively brief (160 pages of text) and relatively easy to read.
One of Algeria's greatest sons, the late Albert Camus, is back where he rightfully belongs--center stage! Thanks to Elizabeth Hawes' delightful and vibrant book, "Camus, A Romance,"Camus, a Romance and Robert Zaretsky's scholarly and insightful tome, "Albert Camus: Elements of a Life." Camus, a talented writer and philosopher, has again risen from the literary ashes. His clarion call for "limits" in the pursuit of otherwise laudable causes; and for truth-telling in the realm of political injustice and social inequities, is as relevant today, as it was during his turbulent lifetime.
Camus was a French-Algerian. He was born in 1913, and raised in the city of Algiers, in a run-down neighborhood. His father, whose ancestral roots were French, was killed fighting in WWI for France against the Germans; while his mother, of Spanish stock, was half-deaf, uneducated and rarely spoke. Is the latter, the origin of the importance of "silence" in Camus' persona? Zaretsky thinks it played a relevant part and I agree with him.
Algeria, in Camus' days, was a French colony, although its Arab population, was in the majority. Life was hard for the budding writer and for his family, but for many of his Arab contemporaries, discrimination, starvation and illiteracy were often their lot.
When I was in high school, at Calvert Hall, a Christian Brother institution, in downtown Baltimore, I remember mostly counting the bricks on a wall located across the street, I was so terribly bored! One of the exceptions was in my "literature" class with Brother Gregory at the the helm. He truly loved what he was doing and it showed. When he read something aloud from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens or Washington Irving, the room lit up for me. Brother Gregory, bless his memory, was an inspiring teacher.
Enter into Camus' life, one Louis Germain. He was an elementary school teacher. Hawes labeled him as Camus' "first surrogate father." Both authors detailed Germain's importance to Camus' eventual career and to his intellectual development as a philosopher. Not only his mentor, Germain became Camus' life long friend and trusted advisor. He helped get him into the "lychee," and later accepted at the University of Algiers.
After graduating from the university, in 1937, Camus became a reporter. In 1939, he documented a famine in the mountainous area of Kabylia, Algeria, not too far from its capital city. His damning report for the "Alger-Republicain" newspaper, was entitled, "Misery in Kabylia." Camus' editor was Pascal Pia, another mentor and significant figure in his success as a literary icon.
Both biographies highlighted incidents such as the above in Camus' experiences. Why? They seemed to have shaped, and, in some cases, reaffirmed, his political and philosophical views. Seeing first hand the evil effects of French colonialism, and the world's indifference to it, left an indelible mark on the psyche of Camus. Later, that influence would be revealed in his books, like: "The Rebel," "The Fall," "The Plague," and "The Myth of Sisyphus."
Camus championed the notion of the "absurd" in his writings. The novel, "The Stranger," his first acclaimed work of art, which catapulted him to fame, is probably the most cogent example of what exactly that concept meant to him. This made Camus' death in an automobile accident, in 1960, even more poignant.
Hawes described Camus' fate of dying in a car crash, "the ultimate absurdity for the man who named the absurd. [He] had in his pocket a round-trip ticket travel by train with his family, but he had been persuaded at the last moment to drive to Paris." The driver was speeding, the car went off the road, striking one tree and then another. The impact broke "Camus' neck," and killed him.
One of Zaretsky's book best strength is how he takes "The Stranger," and the other major literary efforts of Camus, and brilliantly dissects them for the reader. While doing so, he lets you know exactly what was going on in Camus' life at the time each of them were written. For example, when "The Stranger" was published, in 1942, WWII was raging in Europe, and huge parts of France were occupied by the German Army. Camus joined the "French Resistance" and was also the editor of its legendary news organ, "Combat." He was then only 29 years old.
Nevertheless, Camus remained an "outsider" in France, as both Hawes and Zaretsky showed. He was an "outsider" to humanity itself, also. Why? He'd contracted a killer disease--tuberculosis!
Camus' experience of French Algeria, where the Arab is the "other," also impacts his views. The themes: "outsider," "the other," and "separate," runs through Camus' thoughts and are reflected in many of his novels, essays and plays.
Zaretsky sees this, particularly, in Camus' short story, "The Guest." It was published, in 1957, only months after he won the "Nobel Prize" for literature, and around the same time that he had briefly addressed the horrific events then raging in Algeria. Nationalists were violently responding to the French heel on their neck. That conflict, where some of the male victims had their "genitals cut off" and stuffed in their mouths, and "women's breasts were sliced off," by the enflamed nationalists, lasted from 1954 to 1962. Tens of thousands of "Arabs and Berbers were killed" in retaliation by the French military. Zaretsky said the slaughters, on both sides, were perpetrated, "in a grisly fashion."
With respect to "The Guest," Zaretsky wrote: "Yet Daru [the protagonist of the story and a French Algerian] discovers he is also a `stranger' in what he always believed to be is own land. He had spent his life feeling like an `outsider' anywhere but in Algeria but is now also `exiled' from his native land. And awful truth dawns on Daru: the historical, cultural, and linguistic division between the `pied noirs' [the settler class of which Camus belonged] and the Arabs [the indigenous people]--both of whom are simultaneously hosts and guests to each other--is too great to bridge."
Getting back to Hawes. What I loved about her chronicle of Camus is how she gets so very personal, indeed, intimate, about his life. Her book is, in a real sense, about her love affair, her "crush" on a man, that she only knows from a distance--from his writings.
Hawes' book is passionate, enlightening and terrific fun to read. She even tracked down Camus' surviving children, Catherine and Jean, and interviewed them about their father. Hawes ended her ode to Camus--visiting his grave, at Lourmarin cemetery--not far from his last home, in France. I say: Take Hawes' book with you to the beach for a read this summer. You won't regret it.
There is much more in both of these fine books: Such as the many writers that influenced Camus' craft, namely: Saint Augustine, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Balzac, Synge, Mann, along with the Greek Tragedies; the fact that Camus' first wife was a drug addict; his love of soccer and his womanizing; Camus' visit to New York City; his love of acting, directing and the theatre; his brief membership in the Communist Party; Camus' views on the Hungarian Revolution; his take on the bloody dictator Josef Stalin, the Soviet Labor Camps and the Purges; and of course, Camus' earthshaking break with another literary titan--Jean-Paul Sartre.
It is on this controversial subject, where Zaretsky shines again. I think it's the professor in him. During the frantic days of the "half-liberated, half-occupied Paris," Sartre was assigned the "task of protecting the vacated "Comedie Francaise." When Camus went there, he found Sartre, "napping," and jokingly cracked to him: "You've placed your seat in the direction of history."
In 1952, the two clashed openly over a scathing review of Camus' book, "The Rebel," which appeared in, "Les Temps Modernes," a magazine controlled by Sartre. This was also after Sartre had made it clear that he was "siding with" the Stalinists. (2) Camus' response to the review went directly to Sartre himself.
Zaretsky quoted from Camus' famous letter: "I am growing tired of seeing myself, and especially of seeing veteran militants who `never ran from struggles' in their own times, receive countless lessons in effectiveness from critics who have done nothing more than point their `seats in the direction of history.'"
Finally, I submit that both Hawes and Zaretsky deserve credit for adding to our knowledge of Camus' legacy, and to his importance to our perilous times. Let's face it, we live in an era where screwball ideologues are running amuck. Dissenting voices can find no better model for taking on these crazed warmongers than looking to Camus--one of humanity's finest moralists.