Elements of a Life
Narrated by Daniel Galvez II
Approximately 6 hours
Book published by Cornell University Press
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.
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.
“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.”
—Times Literary Supplement
“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.”
“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
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