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The Journal of Camus Studies
Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.
Albert Camus: Elements of a Life offers a poetic and tantalizing biography. Lucid and magnificently researched.
Robert Zaretsky's tantalizing ‘biography' of Albert Camus approaches his subject from the perspective that this is ‘neither a full biography nor a scholarly commentary. It is an essay in which I trace the ways these ‘familiar ideas' weave through Camus's life. Each chapter is devoted to a specific event.'
The ‘familiar ideas' that Zaretsky so poetic speaks of would be Camus's theories on: imperialism, ethics and morality, his break with Jean-Paul Sartre over communism, and, finally, his silent views on Algerian independence. While Zaretsky focuses on three major events: Camus's visit to Kabylia in 1939, his decision to sign a petition to commute Robert Brasillach's death sentence in 1945, and his 1952 fall-out with Sartre, he never loses focus that these incidents help shape Camus's philosophy of the absurd both prior to and after the publication of The Myth of Sisyphus .
In 1939, Camus traveled to Kabylia to report on the conditions of the local Berber tribes. And it was here that Camus gathered the inspiration to have his theatre company, the Théâtre de l'Equipe, adapt and perform John Miller Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World . The group was not putting on the Irishman's play for artistic purposes, but, rather, because of the political similarities between the plights of the Irish and Algerians under their domineering oppressors which was even more apparent through the direction of Camus. While Synge's tongue-and-cheek portrayal of Irish life under British rule was accepted by theatre goers, according to Zaretsky, it is Camus's intention was to illustrate the strikingly similar troubles of the Algerians under the French. It was here that Camus began to see the human condition as absurd in relation to occupation.
Shortly after he married Camus's mother, Camus's father was witness to a public execution of an Arab by means of guillotine. Camus's report (in the essay “Reflections on the Guillotine”) was from his mother's second-hand experience. When his father came home, he said nothing; he went to bed and vomited. It was from this understanding, along with his own ideas about the importance of human life (after all, his father was killed in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne ) that was cause for Camus to sign a petition commuting the execution of Brasillach in 1945. Camus felt an affinity to his fellow human beings and believed that every life was equally precious, and that no one had the right to take another's life. The willingness to sign the petition put Camus in direct opposition to his contemporaries, and this made him a pillar to those who believed otherwise.
Likewise, it was his political view points that separated him from ‘the mainstream', and this is evident in his fall-out with Sartre over communism in 1952. In the early months of 1952, even after the publication of The Rebel in 1951, the Soviet Union began showing signs of aggression towards Eastern European nations, including Hungary . While Sartre believed that communism was necessary for the betterment of society, Camus believed that the communist's agenda towards Eastern Europe was detrimental and a regression away from the ‘true' communistic ideals. In response, Sartre gave The Rebel an incredibly harsh and negative review, and Camus retaliated with breaking from the French Communist party and severing his ties with Sartre and his circle.
Zaretsky's incredibly lucid and magnificently researched account of the fall-out and termination of one of the most literarily and philosophically productive relationships in the twentieth-century comes to life and the reader is seemingly transformed to early 1950s Paris . As Zaretsky brings the reader to the forefront of the struggle, one feels as if he or she is being pulled back and forth between the quarrel.
As the title indicates, Zaretsky focuses on the three most significant ‘elements' from Camus's life to help shape a better knowledge of ‘who' Camus was and why he is still important in the twenty-first century. It is through Zaretsky's delineation of Camus that readers will, undoubtedly, gain an improved and enhanced familiarity of Camus the philosopher, Camus the humanist and Camus the person.
This review first appeared on the US Camus Society website