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Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (edition 2010)

by Robert Zaretsky

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191537,190 (3.5)7
Member:baswood
Title:Albert Camus: Elements of a Life
Authors:Robert Zaretsky
Info:Cornell University Press (2010), Hardcover, 200 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
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Albert Camus: Elements of a Life by Robert Zaretsky

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Zaretsky’s introduction informs the reader that he will examine the issues that are more popularly associated with Albert Camus, which he says are: the probing of notions of freedom and justice and the conflict between them, the nature of being an exile and the idea of a man who gave voice to an entire spectrum of silence. His chosen method of examining these subjects is to pick four significant events in Camus life and look at these in some detail.

Chapter 1 takes Camus visit to and reports on Kabylia in 1939, when he was just starting to make a name for himself in his native Algeria as a journalist and essayist. Zaretsky skilfully sketches in Camus early life and influences, setting the scene that would shock the young man when he saw the conditions under which the Arab population were forced to live. He saw injustice at first hand and his reports shaped his early thoughts and honed his skills as a journalist.

Chapter 2 is titled “A Moralist on the Barricades” and takes us to 1945 and describes Camus wrestling with the issues of how to deal with the Collaborationists in Paris at the end of the war. Camus was the editor of Combat a newspaper which had been sympathetic to the resistance movement. President De Gauls’s new government carried out a limited campaign against the more high profile supporters of the Nazis. There were trials and death sentences were given and some were carried out. These actions were supported by Camus, however the post war trial of Robert Brasillach proved to be a watershed for him. Brasillach was the editor of a right wing news paper that had vociferously supported the Nazis campaign against the Jews. Francois Mauriac was a leading campaigner trying to get Brasillachs death sentence commuted and he wrote an open letter to Camus as a fellow journalist to sign a petition to that affect. Camus after much soul searching did eventually admit that Mauriac’s position was right agreeing that France was in need of charity more than blind justice.

Chapter 3 “French Tragedies” focuses on the public debate between Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, that took place in 1952.. Les Temps Modernes edited by Sartre had become the leading voice of the intellectual left and he and Camus had been good friends, however their views were diverging and when Sartre’s journal finally got around to reviewing Camus book “The Rebel” it was no surprise that it was unfavourable. Camus wrote a public letter explaining his position in reply to the review and Sartre countered this in a very personal and at times vindictive reply. Sartre’s position was supported by many intellectuals on the left and Camus found himself once again out in the cold. Zaretsky does an excellent job in explaining the differences of opinion and the reasons why the break had to come.

Chapter 4 takes us forward to 1956 and Camus stance on the coming war for Algeria. Camus was Algerian and as a leading intellectual involved himself in the politics. He had never shied away from a fight, but on this issue he found himself in an impossible position. He had previously fought for the Arabs of Algeria to be given equal rights with the French colonists, but he was horrified by the escalating violence from both sides. He could not support the French government or the Arab FLN who were both advocating terrorism. His only recourse after a heroic attempt to broker a truce was to stay silent and he refused to talk about the issue. The old arguments with Sartre surfaced once again and it came down to Camus refusing to accept that the end justified the means. .

In selecting these four incidents Zaretsky has managed to cut to the quick into the personality and thoughts of Camus. He interweaves his narrative with extensive references to Camus most famous publications, showing how Camus ideas and thoughts developed through his experiences. Camus was a brave free thinker who never lost sight of his humanity and these selected incidents serve well in providing a lasting impression of the man and his thoughts. Zaretsky also links Camus reflections to other thinkers from history including St Augustine, Thucydides, Rousseau etc, however I found this aspect of the book a little forced, but it did not get in the way of my enjoyment of the book as a whole. At 200 pages including notes and references the book serves as a good introduction to the work of Camus. It is very well written and will hold the interest of anyone interested in its subject. A 3.5 star read ( )
5 vote baswood | Jan 26, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0801448050, Hardcover)

"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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:43 -0400)

"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."--Dust jacket.… (more)

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