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Albert Camus: Elements of a Life

Robert Zaretsky

(Cornell University Press; US: Jan 2010)

“This book is neither a full biography nor a scholarly commentary,” Robert Zaretsky confirms early on. “It is an essay in which I trace the way these ‘familiar ideas’ weave through Camus’ life.” A brief statement, but one of importance.


Zaretsky does indeed focus on one span of Albert Camus’ life in particular, coasting mainly along the portion of years that the philosopher spent as a vigorous political activist during the French Resistance. He marches his readers through the terrifying years of World War II, sometimes speaking as the informative tour guide and sometimes as a poet.


When Zaretsky is not just skimming along the timeline, his writing verges on the novelistic; he inventively paints us a picture of the landscapes and faces surrounding the man and then escorts him in and out of the picture as if to say, “And here is our hero”.


One can almost see the dramatic lighting, taste the acrid cigarette smoke in the air, and feel the curtain close and the lights dim as the actors in back scramble to set the next scene. For a man such as Camus, whom Zaretsky notes as once expressing the desire to be “the perfect actor”, this atmosphere is only appropriate.


As a storyteller, there are moments in this book when Zaretsky manages to reach a narrative quality equal to that of Camus, sometimes even appearing to channel the man himself (apostles of Camus, please wait a moment before jumping up to shout, “Blasphème!”). Whether it only be for a mere sentence or a humble paragraph, there are glimpses of near brilliance in Zaretsky’s own words, brilliance that induces in me the same philosophical shudder as Camus and with the same, seemingly effortless yet astonishing ease. Consider this narrative piece that Zaretsky writes when he describes Camus’ humble beginnings as a journalist:


But confident though he had become, Camus remained mal dans sa peau—uneasy in his skin. As he stood inside the Kabylian hovel at Adni, Camus felt the same shame he had known on the prison ship: “I must say I wasn’t proud of myself”. The journalist was so uneasy that he asked the woman just one question: Where did she and her children sleep?


This kind of moral discomfort, this unease in the face of suffering, this malaise that pushes you to silence, hindered as much as it helped Camus. He wrote quickly, he wrote well, but he would have preferred writing on dogs flattened by cars in Algiers than on dogs fighting over bones with children in Tizi-Ouzou.


Zaretsky’s adoration of Camus is undeniable. He is sensitive to the author’s tastes, often invoking the dramatic and theatrical to describe the events of this select period in Camus’ life. In the compelling chapter “French Tragedies” he compares Camus’ works (namely The Rebel and The Plague) and pinpoints moments of his life to the ancient writings of Greek philosopher Thucydides, a comparison that Camus would have welcomed with a modest grin of satisfaction.


In fact, the entire chapter of French Tragedies offers creative comparisons of Camus’ life to the times of the Ancient Greek philosophers that Camus so cherished; at the end of the chapter Zaretsky dynamically depicts the ever-famous conflict between Camus and Sartre as parallel to the events of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.


The most popular topic out of the mentioned “familiar ideas” that Zaretsky discusses is Camus’ fascination with silence. This subject is easily the backbone of Zaretsky’s essay, and he does well to relate back to it over the course of the entire book. Even in his introductory chapter, Zaretsky is quick to explore the multifaceted connections between silence and the author’s life, and he faithfully returns to build on his thoughts as his epic essay unfolds.


Evoking Camus’ literary prowess, Zaretsky provides a striking, appropriate statement on silence in his own words: “The silence of shadows is a brute fact of life: it remains when everything else dies away; it is all there was before anything else comes into being”. He then elaborates:


There are also the silences of sunlight—the calm of siesta time in Algiers, when the calls of Arab vendors underscore the lush sluggishness of time and the hush of the empty streets. But there is also the hammering silence that overwhelms Mersault on the beach in Algiers moments before he kills the Arab in The Stranger, the stillness of plague-ridden Oran in The Plague, and the ominous quiet of the primitive classroom on an isolated plateau in “The Guest”, when the teacher, Daru, realizes that words are useless and dialogue impossible. Silence, in short, is never merely physical or aural. For Camus, it is also metaphysical and ethical. In the beginning was silence: the peace of a prelapsarian world.


The main works discussed by Zaretsky are The Stranger, The Plague, and The Rebel, as well as the occasional excerpt from The Myth of Sisyphus and Resistance Rebellion and Death. Truthfully, one can’t help but ask, “But what about The Fall”?  The Fall may be an important piece in Camus’ repertoire, but it does not fit the main themes that Zaretsky chooses to focus on.


Still, it’s a bit surprising to see that he didn’t even attempt to tie The Fall into his discussions on Camus and absurdity. With this obvious omission one almost gets the sense that The Fall was “the one that he didn’t read”, and though I’m sure that isn’t the case, it’s still somewhat disconcerting.


Even though Zaretsky states early on that this is an essay and not a biography, in the end one still feels that the piece is somehow unfinished. With such a beautifully theatrical build-up accompanied by Zaretsky’s venturesome scenery and potent diction, one ultimately comes to expect an equally satisfying denouement.


Yes, this is an essay, and not a tale. It isn’t a Greek tragedy or an epic poem or even an existential novel, but one can’t help but feel slightly surprised to turn the page and see the final title, “Epilogue”, essay or not.


I suppose that one could argue Zaretsky has ended his long essay in the same sense that Camus’ life was cut short; like Camus’ literary career, there is a strong and promising development of brilliance that is doused just when it seems to have reached its scalding potential and one is left with a sense that so much more could have been achieved. Or, perhaps, one would just like to continue reading Zaretsky’s skillful analyses of Camus in the same way that one would like to read more from the philosopher himself.


In the end there must be an end, and this is whether we are ready for it or not. If Zaretsky had addressed all that was needed to be said about Camus, if he had explored each labyrinthine vein of philosophy and left all paths charted, then there would be nothing left for him to say, no routes left to pursue.


Camus once stated that we live for something that transcends ethics, something we are unaware of. “If we could name it,” he concludes, “what silence would follow!” Perhaps in some cases “it” can be named, whatever it may be, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be. That is, unless we would want to condemn ourselves to such an infinite silence.

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