A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning

Written by Robert Zaretsky
A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning
Robert Zaretsky
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (November, 2013)

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Albert Camus declared that a writer’s duty is twofold: “the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance against oppression.” These twin obsessions help explain something of Camus’ remarkable character, which is the overarching subject of this sympathetic and lively book. Through an exploration of themes that preoccupied Camus—absurdity, silence, revolt, fidelity, and moderation—Robert Zaretsky portrays a moralist who refused to be fooled by the nobler names we assign to our actions, and who pushed himself, and those about him, to challenge the status quo.

Though we do not face the same dangers that threatened Europe when Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger, we confront other alarms. Herein lies Camus’ abiding significance. Reading his work, we become more thoughtful observers of our own lives. For Camus, rebellion is an eternal human condition, a timeless struggle against injustice that makes life worth living. But rebellion is also bounded by self-imposed constraints—it is a noble if impossible ideal. Such a contradiction suggests that if there is no reason for hope, there is also no occasion for despair—a sentiment perhaps better suited for the ancient tragedians than modern political theorists but one whose wisdom abides. Yet we must not venerate suffering, Camus cautions: the world’s beauty demands our attention no less than life’s train of injustices. That recognition permits him to declare: “It was the middle of winter, I finally realized that, within me, summer was inextinguishable.”

Albert Camus was a pied-noir, an ethnic Frenchman living in French Algeria. He was born in 1913, and at the age of 25 he moved to France, where he joined the Resistance movement, writing and editing for a dissident paper called Combat. He became a writer of significant repute, and lived mainly in France until his death (by car accident) in 1960.

Robert Zaretsky is Professor of French History in the Honors College of the University of Houston. He is author of several books, including Nîmes at War and Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue.

Reviews:

"Zaretsky once again gives us a concentrated, wholly enlightening and insightful study on the life of this complicated writer and man. [...]This is a wonderfully written and expertly researched companion to Zaretsky’s previous book on Camus." -- Andrew Martino, World Literature Today

"If A Life Worth Living is more heartfelt appreciation than rigorous evaluation, it is a welcome reanimation of a deeply compelling writer, and one that ably ties together various strands of Camus’s thought and action." -- Ian Marcus Corbin, The American Conservative

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