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


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 ...

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A Life Worth Living

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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."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
University of Houston historian Zaretsky offers an invigorating blend of history, criticism, and biography in a stirring reassessment of the Nobel Prize–winning existentialist writer Albert Camus. Each chapter revolves around a key theme from Camus’s life and work: the absurdity of a meaningless existence; the silence of the universe and the silence of political noncommitment; political and moral moderation; fidelity to intellectual and moral principles; and revolt (rather than rebellion) as a response to power. Zaretsky supplements his discussions of individual works such as The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus with valuable historical and biographical detail, elaborating upon Camus’s complex reactions to defining events, from the oppression of Jews in France during WWII to the violence in Algeria in the 1950s. Zaretsky demonstrates Camus’s commitment to justice and the joy of existence, evident in his rejection of Soviet communism, as well as his principled opposition to terrorism and capital punishment. Camus emerges as a compassionate thinker who always ruthlessly interrogated his own beliefs and assumptions. Zaretsky’s elegant prose and passion for the subject, meanwhile, will inspire both novices in existentialism as well as experts to revisit the contributions of this great French writer. (Nov.)
Times Literary Supplement - John Taylor
Enlightening…Zaretsky probes Camus’s multifaceted sensibility.
New Republic - Linda Kinstler
A Life Worth Living departs from the chronological approach… Instead, Zaretsky tells [Camus’s] story according to the five themes that preoccupied his life and work: absurdity, silence, measure, fidelity, and revolt. The result is a much more human portrait of a man whose life is often reduced to a meditation on the bleakness of absurdism. By chronicling the ideas rather than the events of Camus’s life, Zaretsky shows that ‘Camus was all too human: an obvious point that our desperate need for heroes, especially now, often obscures.’
Daily Beast - Adam Kirsch
Some writers are lucky enough to be remembered 50 years after they die, and a few are even beloved. What is vanishingly rare, however, is for a long-dead writer to remain controversial. Albert Camus is one of those exceptions, a writer who still has the power to ignite political passions, because he managed to incorporate the history of the 20th century so deeply into his writing…Readers new to Camus will find in Zaretsky a deeply informed and warmly admiring guide.
The Australian - Kevin Rabalais
More than a half-century after his untimely death in 1960 at age 46, Camus continues to engage us…Zaretsky provides thorough and rigorous examinations into the author’s life and work while also helping us understand the disquiet of a man who gave readers seeking sustenance in art some of the most lyrical and encouraging advice in 20th-century literature.
Christian Century
It is extremely limiting to think of Albert Camus as an existentialist philosopher of the absurd. While Camus was never trained as a philosopher, Zaretsky demonstrates that many other themes marked Camus’s thought. Camus was a highly principled person, and a strong advocate for justice…Camus’s voice still has resonance.
PopMatters - Barry Lenser
Offer[s] concise, eloquent, and learned treatments of the life and work of the French-Algerian moralist…Camus contained multitudes and…Zaretsky returns to this truth again and again.
The Australian - Stephen Romei
For a good short study of [Camus’s] life, work and philosophy, try Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.
PopMatters - Jon Morris
What emerges is the paradoxical portrait of an exceptional everyman: imperfect, plagued by doubt, melancholic, flawed, but also sensitive, hopeful, passionate and heroic…A Life Worth Living reveals much about Camus, the times he lived in and wrote against…Those looking for a better understanding of the context in which Camus penned his books and essays on murder, torture, suicide, silence and rebellion will find much to ruminate on…Zaretsky is especially adept at seamlessly weaving Camus’ own words into the text, and the result is that the reader feels almost as though she is reading Camus as opposed to a biographer…Zaretsky’s book is good reading for dark times, a wonderfully written monograph about an absurd hero whose life serves as a reminder that, ‘while we have no reason to hope, we must also never despair.’
Sydney Morning Herald - Steven Carroll
This is a wonderful introduction to Albert Camus and an overview for those who have already read him. Zaretsky effortlessly explores sometimes difficult concepts in an accessible, even conversational study that blends significant aspects of Camus’ life—his Algerian background, life in France, the importance of the war; the Resistance and the TB that afflicted him for much of his life—with his works, in such a way that it offers a strong sense of the writings and the writer… The result is a concise portrait of an intellectual deeply concerned with ethics, but with an abiding love of the sensual, and life’s beauty.
Newsday - Peter M. Gianotti
The centenary [of Albert Camus] has spurred books, papers and reconsideration of his contributions to literature and his times. Robert Zaretsky’s is one of the best. The Algerian-French Nobel Prize winner, known for novels such as The Stranger and The Plague and essays including ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and ‘Reflections on the Guillotine,’ wrote piercingly and urgently about facing injustice, the need for revolt, confronting absurdity and the search for meaning. Zaretsky underscores why the ideas of Camus, who died in a car accident in 1960, remain important today.
Texas Observer - Steven G. Kellman
Zaretsky identifies Camus as a moralist, not a moralizer, one who poses questions rather than imposes answers. Like such courageous moralists as Montaigne, Voltaire, Hugo and Zola, Camus extended his private quest for truth into the public sphere…In pithy prose worthy of his subject, Zaretsky reminds us that, in an age of suicide bombings and state-sanctioned murder, Camus is an author worth reading.
Choice - L. A. Wilkinson
Zaretsky brings to light in this wonderfully readable intellectual biography of the iconoclastic pied noir the continued relevance of Camus in contemporary life…This volume offers a portrait of Camus not simply as an existentialist (as is typical) but rather as a ‘Mediterranean humanist’ disillusioned by the world’s failure to live up to its purest ideals.
Brain Pickings - Maria Popova
In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his ‘yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,’ and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy…A remarkable read in its entirety.
Sarah Bakewell
A marvelously wise, concise, and adventurous exploration of Camus, his intellectual antecedents, the battles that raged around him, and his continuing power to unsettle and inspire us to this day.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674724761
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 11/7/2013
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 235,479
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Zaretsky is Professor of French History at the University of Houston.
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