By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Albert Camus (1913-60) was one of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century. Born in Algeria, which at the time was still part of the French empire, Camus studied philosophy at the University of Algiers, and his fiction and essays are both ‘philosophical’ in their outlook and their approach to understanding the modern world.
Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, three years before his death. Although he was a lifelong sufferer with tuberculosis, Camus’ untimely death was caused by a road accident. He left behind a substantial body of work, and although he was not a prolific novelists, his books have cast a long shadow over modern literature.
Below, we select and introduce Albert Camus’ best books, and say a little bit about why each is worth reading.
This 1947 novel has its origins in a genuine outbreak of plague in Oran, Algeria in the 1940s. But in Camus’ novel, the plague represents another malaise that is afflicting the modern world: despair, or a complete acceptance of the absurd features of life.
On another level, the plague is a symbol for the German occupation of France in the 1940s, but to reduce the plague’s allegorical power to one clear ‘signified’ would be a mistake. For the plague is arguably a symbol for social contagion more broadly.
Have you ever felt that people around you are becoming more untethered from reality, and absurd ideas are becoming more and more accepted as though they are reasonable rather than ridiculous? The Plague is Camus’ attempt to grapple with this very idea, which – we might say – has only become more unignorable in the era of social media and continuous rolling news.
The ‘fall’ referred to in the English title of Camus’ 1956 novel (La chute in the original French) is that of Jean-Baptiste Clamance, the anti-hero at the heart of this ambitious book, who lives in Amsterdam and often frequents the notorious red-light districts of the city.
Clamance fails to save a girl from drowning and subsequently falls from grace: his life as a successful lawyer gives way to one of soul-searching and alienation. He is another one of Camus’ ‘strangers’ or ‘outsiders’, feeling imprisoned within his life but also, we suspect, enjoying some aspects of his fall.
Sartre, who disagreed with Camus on a number of things (notably Communism) but agreed on much else, described The Fall as ‘perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood’ of Camus’ books. It’s certainly one of his most religious, with its talk of penitence and grace, and Camus was even said to have converted to Christianity as a result of the book (however, such claims were unfounded, and Camus himself repudiated them).
This book from 1951 pushes back against Communism, an ideology Camus had flirted with in his younger years, albeit only briefly. In particular, Camus directs his ire at the concentration camps in Stalinist Russia, and proposes an alternative political system which would be more humane than out-and-out communism.
Exile and the Kingdom.
If you’d prefer to approach Camus’ work through shorter pieces rather than full-length novels, Exile and the Kingdom (1957) is the perfect place to start. In these six short stories, Camus demonstrates an impressive range of technical experimentation.
Art and the creative life are recurrent themes in these six stories, which include ‘The Silent Men’ (about the workers for a cooper’s yard who have lost their empathy for their boss’s seriously ill daughter) and ‘The Artist at Work’ (about Jonas, a painter who shuts himself away from everyone to produce his artwork – but with a twist at the end of the story).
The First Man.
Of all of Camus’ books, The First Man is the most autobiographical. It was also unfinished at the time of his death in 1960. It follows the intellectual development of a young man growing up in Algiers, and so might be described as a bildungsroman; but it is also, given the French power in Algeria, a novel which engages with colonialism.
The Myth of Sisyphus.
The 1942 essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ forms the basis of this non-fiction collection: perhaps the most important one Camus ever wrote. It’s an important text about the absurdity of modern life, and although it’s often described as being ‘Existentialist’, Camus’ essay is actually closer to Absurdism.
For Camus, Sisyphus, the figure from Greek myth who was condemned to spend eternity trying to roll a boulder to the top of a hill, is the poster-boy for Absurdism, because he is condemned to carry out a repetitive and pointless task. Such is the life of modern man: condemned to perform the same futile daily rituals every day, working without fulfilment, with no point or purpose to much of what he does.
However, for Camus there is something positive in Sisyphus’ approach to his rather gloomy fate. When Sisyphus sees the stone rolling back down the hill and has to march back down after it, knowing he will have to begin the same process all over again, Camus suggests that Sisyphus would come to realise the absurd truth of his plight, and treat it with appropriate scorn.
Camus’ first novel, whose title was rendered into English as The Outsider (in the UK) and The Stranger (in the US), was first published in French in 1942. It’s the story of Patrice Meursault, a young French man living in Algeria.
Meursault, in the wake of his mother’s death, ceases to care about seemingly everything, and one day shoots an Arab man dead on a beach, blaming this act on the unbearable heat. This short novel is told in a simple style and the plot (what plot there is) is easy to follow, so it’s the perfect starting-point for the reader who is new to Camus’ work.
Camus later described Meursault as ‘the only Christ we deserve’, and this book holds up a mirror to modern life, filled with ennui, alienation, and a loss of purpose.