Albert Camus was born in northern Algeria in extreme poverty, but went on to become one of the best-known French philosophers of the 20th century. In 1957, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for illuminating "the problems of the human conscience in our times." Here, Camus expert Jamie Lombardi talks us through the books that best capture his work and the moral dilemmas he sought to explore.
Before we get to the books you’ve chosen, how did you first get interested in Albert Camus?
It’s a funny story, actually. Well, it would be funny if it weren’t true. It was in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States and I was absolutely horrified and unsure where to turn for comfort or guidance, but my coping mechanism, generally, is to turn toward books. The answer is always to be found in a library. I realized that people had been able to stand up and fight the Nazis during World War II and, as bad as Donald Trump was in 2016, he certainly wasn’t Hitler. There weren’t Nazis walking through the streets. And so, I had this thought that I would turn to the French Resistance, who had resisted the Nazis, thinking that, if they could find the courage to resist that, then I could find the courage that I needed to get through the Trump years in the United States. One thing led to another and now it’s four years later and I haven’t stopped reading and thinking about Camus.
Am I right in thinking you started as an analytic philosopher?
That’s correct, yes.
It’s interesting that you’ve moved in this direction.
I think there’s a real difference between the way the two traditions can be applied to life. With the immediacy of the Trump administration I was looking for how to engage with the world and be able to do something. The philosophy of Albert Camus gave me something more impactful and action-guiding than I could find in analytical philosophy.
Aren’t you writing a book about Camus now?
I’ve been asked to write a book, yes. But, unlike Camus, I’m finding it very difficult to write in the midst of all this calamity.
For readers who might not know much about him, very briefly, who was Albert Camus?
Albert Camus was born in 1913 in northern Algeria. His father died in the First World War. He grew up in pretty severe poverty, but turned out to be a stellar student. He won a scholarship to continue his education beyond the primary stage. His family were initially resistant because they were so poor that they needed him to go to work, but Camus’ teacher, Louis Germaine, advocated for this on his behalf, saying that he was a really bright student and he should be able to continue. Ultimately the teacher was able to convince Camus’ family and he continued with his education.
“He says in The Plague that most people aren’t bad, they just misunderstand what’s important”
He studied philosophy. He worked for a period of time as a journalist, as a reporter, until starting to write plays that got the attention of the French intellectuals. During World War II he was the editor of the underground resistance newspaper, Combat. Then he went on to write The Myth of Sisyphus,The Plague, The Fall, The Rebel and all of the things that he’s now famous for, eventually winning the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 44.
And tragically he died comparatively young, didn’t he?
He did. He died quite shockingly, actually, and really in the most absurd of ways. He actually had a train ticket in his pocket to travel but, instead, made a last-minute decision to get into the car with his editor, Michel Gallimard. They were driving along the road and the car spun out of control, crashed into a tree and he died on impact.
Do you know how old he was?
He was 46 years old.
You’ve chosen five books for us: are they all by Camus?
What’s the first one?
I’m going to be a bit of a rebel here. My first pick is The Fall. That is my absolute favourite novel by Camus.
It’s almost a novella. It’s very short.
It’s very short. In fact, the first time I read it was on a plane flying from New York to Amsterdam and I finished it with time to spare.
The Fall is set in Amsterdam, isn’t it?
It is. It’s told from the first-person perspective of an unreliable narrator, telling the tale of how he came to find himself in this bar in Amsterdam, having left Paris. It’s a really fascinating book.
Without giving too much away, like most if not all of Camus’ books, it has a moral dilemma and subsequent moral reflection at its heart. Is that fair to say?
Yes. One of the things that makes this one so interesting, particularly once you get a sense of who Camus was as a person, is how autobiographical it is and how much of this is him putting himself in the seat of judgment, trying to make sense of his own place in the world, his own decisions, and the impact that he’s had on other people. The novel itself is fascinating but then, put in the context of Camus’ life and his relationships with other people who influenced it, it really becomes a very powerful work, I think.
‘The fall’ is a literal fall as well as a metaphorical fall.
That’s right. The narrator is telling the story of how, as he’s on the way home from work one night, a woman jumps from the bridge into the river and there’s this moment where he’s able to make a decision. He can turn back and save the woman, or he can continue on his path. He turns away, he goes on, and we’re left to believe that the woman has drowned in the river—though the narrator himself never looks back or checks to see the consequences of his inaction.
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This episode consumes the novel and it’s about him making sense of who he is and how his actions reveal his real place in the world. It’s about how our place in the world may be at odds with the titles we take for ourselves, or the way people refer to us because of the stories that we’ve told them. Somewhere in between there’s the truth and somehow that matters still.
And the autobiographical parallel is with what happened to Camus’ second wife, who had drug problems and depression and whom, in some senses, Camus left floundering in the water, right?
That’s correct. Camus’ wife had quite a bit of difficulty with the way that Camus lived his life. The extent to which Camus’ treatment of her contributed to her mental health issues or vice versa is unclear, but she suffered acutely from mental health issues and had attempted suicide. Camus felt very much burdened by this and felt very responsible for this. His journals during the time reveal that he felt acutely aware of his personal responsibility for contributing to such an acute state of misery. Interestingly, Camus was far from the only one to judge himself at fault. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins also includes a fictionalized rendering of the toll his behaviour took on his wife.
So, what is it that you love about The Fall? Why is it the book by Camus that you put above all the rest?
I just think it gets at something really important about how our relationships to one another and the stories we tell about our relationships to each other impact our understanding of who we are, and where that enables us to locate ourselves in the world. The narrator in The Fall works as a judge, and it’s his job to mete out judgment, to decide whether people are good or bad, whether they get a reprieve, or they go to prison. And this instance with the woman on the bridge fundamentally upends his sense of who he is and he’s unable to return to where he had belonged in the world. And I think that really speaks to the power of narrative and the way our understanding of our interpersonal conflicts helps to mediate our relationships, for better or worse. That’s central to so much of Camus’ project, because he’s really focused on the importance of ‘the other’ and the way that that prevents us from avoiding the exile that we would otherwise find ourselves in.
He’s famous as a philosopher who, in some sense, embraced the absurdity of life, the meaningless of life for an atheist in the mid-20th century, without any guidelines, with the horrors of the Second World War, the tragedies around him in his childhood in Algeria and afterwards, and the treatment of the colonies. Against this background, there is a sense throughout his work that there are no straightforward, simple answers. I wonder if that’s evident in this novel or if that’s just his stance on life generally?
For him, the absurd was a starting point. He says in The Myth of Sisyphus, which is perhaps his most famous work, that it’s a point of departure. The absurd itself doesn’t tell us anything about the world or what we should do with it. It’s just a way of experiencing reality. In The Fall there’s an element of absurdity to be walking home from work one day, as you regularly do, and then to be confronted with this life-altering, almost cataclysmic event where this woman throws herself to her death right in front of you. It illustrates the unreliability and the inherent chaos in the world. In fact, there’s a line in one of his journals where he says, “The absurdity of the catastrophe does not alter the fact that it exists.” And I think he was really struck by the unreasonableness of human suffering and how that permeated every aspect of human existence. But ultimately, no matter how absurd, unfair, or unjust the world, there is freedom in our choices and our actions.
It’s reminiscent of what Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel called ‘moral luck’, how we judge the judge depends on chance events that showed him in a bad light. Had that woman not thrown herself in the river at that point—and that wasn’t anything to do with him—he might have just lived his life and been thought to be a decent, good man. Things outside his control transformed who he was.
I think that’s totally consistent with what Camus is writing about. How these different things go on to shape us is, itself, absurd because, as Nagel would say, this is holding someone accountable for the chance happenings of fate and that doesn’t really make a lot of sense once you think it all the way through.
Ironically, the Netherlands has a ‘Good Samaritan law’—they may not have had it at the time, in the 1950s—whereby you are actually legally culpable in certain situations if you don’t come to somebody’s aid. Not all countries have that, but the Netherlands does. Let’s move on to the second book by Camus that you’re recommending.
We’re having this conversation in early 2020. Most of the world’s in lockdown with a contemporary plague. So, this book resonates in a completely different way from how it has done in the years since its publication. And I think it’s looking, for many of us, a much better book than when we read it when we were younger.
Yes. I’m reading it for the third time now, as we all shelter in place to deal with this global pandemic. I really liked it the first time that I read it, obviously enough to read it a second time. But on this third reading, actually sitting through this and having experiences that are similar to what’s happening to the characters in the book, it really brings home just how powerful his insights were into human nature and the way that we respond to the contradiction between simultaneously feeling isolated and separated from everyone we know and yet also exiled because of the way that that separation makes us feel.
In the book the city, Oran, is quarantined. It’s a walled city-state. The city gates are locked and everybody has to stay within. Communication with the outside world is absolutely minimal. It’s almost like a claustrophobic stage set.
Yes, and I think he does that on purpose. He also sets it up in a town that he describes as utterly bleak and ugly. He’s not particularly kind to the townsfolk and he describes them as going through their lives without thinking and without really living either. I think that’s the contrast that he’s setting up, to make a point about how important it is to make use of our lives instead of just thoughtlessly wasting them away.
But now, for us, it’s also a kind of experiment in finding out who we are. Take away all the things you don’t really need to do, all the interactions you don’t really need to have, and what are you left with? What matters? What is important in life now? Health? Family? Friends? And, as I’m seeing around me now, in the book there are those who are selfish, and there are those who are incredibly altruistic.
Yes, I think that’s all right. The book is meant to be jarring and is drawing our attention to how much of our lives is superficial and meaningless and yet somehow still takes up most of our energy. He’s got a line in The Plague where he talks about people thinking of freedom as a right, rather than a duty. They’ve got this mercantile understanding of our relationships to others in which the ability to make money is paramount at the expense of all else. And I think that is just so important when talking about this, because he’s drawing attention to the fact that freedom doesn’t really make sense without others and freedom isn’t meant to be this sort of limitless thing where you get to do whatever you want, particularly in pursuit of money and business, which he’s generally suspicious of. Rather, freedom is this recognition that we are bound to one another and that what really matters in life, when we’re really doing something meaningful, is when we’re acting in solidarity, even, and perhaps especially, if that means putting ourselves at risk.
He’s certainly a man on the left politically, as Jean-Paul Sartre was. That comes through at certain points in the novel, too. But do you think he’s fair on the businesspeople of Oran? What did they do wrong? They’re just going about their business. That’s how they’ve chosen to live their life. Is that fair on them that they’re described in that way? He’s got sympathy for the doctor and the journalists in the novel, the poor people get some attention, but not the bourgeoisie. They don’t get much sympathy.
No. The bourgeoisie are never really going to get much sympathy from Camus because he sees them as largely complicit in the perpetuation of human suffering. He was very much affected by his own poverty, and the effect that poverty had on the life of his mother, whom he absolutely adored. He was always aware of the role that social classes played. Part of that was just a baked-in disdain for the oppression that contributed to human suffering. But, more importantly, I don’t think Camus would be particularly judgmental of individuals acting in their way. I think he was much more invested in criticizing the larger system. He says in The Plague that most people aren’t bad, they just misunderstand what’s important and that far more can be accomplished by understanding human behaviour that way.
One thing that mystifies me is how he was so astute about how people behave in those sorts of circumstances, because there are a number of patterns—people’s unwillingness to believe what’s happening when it’s in front of their eyes, the complexities of bureaucracy, which doesn’t actually deliver what it’s supposed to deliver, and the way people suddenly find themselves closer than they realized they would be, or bored by each other. All those things seem to be very astute observations. I don’t know how he knew so much about what happens in a plague situation, in a quarantine situation. Did he read up on it? Did he ever experience anything close to that?
It has been said that he did extensive research for The Plague. The ‘plague’ is generally taken to be a metaphor or meta-commentary on Nazism during World War II. I’m not necessarily sold on that as the exclusive interpretation of the novel. Other people have argued that he was reading about plagues during the time that he was writing this. But one thing that’s really interesting in the background is that, for at least a period of time while writing the novel, Camus was trying to recover from a bout of tuberculosis and he was staying in a village in southern France in the Free Zone (Vichy). The remarkable events that took place there were the basis for the book called Lest Innocent Blood be Shed by Philip Paul Hallie. In this small, poor, rural village they banded together and pooled their resources to save somewhere between three and five thousand Jews from the Nazis. Camus was in this village as this was happening, as people were hiding, as they were separated from their loved ones, while he himself was separated from his loved ones. So, I’m not sure to what degree the astute nature of his writing can be attributed to his reading about previous plagues, or to his first-hand experience of being bedridden with an illness, embedded in a town where people were hiding from a much more militaristic and malignant sort of ‘plague’.
His experience of occupied Paris must have been important too.
Yes. He was also there for a time.
What’s the third Albert Camus book you’ve chosen?
My third book is a bit unconventional, it’s the first volume of his Notebooks, which go from 1935 to 1942.
I’ve never seen these.
They are absolutely wonderful. There are three volumes of notebooks. The third volume is, for reasons I don’t understand, incredibly difficult to come by unless you want to spend a significant amount of money. The first two are readily available on Amazon and elsewhere.
These notebooks give many insights into Camus as a person, who he was and what he was trying to come to terms with day by day. They are indispensable, I think, for understanding what his larger project was throughout the rest of his writings.
Are these notebooks a straightforward diary, or do they contain the early drafts of Camus’ books?
It’s a bit of both. There are excerpts from different novels that he’s working on, and that’s really interesting. You can see passages in a novel where he’s trying out a turn of phrase, or where he’s using it repeatedly to see how it will sound. There are whole passages of A Happy Death in the second volume. This is about him understanding how the philosophy that he’s trying to work out can be applied to how he lives his life and how he relates to other people. It’s just really powerful and has some of the most beautiful passages in his writing.
Is this a book to dip into or would you read it from cover to cover?
I sat down and just read it until I was done because the language was so beautiful and the depth of his emotions was so powerful that I was just sucked in. But it’s definitely the sort of book that you can have on a coffee table and pick up and open at random. You will find something incredibly insightful and powerful if you do that, especially in the first volume.
We talked about his interest in the absurd. Are there other themes that recur in Camus’ work?
I would pick two other themes that he continually returns to. There’s this notion of exile—even within The Plague the word ‘exile’ appears 23 times. It seems an odd choice of word to describe people imprisoned behind the town gates. I think this is something that he struggled with himself. He felt he didn’t really belong anywhere, that he was an exile and a stranger everywhere he went. The other is rebellion: this notion that the world as it is ought to be rejected and something new and, hopefully, better constructed in its place.
He began life in Algiers didn’t he? But he didn’t stay there. So, although that’s where his roots were, he wasn’t ever completely at home there.
That’s right because, even within Algeria, he was what was called a pied noir, the son of a French colonialist in Algeria. He didn’t really feel he belonged there. Not that he ever felt at home in Paris, either. There’s always the sense, and it comes through really powerful in the Notebooks, of his sense of alienation and of being outside something that he wants to be part of. So, ‘exile’ is a very important theme. Then, secondly, the notion of rebellion is, I think, the culminating theme of Camus’ work.
Political rebellion is one of the manifestations that rebellion could have, but I think he’s interested in rebellion more broadly, as we’ll see when we come to speak about The Rebel.
What’s the next book by Albert Camus you’ve chosen?
The next book I want to pick is an anthology: it’s The Lyrical and Critical Essays. This is a series of his political and literary essays that give you a sense both of who he was as a critical writer, as an essayist, and as a journalist, but also ties into his philosophy and the ideas that he was trying to make sense of.
This was put together posthumously, presumably.
No. He was alive at the time of publication for this collection and the preface he wrote for it in 1958 alone justifies adding this to the list because he is at his most direct and confessional about what he hopes to accomplish. The Lyrical and Critical Essays is one of my favourites because it contains one of my all-time favourite essays by him, which is ‘The Almond Trees’. There’s a passage that is just so beautiful and really encapsulates what I think he’s working towards. In it he says, “We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness and meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task, but ‘superhuman’ is the term for tasks men take a long time to accomplish. That’s all.”
I can tell by the way you read that and by the way you talk about him, that in Camus you’ve discovered somebody who has captured what you believe about life or actually shown you new things about life that you think are incredibly important.
Yes. That’s right. I think it was Nietzsche who said that all philosophy is biography. It makes sense that the philosophy that resonates with you is the philosophy that comes closest to the view of the world that you have. I think that’s absolutely correct. For me, it is in Camus’ writing very often that I find passages that are helpful in trying to make sense of a world that, quite frankly, is so absurd that the question of how to go on living in it can consume all our attention.
It’s interesting that it’s called ‘lyrical essays’ because he’s much more of a poetic writer than Sartre for instance, his contemporary, though perhaps not so much of a philosopher. His writing comes across as rhetoric at times. That passage you quoted is an example. He didn’t just say it, he put it very eloquently.
I completely agree. One of the limitations with philosophy, at least as it’s practised most commonly in academic philosophy, is that it’s written in such a way that people don’t want to read it. It’s difficult, it’s challenging, and in many ways that’s to its credit. The rigour is important for filtering out the nuance that we need in order to understand these complicated issues. But it’s off-putting and doesn’t pull in regular people, whom philosophers should be trying to reach if the goal is not to just understand the world, but to change it. And Camus definitely thought the world should be changed.
So apart from ‘The Almond Trees’, are there any other essays that stand out for you in this collection?
Yes. He’s got an essay in here called ‘The Wrong Side and the Right Side’ about a woman who uses a small inheritance to buy a funeral plot and spends the rest of her days tending to her investment. One day she sees that someone, seeing her gravesite empty, has left her flowers and she realizes that to the world she is already dead. It is, I think, an injunction not to sleepwalk through our lives and live while we can.
“It makes sense that the philosophy that resonates with you is the philosophy that comes closest to the view of the world that you have”
Also, ‘Prometheus in the Underworld.’ Camus is perhaps most famous for his use of Sisyphus as a metaphor, but it’s Prometheus, his humanism, and his open rebellion against the gods that Camus saw as a much more fruitful model for human behaviour.
Remind me, Prometheus was the Titan with who stole fire and gave it to men. It didn’t end well for him.
That is correct. His punishment is one of the most gruesome in Greek myths. He’s chained to a rock where, each morning, an eagle tears out his liver.
But why did he steal the fire?
To aid mankind, to take them out of the darkness the gods would have condemned them to.
This is like the resistance fighter in the Second World War or something like that, a man or woman who puts their life on the line for other people?
Yes. I would argue that Jean Tarrou in The Plague is someone whom Camus would think of as a modern-day rebel or Prometheus, taking on these enormous risks, not for his own benefit, not for this notion of heroism, but just for the simple reason of wanting to save as many souls as he can.
And that, for Camus, is the ideal?
That’s certainly my interpretation of Camus. There’s a line at the very end of The Plague where he writes that though a final victory and sainthood are impossibilities, it is enough to refuse “to bow down to pestilences and strive their utmost to be healers.”
So, it’s a particular kind of rebellion. It’s not just the need to overthrow an oppressor, but it has a higher goal.
Yes, very much so. And I think that distinction is part of what led to the feud between Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, because Camus was adamant that the idea was not just merely to turn the weapons back on those who would harm us.
We’re at the final book.
Yes. This ties in quite well. This is the last book, but by no means the least. I am choosing The Rebel.
It’s a series of essays, isn’t it?
It’s written that way. This is a decidedly philosophical text, in which he’s articulating this notion of rebellion, and how we’re to understand our place in the world and how to respond to that.
Can you say a bit more about it? Is it written in the abstract? Is it written as an autobiography?
This is Camus’ most academic book. It’s his attempt to make sense of the historical, political, and literary influences that have shaped our world, and how they inform our values in an attempt to figure out where we must go next. This is not as lyrical a book as any of the others, although there’s a chapter at the end where he talks about transcending nihilism that is quite powerful and he’s at his most eloquent. He says that “real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present and the task that before us is to transcend nihilism and to imbue meaning back into the world. But the challenge is that few of us know that that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
It’s interesting, because Camus repudiated the label ‘existentialist’, but he’s still thought of as an existentialist thinker. There is a strain of nihilism within existentialism, for sure. Is Camus’ point of view that the existentialists are more concerned with the disruptive and the destruction of the complacent past than clear about how we make for a better world in the future?
Yes. That is a lot of what he’s writing about in The Rebel: that just to negate how the world is or just to reject it doesn’t accomplish anything; that negation itself serves no function. It’s sort-of cynical and it’s sort-of nihilistic in its own way and it doesn’t transcend the contradiction of our reality the way that the existentialists wanted to think that they do.
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For Camus, what was really important is that we have to create an alternative, we have to be able to move past the master-slave dialectical way of understanding the world and create a way of relating to one another that just hasn’t been achieved before, and not simply change places between oppressor and oppressed.
It’s really interesting that you’ve chosen these five books and left out two of the most famous books that Camus wrote. The first omission is The Outsider, which is the one with which he really broke into the public arena, the classic existentialist novel of a slightly dazed and confused young man, who’s killed somebody. It’s the interior monologue of this guy, trying to come to terms with the craziness of what’s happened to him. Is that a fair encapsulation? Why did you leave that one out?
I almost feel bad for how frequently I say this isn’t my favourite of Camus novels, though it’s certainly very good. I left it off because I think there’s so much more to Camus’ thought than the absurdity he’s most known for. In fact, in a footnote that accompanies the essay, ‘The Enigma’, in the Lyrical and Critical Essays, Philip Thody writes that Camus himself was frustrated with the French critics and a public that could not see his thought had evolved beyond what was contained in The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus. As I mentioned earlier, the absurd for Camus was just a starting point. I’m much more interested in where we should go from there, how we respond to it rather than surrender to it, and what sort of alternative ways of living we could create.
It’s funny that it makes a brief cameo appearance in The Plague as well. There’s a brief aside about the fate of the central character of The Outsider within The Plague.
The Plague is like an extended universe of Camus’ novels because there seem to be references to all of the different characters in there. I don’t know how intentional that was, or how much of that is his subconscious, with themes and situations overlapping as he’s writing.
The other famous book that I thought you might choose is The Myth of Sisyphus. That image of Sisyphus rolling his rock up to the top of the mountain every day only to have it roll back and having to start again—and actually being described as happy in his task by Camus. That is one of the classic ideas that we associate with Camus, the ‘happy Sisyphus’. That describes our lot.
That’s fair and I went back and forth about leaving The Myth of Sisyphus and The Outsider off the list for exactly this reason. But if the absurd is to be a point of departure as Camus intended, there are other works of his that deserve our attention.
Now, if you had to recommend a biography for somebody who shares your enthusiasm for Camus, is there one that stands out, one that you’ve particularly enjoyed reading?
Yes. I would recommend the Oliver Todd biography. It’s by far the most comprehensive that I’ve encountered so far. But, as a small note on that, I’ve recently received the Germaine Brée biography, which was begun while he was still alive, and it has some very interesting interpretations of Camus’ life.
I don’t know whether it’s sensational, but there’s a book—it might not be the same book that you’re describing, I think it was a French biography—that
claimed that Camus’ death wasn’t an accident, that his car had been tampered with and that it was the Russians who killed him.
The Germaine Brée book was begun while Camus was still alive and then had to be reformatted after his death and recontextualized.
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The book that you’re thinking about, La Mort de Camus, was written by an Italian scholar, Giovanni Catelli, arguing that Camus’ death was the result of a KGB plot. I’m not terribly persuaded by it.
It has to be said, if you see the wreckage of the car, it was a fast sports car and it was moving very quickly and hit a tree head-on. So, if he put his foot down and got a puncture or swerved or something, of course he would die. It’s not such an unusual thing to happen.
Right. The author of that book is arguing that the road that they were on was completely straight and there was no reason for the car to have swerved and that there are indications, based on analysis of the engine parts, that maybe it had been tampered with a little bit. But, if you know anything about Camus, it doesn’t strain credulity to think that, before he got into the car, he and his editor had had a few drinks and that they may have been goofing around while they were driving. It’s not surprising to me or not impossible, given what I know of him, that he might be a little reckless.
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