Albert Camus: Elements of a Life

Robert Zaretsky
Albert Camus: Elements of a Life

Michael Wood writes:

Robert Zaretsky’s brief, astute book takes particular moments of Camus’s life – his acting days in Algeria, his Resistance work during the war, his agreements and disagreements with other intellectuals in France immediately after the war, his final silence on the Algerian question – and provides them with context and commentary, sometimes linking them to longer lines of history and culture, to early 20th-century Ireland, for example, to the Greece of Thucydides and the tragedians. One of the most intriguing sections involves Camus’s stances during l’Epuration, the time of the purges after the Liberation. Ordinarily opposed to the death penalty, he agreed that Pierre Pucheu, minister of the interior in the Vichy government, should be executed. ‘Too many men have died whom we loved and respected,’ he wrote in Les Lettres françaises, ‘even for those of us in the midst of this battle who would otherwise wish to pardon him.’ Camus argues rather oddly that Pucheu’s crime was his ‘lack of imagination’, while it is ‘in the full light of our imagination’ that we can have him killed. A few weeks later he decided he couldn’t have anyone killed, ‘even by abstention’, and he signed a petition against the death penalty for the pro-Nazi writer Robert Brasillach. Not because he had any time for the person. ‘It is not for him that I join my signature to yours’ – he is writing to Marcel Aymé – ‘it is not for the writer, whom I consider of no significance. Nor for the individual, whom I disdain with all my might. If I had even been tempted to be interested in him, the memory of two or three friends who were mutilated or gunned down by Brasillach’s friends while his newspaper encouraged them to do it would have prevented me.’ Memory and imagination suggest the man should be killed, while something like principle, kicking in again after an abeyance, suggests the opposite. Brasillach was executed early in 1945.

(LRB 19 August 2010)

Published by Cornell University Press
05 January 2010
ISBN: 9780801448058

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