UH Professor Remembers Albert Camus on the 50th Anniversary of His Death

New Book by Robert Zaretsky Considers Why Camus Still Matters

Marking the 50th anniversary of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Albert Camus' death in a tragic car accident at age 46, University of Houston Professor Robert Zaretsky joins activities worldwide to honor  one of France's leading literary figures and key philosophers of the 20th century with a new book, "Albert Camus: Elements of a Life."


University of Houston Professor of French History Robert Zaretsky.

"This elegantly written and beautifully paced book will appeal to many readers. Those already in sympathy with Camus' ideas will find extra nourishment. His detractors may want to nuance their criticisms in the light of Zaretsky's contribution, while those who are not familiar with Camus will have to look hard to find a clearer and more stimulating introduction to the man and his perception of the world," writes David Drake in The Times Literary Supplement book review on March 26, 2010.

Zaretsky says the biggest event recognizing the 50th anniversary of Camus' death, by far, occurred in France. A wave of publicity resulted when French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced late last year the move of Camus' final resting place to the Pantheon to mark the anniversary, alongside the remains of such luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Zola. Zaretsky compares the significance of this move to the equivalent in the U.S. of erecting a monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C.  

"There are few authors in my 20 years of experience teaching who capture students. Camus is one of them.  They just start reading as if they are reading for their lives and not reading for a paper, or for an exam, or to make me happy during a discussion session," says Zaretsky, professor of French history in the Honors College. "They're reading it because they have no choice but to read it, and that's always been the response in my class. It's amazing. It's absolutely amazing.

"But, he's not a young adult writer, and you wouldn't find him in the young adult section of Barnes & Nobles or Borders. He's not that at all, and that's why he matters.  He matters to students, just as he does to adults. He's speaking to them, not at them, not above them, but speaking to them. There are few writers like that, and Camus is one. There is a reason why he still remains today one of the best-selling authors in Gallimard, the French publishing house that publishes his work."

Back in 1960 The New York Times reported that Camus had died in a car crash, and that his body had been moved to a nearby town where the ‘Algerian-born writer's body' was draped in a "large French flag." Even in death the tension between France and Algeria, an opposition that haunted Camus his entire life, continues, says Zaretsky.

"Long before he won fame as author for "The Stranger," Camus gained notoriety in Algiers in the late 1930s as a muckraking  journalist, penning savage exposés of the French colonial enterprise. For Camus, French rule was not just inhumane, but also self-contradictory. France had failed to live up to its revolutionary trilogy of liberty, equality and fraternity."

Known for his novels, particularly "The Stranger," "The Plague," "The Fall," "The Rebel," "The First Man," and philosophical essays "The Myth of Sisyphus" and "The Rebel," Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1957.

Born in French-colonized Algeria in 1913, Camus was brought up in a blue-collar neighborhood by his illiterate mother and illiterate grandmother.  His father, who had left mainland France as a young man, died when Camus was 1 year old in the Battle of Marne in 1914.  Partially deaf and much affected by the death of her husband, Camus' mother left much of the child rearing of her sons to her strong-willed mother.

The most overpowering memories for Camus of childhood were poverty and silence.  His partially deaf mother had a speech impediment, along with his Uncle Etienne, who had been mute since his early teens. After Etienne had an operation he was able to speak, but in a halted and limited manner. Camus' grandmother, a widow, was bitter and violent.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Camus did not study at an elite Parisian school. Often uncomfortable around his intellectual peers due to his birth and background, Camus went to grade school in a working-class neighborhood where one of his teachers, Louis Germain, noticed his potential. He encouraged Camus to apply for a scholarship to attend high school and, eventually, the University of Algiers, a state university similar to the University of Houston. Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize to Germain in his acceptance speech in 1957.

Zaretsky is the author of five books, including "Albert Camus: Elements of a Life"(Cornell University Press); the prize-winning historical study "Nimes at War" (Penn State Press); "Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue" (Nebraska University Press); and, with John Scott, "The Philosophers' Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding" (Yale University Press), which has just been nominated for the Modern Language Association's Scaglione Prize. He is co-author, with Alice Conklin and UH colleague Sarah Fishman, of "France and Its Empire Since 1870" (Oxford University Press) and translator of two works by the French philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, "Voices from the Gulag" (Penn State Press) and "Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau" (Penn State Press). His essays have recently appeared in The American Scholar, Virginia Quarterly Review, Times Higher Education, New York Times and Southwest Review. He is also a frequent contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and the Houston Chronicle.