During the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Albert Camus was one of the leading figures in French literature and philosophy, garnering the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times”. In recent years, Camus’s novels The Stranger and The Plague have become the scourge of philosophy and psychology students all across the globe, and he himself has been sighted as the prime role model of many of today’s intellectuals because of his adamant pacifism and magnificent literary style. I’ve been obsessed with Camus for a while now, and have read all of his fiction and skimmed most of his non-fiction. Here are, in my humble opinion, his best works.
Camus (please excuse my biographical viciousness) was born in French occupied Algeria, where he spent his childhood and based most of his stories in. After becoming ill with a dire case of tuberculosis, which would subsequently affect him for the rest of his life, Camus spent a good deal of time bed-ridden and reading books. This part of Camus’s childhood would have a significant effect on his writings later in life; especially the deep sorrow for his incapability to play football, as well as his increasing sense of sensual awareness. While bed-ridden, Camus became enthralled by literature, and eventually majored in Philosophy at The University of Algiers.
In the 1930s he joined the French Communist Party, where he forged most of his philosophical viewpoints, until WWII began. Once the German occupation seized France, Camus helped found an underground newspaper titled Combat, an influential piece of resistance journalism that protested vehemently against the Nazi’s inhumane reign and expressed outspoken pacifist ideals; most famously against the bombing of Hiroshima. Once the occupation ended, Camus wrote what is now considered as his masterwork: The Stranger, as well as The Myth of Sisyphus; a collection of essays that describe, in full, his philosophy of Absurdism. After the war Camus befriended Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading figure in Existentialist philosophy, which often times leads people to link the two of them even though Sartre isExistentialism and Camus is Absurdism. Sartre and Camus became notorious rivals and gradually their friendship tore apart, leaving Camus feeling rejected and depressed.
He spent the rest of his life becoming involved in various political movements, translating plays into French (Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun) and writing essays, the most famous being Reflections on the Guillotine and The Rebel. In 1960 Camus was killed in a car crash, leaving behind two unpublished novels, The First Man and The Happy Death.
10. The Fall
As a homage to one of his major influences: the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, Camus wrote The Fall. Its themes and narrator who directly addresses the reader mimics Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, which has been widely considered as one of the pioneering works of Existentialism.
The novella begins as you (the reader) enter a bar in Amsterdam and try to order a drink, but are ignored by the bartender. A fellow who’s sitting next to you says that the bartender only speaks Dutch, and then politely orders your drink. Slowly, this fellow begins a conversation with you that evolves into a confession of his soul and a reflection of war stricken Europe.
The Fall works on so many levels and deserves to be analyzed on each and every one of them, but the strict use of stream of consciousness prose makes it easy to get swept away, and the narrator was incredibly self-indulgent. I’d call it a minor classic to say the least; worth reading, but Camus definitely has better books.
9. Notebooks 1935-1959
Before his death, Camus published his edited notebooks from his entire career; ranging from the Second World War to his French Patriotism during the Algerian revolution. One day while I was at the library, I saw them in an isolated corner and thought that they’d be an interesting read for a Camus-fanatic. I was right.
The Notebooks are full of thought-provoking one liners, quotable notes on man’s spiritual well being, and scribblings that bare a vague resemblance to what are now known as his literary masterpieces. Camus edited out any resemblance of allusions to his personal life, but one can discover that if you look carefully enough, there are some interesting perspectives on his choices in life. You can also see how he develops the characters in The Plague, takes notes on how people act in subways and on the street, and crafts the intricate ideas that make up his philosophies. Even for non-Camus-fanatics, the Notebooks are a very interesting read because of their brevity and accessibility.
8. The Adulterous Woman
In 1957 a collection of Camus’s short stories entitled Exile and the Kingdom was published, and because these stories work more as individuals than a whole, I’m going to rate them on the list as individuals.
The Adulterous Woman is about a woman who goes on a business trip with her salesman husband and suddenly begins to feel that something is missing in her life. Camus ties the story together with elegant prose and his signature sensual descriptions, caramelizing the entire tale with pristine images of nocturnal Algeria and the lamentations of a woman’s mid life crisis. Wholly it’s a little unsatisfying, but it is probably the closest to being a piece of art than any of Camus’s other pieces of writing.
7. The Myth of Sisyphus
Here’s where we start getting a little heavy. The non-fiction The Myth of Sisyphus is, essentially (for lack of a better term), the “bible” of Absurdism. The entire Absurdist doctrine is contained within its thin pages. Camus writes about what the only truly absurd decision in life is, and gives an overview on the absurd existence of man. It’s full of very interesting and eye-opening ideas. Also, the essays are jam-packed full of Camus’s criticisms of other famous philosophers as well as an entire chapter devoted to his opinion on Franz Kafka.
To be more specific; The Myth of Sisyphus is a collection of essays on Absurdism. The reference in the title to the Greek myth of a man who is destined for eternity to push a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll down once he reaches the top and have to start all over again. Camus’s point is that Sisyphus’s task is an absurd one, but he obviously finds some sort of fulfillment in it, hence the phrase “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
6. Combat Writings
During the German occupation of France in WWII (1930s-1940s), Camus was a co-founder and writer for a French Resistance newspaper called Combat, which published articles condemning the sadism of the Nazi’s and the oppression of French intellectuals. Camus proves his talent as a journalist just as much as he does an essayist and a novelist. His cries of remorse for the dead and calls for freedom of the French people serve as inspirational testimonies even to this day. The outspoken pacifism which he’s eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for (more on that later) is forged here, in the fires of an impure reign over Paris.
“While bullets of freedom are still whistling throughout the city, the cannons of liberation are entering the gates of Paris amid shouts and flowers… This unparalleled night marks the end of four years of monstrous history and of unspeakable struggle in which France came to grips with her shame and her wrath.”
Most of the articles written by Camus are found in a collection of his essays titled Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, though I believe that there might be a separate volume which contains only the Combat articles.
5. The Guest
Another short story from Exile and the Kingdom, The Guest is about a French teacher who lives in a small school in the mountains of Algeria. One day, in the winter, a policeman brings an Algerian convict to the school and tells the teacher to keep him for a day, and then release him to go to a close-by city where he will be judged and detained. The teacher does so with a disgruntled attitude, and after releasing the convict he comes back to the classroom to find a threatening statement written on the chalkboard regarding the teacher and his keeping the convict.
The most defining aspect of Camus’s later life was the Algerian Revolution and his disgruntled attitude to the whole ordeal. He thought that the Algerians and the French should just live in harmony, and if any of you have seen The Battle of Algiers (astounding movie by the way), that clearly isn’t the case. The Guest is an allegory for the hate and ostracism that Camus received while protesting against the Algerian War.
This one is my favorite short story out of Exile and the Kingdom, but definitely not the best. It’s superbly written, has a captivating narrative, and some of the more interesting characters in literature.
4. Jonas or the Artist at Work
This is as far as I’m going to milk the short stories out of Exile and the Kingdom; and by saying that I’m saying that this is Camus’s best short story. Just like The Guest, it’s an allegory for a major part of Camus’s life.
Jonas or the Artist at Work follows the life of a painter who gains critical acclaim near the end of his life. The main character, Jonas, is an eccentric, almost aesthetic romantic with a deep love for imagination. Jonas’s story is a mirror reflection of Camus’s literary career; unnoticed in his early years, spontaneously becomes valuable, acquires students who go by his teachings, people begin expecting more out of him, and eventually, despite his kindness, his fame begins to falter.
The biography of Jonas is a enticing piece of fiction in its own right, and then Camus ties in his signature sensual and poetic descriptions which makes it a powerful tale of a man, his infinite passion for art, and everyone else’s ignorant skepticisms.
3. Reflections on the Guillotine
Here we go. Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 not for his existentialist masterwork published a year beforehand, The Fall, or any of his other works of fiction, but for this little non-fiction essay on the topic of capital punishment; most prominently the use of a guillotine in French executions. The essay, and the Nobel Prize Committee’s choice, eventually lead to France’s abolition of the guillotine in the 1960s, and the death penalty in the 1980s.
Reflections on the Guillotine expresses the utter inhumanity, grotesqueness, cruelty, and illogical notion of killing a person at all, most of all for justice. Even by today’s standards, with the controversy revolving around lethal injection, it’s a remarkably timeless read that summarizes everything that a pacifist has to stand for through the powerful anecdote at the beginning of his father witnessing a public decapitation to the poetic call for reason near the finale.
This essay is one of the most powerful non-fiction works of the 20th century.
2. The Plague
The Plague, published in 1949, is Camus’s longest work, at about 300 pages, and by far the most mature piece of writing. It’s a novel, an allegory for both the German Occupation of France and the absurdity of Man’s existence, that shows Camus at the zenith of his potential. There is too much to write about this work of his.
A stoic narrator acts as a historian as he recounts the tragedy of when the Bubonic Plague spreads through a moderately large and excessively bleak port city on the edge of Algeria named Oran. The central focus is on Dr. Bernard Rieux, who witnesses the plague first hand, watching as children die and spectating as people try but fail to retaliate against the incurable disease. Rieux befriends a whole gang of characters; Cottard, a dim-witted black-market dealer who attempted to hang himself before the epidemic but now finds prosperity in the dying city; Joseph Grand, an overly-zealous government clerk who spends his free time perfecting the sole sentence of his literary masterpiece; Rambert, a journalist who dreams about leaving the city and returning to Paris; and Jean Tarrou, a close friend of Rieux who shares his grave outlook on life. This colorful palate of characters which Camus creates turns into a sort of an isolated literary experiment, seeing which ones can come out of the plague happy and which ones dead.
Being as big as it is, Camus hides a few references within the text of The Plague; including one to Kafka’s The Trial and another to his own novel, The Stranger. Even overall theme of the plague replicating how the Nazis overtook France is an astonishing feat in allegorical literature that has yet to be topped.
The Plague is one of the great novels of the 20th century, and it still holds strong with top notch morals and enjoyment after 60 years.
1. The Stranger
If you’ve ever heard of Albert Camus, then of course you’ve heard of this little novel from 1942 about a man who doesn’t feel grief when his mother dies and eventually kills an Arab. It’s the rudimentary piece of Existentialist and Absurdist fiction, hailed by his contemporaries as a lyrical masterpiece. Camus replicates Hemingway’s frank, to the point prose and manipulates as to create this unfathomably indifferent character, Meursault, whose psychology is still being analyzed by Philosophy classes all around the globe. There’s no novel quite like it. It says so little, and yet at the same time it’s telling us so much. To read The Stranger is to enter a whole new state of mind; that of someone who feels that Man is flawed and should be exposed.
Sam Dot is an avid reader of existentialism and veteran film critic at RottenTomatoes.