Zaretsky, in his prologue to A Life Worth Living, and Goldhammer, in his translator’s note to Algerian Chronicles, classify Camus as a moralist, and both offer explanation, knowing that Americans will quickly find the person so-labeled guilty of presumption and pretension. While a true moraliste seeks to remind man of what he is and what he can be, it is also true that most people don’t have the time to be reminded of either. It’s also hard to render the disparity between what we are and what we might be with a light touch—writing for the ages invites a heavy hand—which is why Camus’ novels can sometimes feel as if they operate in two dimensions. At his best, in his fiction and nonfiction, Camus placed man in a situation, absurd or otherwise, and tried to show how he might work out his salvation, without God or faith in the progressive nature of history. The crisis in Algeria placed Camus himself in such a situation. His newspaper career had begun on the question of what was to be done there and it concluded on it as well. His moderation was put to the test.

He had claimed in Neither Victims nor Executioners that there was “only one honorable choice: to wager everything on the belief that in the end words will prove stronger than bullets.” It was a bold bet. As the fln and the French government increasingly embraced the methods most readily available to them—the one carrying out targeted hit-and-run terror attacks, the other replying with disproportionate and sometimes indiscriminate force, including torture—Camus began writing editorials in L’Express in 1955, condemning the tactics of both. Again, he was stuck in the middle. He traveled to Algiers and met with moderates to urge a civilian truce and to remind them that they should “refuse both to employ and to submit to terror.” A crowd of Algerians outside the hall threw rocks at the window. It’s unclear whether life informed art or art informed life, or if there’s even a useful distinction, but what Camus wrote in “On the Future of Tragedy,” a lecture he delivered in Athens that same year, expressed his conflicted feelings about Algeria:

Prometheus is both just and unjust, and Zeus who pitilessly oppresses him also has right on his side. Melodrama could thus be summed up by saying: “Only one side is just and justifiable,” while the perfect tragic formula would be: “All can be justified, no one is just.” This is why the chorus in classical tragedies generally advises prudence. For the chorus knows that up to a certain limit everyone is right and that the person who, from blindness or passion, oversteps this limit is heading for catastrophe if he persist in his desire to assert a right he thinks he alone possesses.


For his final role, Camus joined the chorus. Which is why in Stockholm he rejected any justice that allowed for the killing of civilians and why he also wrote a letter to Le Monde, saying that the Algerian who had challenged him “knew what he was talking about, and his face reflected not hatred but unhappiness and despair. I share that unhappiness. It is the face of my country.” It was to that unified country that Camus felt he always remained faithful, and even during his public silence he acted behind the scenes, protesting in letters some 150 death sentences issued by the French government to Algerian freedom fighters. He published Algerian Chronicles in 1958, six months after receiving the Nobel. At that time none of the major players much cared to listen to his call for prudence. Camus must have known that that, too, is generally what happens in classical tragedies. Words proved no match for bullets.

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Elias Altman is an associate editor of Lapham's Quaterly.