I first read Albert Camus when I was seventeen. I borrowed my father’s well-thumbed copy of The Stranger and greedily consumed it in one sitting on a train from Frederikssund to Copenhagen. I was spellbound. How could I not be? There in the novel was the bright Algerian sun and the shimmering Mediterranean Sea; outside my window was the drab Danish sky—the color of a pâté, forever portending rain. With every page I longed more intensely for the spare beauty of Algiers, to sense what Camus elsewhere describes as “a life that tastes of warm stone”—a life that, in the hard lyricism of his prose, seemed simple yet inexhaustibly rich. At the end of the novel, when the condemned Meursault is visited in his cell by the prison chaplain, he is asked if he ever wished for another life. He answers a little evasively. After the chaplain demands to know exactly how he pictured this other life, Meursault, finally, responds with a shout: “One where I could remember this life!”
Meursault’s moving outburst is also his maker’s. More than any other twentieth-century writer, Camus struggled to affirm life as it was handed to him, without appeal to religious or secular divinities. In his early notebooks, he spoke of wanting to “hold my life between my hands” and of enduring “this experience without flinching, with complete lucidity”—words made all the more poignant by the “sentence” of tuberculosis he received when he was just seventeen years old, and which repeatedly threatened to cut his life short. It was perhaps in Algiers’s Mustapha Hospital, in the winter of 1930, that Camus first felt himself brushed by the absurd: the clash between humankind’s desire for meaning and the inscrutable silence of the universe.
The young man who loved to roam the shabby streets of the Belcourt quarter, who preferred to spend his days swimming or playing soccer, thus learned early that our lives mean nothing to the mute world that surrounds us. Only a few years after receiving his diagnosis, Camus asked the costume designer and amateur pilot Marie Viton to fly him to Djemila, a coastal mountain village home to the ancient Roman ruins of Cuicul. There, standing atop the stony remnants of a vanished world, a hard wind burning his eyes and cracking his lips, Camus was overcome by the unrelenting indifference of the natural world. As he wrote in “The Wind at Djemila,” the essay his experience inspired:
I tell myself: I am going to die, but this means nothing, since I cannot manage to believe it and can only experience other people’s death. I have seen people die. Above all, I have seen dogs die. It was touching them that overwhelmed me. Then I think of flowers, smiles, the desire for women, and realize that my whole horror of death lies in my anxiety to live. I am jealous of those who will live and for whom flowers and the desire for women will have their full flesh and blood meaning. I am envious because I love life too much not to be selfish. What does eternity matter to me?
For the twenty-three-year-old author who wrote those words, death was not the distant terminus of old age but an awful negation that threatens at every moment to erase us. Remarkably, for someone so young when the shadow of death first darkened his way, he did not recoil from this insight. He had no interest in merely pacifying the terror of death, as the Stoic philosophers counseled. (In the Enchiridion, Epictetus recommends that we think of death daily, in order to lessen our fear of it.) Instead, Camus resolved to “gaze upon my death with the fullness of my jealousy and horror,” to face the absurdity of the human condition with total clarity. “I have no wish to lie or to be lied to,” he wrote.