In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Albert Camus declared that a writer’s duty is twofold: “the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance against oppression.” These twin obsessions help explain something of Camus’ remarkable character, which is the overarching subject of this sympathetic and lively book. Through an exploration of themes that preoccupied Camus — absurdity, silence, revolt, fidelity, and moderation — Robert Zaretsky portrays a moralist who refused to be fooled by the nobler names we assign to our actions, and who pushed himself, and those about him, to challenge the status quo.

Though we do not face the same dangers that threatened Europe when Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger, we confront other alarms. Herein lies Camus’ abiding significance. Reading A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, we become more thoughtful observers of our own lives. Here is a brief excerpt from the book looking at absurdity.

As a literary and philosophical quarry, the absurd first appears in Camus’ journal in May 1936, the same month he defended his dissertation on the subject of neo-Platonism at the University of Algiers. “Philosophical work: Absurdity,” he assigned himself as part of his study and writing plan. Two years later, in June 1938, the absurd again appears on his to-do list, then a third time at the end of the same year. Though he is mostly at the stage of research and reflection, Camus had already decided to approach the subject more or less simultaneously through three different genres: as a novelist, playwright, and essayist. He had begun work on his play Caligula in 1938, though it was first performed only in 1945. As for The Stranger, Camus completed a draft just days before the Germans smashed through the Ardennes in May 1940. And it was at that same moment, when France still appeared, if not eternal, at least solid and secure, that Camus yoked himself to what he described to his former teacher Jean Grenier as his “essay on the Absurd.”

During this same period, Camus discovered another young and still unknown French writer who was grappling with the absurd. In 1938, the veteran journalist Pascal Pia, who had founded an independent newspaper, Alger républicain, had hired Camus. Given the paper’s straitened financial situation, Camus quickly found he was juggling many tasks, including that of book reviewer. Two thin books by Jean-Paul Sartre soon came to his attention: The Wall and Nausea. In these remarkable works, Sartre described a world awash in pure contingency. Caught in the undertow of events for which there is no ultimate or external justification, Sartre observed, we are overcome with a sense of nausea. What other response can we feel when we discover that events, once imbued with meaning, are in fact arbitrary; that our acts, once invested with intention, are only mechanical; and that the world, once our home, is simply alien.

Still, though the stories were compelling, Camus concluded that they offered little more than a kind of existential solipsism. To be sure, the “intense and dramatic universe” informing the stories in The Wall was striking, but what were we to make of characters incapable of doing anything meaningful with their freedom? Similarly, in Nausea, Camus marveled at Sartre’s depiction of the world’s oppressive density, but insisted it was wrong to conclude “life is tragic because it is miserable.” Instead, our tragic sense of life lies in the world’s “overwhelming and beautiful” nature — without beauty, without love, and without risk “life would be almost too easy.” From the heights of his youth, Camus affirmed: “To observe that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning. . . .What interests me is not this discovery [of life’s absurd character], but the consequences and rules of action we must draw from it.”

Though young, Camus was a veteran of the absurd. When still an infant, he lost his father in the purposeless mayhem of the Battle of the Marne; as an athletic teenager, he coughed blood one day and discovered he had tuberculosis; as a reporter of Alger républicain, he discovered, behind the universal values of liberty and equality of the French Republic, the grim reality for the Arabs and Berbers living under the colonial administration; as the paper’s editor, he inveighed against the absurdity of a world war that, as a committed pacifist, he unrealistically insisted could have been avoided; and as a pacifist exempted from the draft because of his tuberculosis, Camus nevertheless tried to enlist: “This war has not stopped being absurd, but one cannot retire from the game because the game may cost your life.”

He was, in a word, already fastened on the lessons to be drawn from an absurd world. He shared this conviction not just with his readers but also with his fiancée, Francine Faure. (The couple was waiting for the finalization of the divorce between Camus and Simone Hié, a glamorous and seductive woman whose drug addiction defeated Cxmus’ efforts to cure.) Camus told Francine that most everyone thinks the war is absurd, but this amounts to little if anything at all since they then go on living the lives they had always lived. But what interested him were the ethical consequences of this insight: “What I want to draw is a humanistic way of thinking, one that is clear-sighted and modest — a certain kind of personal conduct in which life would confront life as it is and not with daydreams.”

Eventually, it was Camus’ insistence on consequences that forced the closing of Alger républicain in 1940. Already hated by the local authorities because of his relentless attacks on their treatment of the Arab and Berber populations, Camus doubled down once France declared war in September 1939. Though without illusions about Hitler’s Germany, a “bestial state where human dignity counted for nothing,” Camus also refused to nourish illusions about the purity or lucidity of France’s leaders.19 He was convinced that the powerless — workers, peasants, small merchants, and clerks — would pay the price of this march to war just as his own father had in 1914. (He had not yet understood that the powerless, in France and the rest of the world, would nevertheless pay if the Nazis were not opposed by military means.) The censors, intent on maintaining public morale, suppressed growing chunks of the paper’s front page; Camus, equally intent on outwitting the censors, would reprint passages from literary classics, such as Voltaire’s entry on “war” from his Philosophical Dictionary, to fill the gaps. Even this, though, did not survive the officials’ scissors.

In November, Camus confided to his journal: “Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.” This same credo — which not only expressed Camus’ impatience with the passivity entailed by an existential worldview but also reflected his austere professional ethic — appeared at the same moment on the newspaper’s front page under the headline “Our Position.” Pascal Pia, the editor in chief, and Camus sought to explain to their readers why white blocks increasingly checkered the paper’s dwindling number of pages. They first denounced the very existence of censorship, dismissing the “sophistry that in order to maintain the nation’s morale its liberties need to be suppressed.” They then affirmed the “right to defend those human truths which recoil in the face of suffering and aspire towards joy Men of good will refuse to despair and instead wish to maintain those values which will prevent our collective suicide.” It turned out to be the editors’ swan song. Less than two months later, the authorities shut down the paper and Camus was out of work.