Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction by Oliver Gloag

I can’t recall when I first stumbled across the “A Very Short Introduction” series from Oxford University Press; however, I know I seem to own increasing amounts of them, and the ones I’ve read have been most helpful (The French Revolution springs to mind!) So I was very interested to see that a new volume, taking on Albert Camus, was about to be released and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.

You may well be familiar with the format of the “Short” books; mostly under 200 pages long, they’re designed to give a concise and readable introduction to what can be a complex subject, although they aren’t just *definitions* as such. As the publisher’s website points out, they’ll often offer provocative discussions of the subject in question – which is what can make them even more interesting!

Albert Camus is, of course, a favourite author of mine; I first read his work in my 20s and was bowled over, particularly by his novel “The Plague“. It’s a remarkable piece of writing and has stood up to sustained re-readings (though I *don’t* think I’ll revisit it right now…) However, I wouldn’t claim to have completely understood the thinking and theories behind his non-fiction works, so I would keen to find out what the “Short” book would reveal.

And author Oliver Gloag does take an intriguing approach to his subject. He considers Camus’ life and work from a number of different angles which are broadly chronological but take in different aspects of the writer’s beliefs. The opening chapter, “Camus, son of France in Algeria”, I found particularly revealing; Gloag clearly lays out the history of French colonialism in Algeria, Camus’ status within that regime and the pivotal upbringing he had which was behind so many of his views. I confess to having had a very sketchy knowledge of the Algerian situation and this lucid chapter clarified many of Camus’ attitudes for me, and also the context of much of his work.

Gloag goes on to follow Camus’ career as he moves from journalist to novelist, his philosophies and beliefs, as well as his relationships with fellow authors and intellectuals in France of the 20th century. He is very good on delineating the differences between the theories of Camus and Sartre, who I’d always rather lazily bracketed together but who in fact seem to have had very different philosophies (the absurd vs existentialism). He also concisely covers their many schisms and that chapter was also particularly interesting.

See page for author [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the thread running through the narrative seems to be Camus’s complex relationship with Algieria, a country which features in so many of his works. Troublingly, Camus did not support Algerian independence, instead wishing to maintain a colonial status quo which simply improved conditions for the native Algerians. This *is* problematic, and Cloag demonstrates how this stance recurred regularly in Camus’ writings. Camus appears to have been a man of contradictions: wishing to avoid conflict yet fighting with the resistance; espousing freedom but not necessarily extending his views to women. I guess he was human; we expect our philosophers and humans to be perfect, but they *are* as fallible as us at the end of the day.

As I read through the Camus Very Short Introduction, I realised that I actually have a very sketchy idea of his life and so the book was a fascinating primer on that. It’s clear, concise and illuminates many aspects of Camus which I hadn’t considered or come across before. However, as I read I did realise that the book was coming from a very particular angle. Cloag specialises in post-colonial literature and because of this particular discipline, he does insist on viewing Camus pretty much exclusively through a post-colonial lens. This does add some fascinating insights into Camus’s life and work, but I did find myself questioning this slightly as the book went on. Camus was a product of his time and upbringing; he transcended this in some ways with his wish to change the French colonisaton of Algeria to one of a fairer basis (though not to fight for its independence); however, I’m not sure that this is the *only* aspect of his life that influenced his work and I wondered whether it was slightly limiting to look at him only in this context. However, this is a minor quibble and I think I’ll have to read up a little more on Camus’ life and thought before making any final judgement!

So “Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction” turned out to be a fascinating and very stimulating read. I  did get much from it, particularly in my understanding of the Algerian situation, where Camus sat within that and how it might have influenced his work. The section on Camus and Sartre was very enlightening too, and the whole book was beautifully lucid and very readable. (I harp on the lucidity because so often books about people and ideas *aren’t* that clear…) As I’ve said before, I have a very grasshopper mind and I do love to hop from topic to topic, exploring new concepts and philosophies. The Very Short Introductions are therefore ideal for me – I could do no worse at the moment than attempt to educate myself during lockdown by reading a whole chunk of them; and the Albert Camus volume is an excellent and thought-provoking entry in the series!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!