After Camus

Image of After Camus
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
Madville Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“the characters are complex, three-dimensional, and not always likable people, struggling with engrossing dilemma—the fixings of a good novel.”

As the title might imply, with its reference to the French Nobel laureate, After Camus is a novel that seems to delight in being intellectual and literary. It will spark readers to take a second look at “difficult classics,” too.

In the midst of a deep crisis, characters are apt to burst into statements like, “What you said before put me in mind of something Camus once said.” One of the book’s two primary narrators, the former ballet dancer and choreographer Tolle Riordan Davidoff, is constantly having intense, imagined conversations with the ghost of Camus.

Camus isn’t the characters’ only artistic lodestar. Tolle’s daughter, Julia, determines that the best way to decide whether to terminate an accidental pregnancy, is to go to the French village where Vincent Van Gogh spent the last year of his life. “I thought that if I could drink in some of the same stuff he did—the colors, the lights, the hills, the walls . . . then maybe things would clear up and slow down,” she tells a friend.

Tolle and the other key narrator—her husband, Saul—have good reasons for their obsession with Camus. Tolle enjoyed a brief fling with the writer shortly before his death in 1960, and Saul was inspired by Camus’ novel The Plague to become a physician specializing in AIDS. (To be clear: while Camus, of course, was a real person, Tolle, Saul, and any romantic fling are fictitious.)

The main story line begins in November 2004, when Saul—using the stationery of the hospital where he works—dashes off a letter to the White House calling President George W. Bush “a murderer” for cutting funding for AIDS treatment and research. His boss suggests that this would be a good time for Saul to take a four-month “mini-sabbatical.”

Where will Saul and Tolle go on their sabbatical? To a spot in the south of France where Camus had lived for a year while recovering from tuberculosis, évidemment.

The letter to President Bush was a leap out of character for Saul, who is regularly described as “a truly kind man” and “a good man,” but never a risk-taker. Now, that act of daring has somewhat rekindled Tolle’s admiration for her husband, after 40 years of a marriage that has become increasingly stale.

In writing the letter, “Saul had begun to feel free to act on matters that enraged him instead of merely re-acting to them.” It is, in essence, his own take on Camus’ question of what makes life worth living.

Almost everyone in Saul and Tolle’s orbit is facing deep questions about love, death, or other important aspects of their lives. Saul is half-tempted to tumble into affairs with two long-time friends, including a former lover, Fiona, who is now dying of incurable ovarian cancer. An ex-patient shows up and accuses Saul of killing his partner. Saul’s oldest friend can no longer rely on jokes to push away his despair.

In the midst of all those emotional strains, Saul must decide whether his letter to President Bush was a one-off spurt of activism, or whether he’s ready to engage with the world’s problems, when he finds himself in the midst of a National Front anti-immigrant rally.

This novel’s literary dialogues and allusions will not be to everyone’s taste. Author Jay Neugeboren is an eclectic writer himself, an award-winning author of 22 books of fiction and nonfiction, and of articles that have appeared in publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Best American Short Stories to Tablet.

But regardless of taste, this unusual book deserves applause for challenging the stereotypes of “a good read.” Neugeborn has taken a risk in crafting a story that relies so much on intellectual challenges, and he makes it work.

Moreover, the characters are complex, three-dimensional, and not always likable people, struggling with engrossing dilemma—the fixings of a good novel.