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Camus, a Romance Hardcover – July 1, 2009

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Review


“What Hawes does brilliantly is bring to life Camus the human being...a delicately perceptive text.”—Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times

“A beautiful memoir of a life-long obsession…a rich and vivid portrait of Camus himself.”—Harper’s Magazine

“[A] memoir of literary obsession—that aesthetic wreck at the intersection of biography, confession, literary criticism, travelogue, love letter, and detective story.” —Sam Anderson, New York Magazine

“A rich hybrid of biography, literary criticism, intellectual history and memoir…[an] intriguing, multi-faceted portrait.”—Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post

“A statement about reading and its long-lasting effect on a reader’s sponge-like psyche…a fascinating spin on the mere biographies others produce.”—David Finkle, The Huffington Post

From The Washington Post

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Heller McAlpin It's not unusual for biographers to fall in love with their subjects. After all, researching and writing a life is a major commitment, longer and more intimate than some marriages. What is unusual is for a biographer to address a lifelong passion for her subject as directly as Elizabeth Hawes does in "Camus, A Romance." She has channeled her ardor into a rich hybrid of biography, literary criticism, intellectual history and memoir. Yet, despite her book's personal slant, its revelations are mainly about Camus. Hawes, I can personally attest, is not the only student of French literature to develop a crush on Albert Camus, the Humphrey Bogart-handsome French-Algerian author who, in books including "The Stranger," "The Plague" and "The Myth of Sisyphus," recognized the hopelessness of existence but made a convincing case for ethical engagement regardless. He was irresistibly endowed with what Susan Sontag called "moral beauty." Hawes fell for Camus while writing her college thesis on him in the late 1950s. Part of the attraction was "his basic message -- that in a world that was absurd, the only course was awareness and action." Another factor: "Camus's good looks and sex appeal," captured in Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous portrait of the author wearing a trench coat with upturned collar and the ever-present dangling cigarette that graces the cover of Hawes's book. Camus's death in a car accident in January 1960 did little to stifle Hawes's sense of their affinity, although her pursuit of the man behind the work waxed and waned for decades. In 1994, when Camus's daughter and literary executor, Catherine, finally published "The First Man," the unfinished autobiographical novel her father was working on when he died at 46, Hawes's quest shifted back into high gear. "After decades of devotion," she writes, "I wanted to understand why I cared so passionately about him." An astute literary critic, Hawes does a sensitive job relating Camus's novels, plays, essays, political journalism, journals and letters to his life. Quoting liberally from his writing, she evokes the author's impoverished childhood, which he described as "a glue that has stuck to the soul." Born in November 1913 in Algiers, he grew up in a crowded flat without electricity or running water. His mother, widowed in World War I, was illiterate and partially deaf. Hawes concludes that Camus became ambitious and activist in reaction to his mother's extreme passivity. Yet he remained devoted to her even after moving to France in 1942. A grammar school teacher was the first of many mentors to recognize Camus's promise. With his help, Camus attended a lycee in central Algiers on scholarship as "an orphan of the French state" before studying philosophy at the University of Algiers. The onset of tuberculosis at 17 -- which was to plague him for the rest of his life -- disqualified him from the degree required for teaching. Also rejected from military service, he turned to writing, journalism and theater. Hawes spotlights examples of Camus's "irrepressible conscience" and "moral leadership" in his essays against capital punishment, Nazis, Stalin and the atomic bomb -- many written for the underground Resistance paper Combat, which he edited during World War II. She untangles his bitter feud with Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as the criticism he sustained around the time of his 1957 Nobel Prize, for failing to take sides during the bloody Algerian war for independence. (A lifelong champion of Muslim equality, he was unable to relinquish hope for a multicultural state in Algeria that included the French.) Like her onetime New Yorker colleague Janet Malcolm, Hawes reflects on the biographical process, adding depth to her project. She notes, for example, "the unpredictability of interviews, in the way important sources sometimes have fuzzy memories or offer canned stories," and she describes her frustration when Roger Quilliot, an early expert on Camus, committed suicide shortly before their long-anticipated appointment. Also exasperating is the inaudible tape of her first, hard-won interview with Catherine Camus, drowned out by barking dogs. Hawes admits feeling "more than a little proprietary" toward Camus, which may explain why she treads delicately on his family life and numerous affairs (which she stereotypically attributes to his "Mediterranean libido"). In this intriguing, multifaceted portrait, she openly acknowledges her bias: "Sometimes I feel almost like his wife or sister as well as his reader, student, and Boswell, watching over him, worrying about his health or his spirits."
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; 1st edition (July 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802118895
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802118899
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,632,461 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Elizabeth Hawes grew up in the Mid-West, arrived wide-eyed in New York after college and study in France, and has been a writer since her early days at The New Yorker, drawn particularly to the arts and urban culture, gradually working her way from journalism to longer narratives. In the process, she married, had three children and many dogs, moved out of the city and back to the city and from uptown to downtown.

Elizabeth Hawes is the author of Camus, A Romance and New York, New York, How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City, 1869-1930. A former staff member and contributor to The New Yorker, she has also written for The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, The Nation and numerous other publications.


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Elizabeth Hawes first fell in love with Albert Camus while studying his work in college in the United States, thousands of miles from the environs frequented by the French novelist/playwright/philosopher in the final months of his life. Camus' premature death in a car accident in January 1960 put an abrupt end to Hawes's dreams of encountering her hero in real life, but not to her fascination with the man, his works and his ideas, as this fascinating book shows.

I read this work -- part-biography, part-intellectual history, part-memoir and completely riveting -- on the subway, walked along the streets with the book in my hand and devoured bits of it in spare moments standing in line to pay for my groceries. I read late into the night, relishing Hawes's sense of style, her ability to move seamlessly from conventional biography to writing about the process of memoir, from describing places and people to tackling her own inner feelings about her subject. The latter is a process all too unfamiliar to those of us who read biographies; even the best rarely come with the perspective of the biographer attached, and yet it's hard to imagine that any historian or writer who has lived with his or her subject for years doesn't have some kind of emotional connection of some kind to that individual. The difference is that Hawes shares her thoughts. At one point, she recounts how, handling a letter written by Camus, she inadvertently smudges the ink on the document to the extent that it is now illegible. She's horrified, but fascinated at the same time. "In a very real way I had just interacted with Albert Camus," she informs the reader.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Larry Verburg on May 11, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Note: This review is of the Kindle version of "Camus, A Romance," and the rating is for that reason a low one. If I could, I would give the book five stars and the Kindle edition one star, the one star being quite generous. (As it is, so that this review is not passed over as crackpot, I have given two stars.) However, I recommedn that you do not purchase the Kindle edition of this book; it's a monstrous travesty and could ruin your acquaintance with this brilliant memoir. Examples: Footnotes don't work and are impossible to navigate, words are misspelled or hyphenated in the middle of a paragraph (like "vio -- lence"), punctuation is miserable (quotations are especially erratic); all in all a pretty pathetic edition, the worst I have seen in a purchased Kindle book; in fact, many free Kindle books have better spelling, punctuation, and formatting.

The book: I must say from the first that this book is a must read for anyone interested in Albert Camus. The name of the book is apt, though I don't know if it was chosen by the publisher or Ms. Hawes. As a "romance," the memoir is written from the standpoint of one in love with the author's work and the man himself. Ms. Hawes confesses in the first pages of her book the impulse and passions that drove her to desire to know Camus as man, writer, Nobel Prize winner, product of the working class. Her interest in Camus is not so much an obsession (though it sometimes seems close to it) as a compelling need to know the man who is such an important part of her working life as a university professor.

The book is also remarkable for its profound sympathy for the man and his struggles, his triumphs and defeats, and the illness that often debilitated him and made him anxious and bitter at times.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While still in college, Elizabeth Hawes (later a staff member at "The New Yorker" in the 1960s), developed a keen interest in Camus, verging on an obsession. Camus was the subject of her college thesis. That began a forty-year quest to know Camus better, to "connect" with him as well as she could. Around 1994 she actively began researching and writing this book. Among other things, she studied collections of Camus's correspondence in library archives and interviewed 18 people who had known Camus, including his daughter (and literary executor) and his son.

First, the negatives. Even allowing for the author's understandable affection for her subject, the book is too personal, and there is too much information about Hawes, her life-long obsession, and her quest. It occasionally lapses into being mawkish. One example is at the end when she visits Camus's grave: "I didn't have any particular thoughts as I stood before the grave, but I was content just to be there in Camus's proximity. Eventually, I sat down in the gravel path next to him." At times, Hawes seems surprisingly naive. A more minor complaint is that her presentation of Camus's life is less chronologically linear than I would like, which also leads to some unnecessary repetition.

But withal, I am glad that Elizabeth Hawes shared her obsession and quest in this book, as I get a very good picture of Camus.
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