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Camus, a Romance Hardcover – July 1, 2009
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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 obsessionthat 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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As a result, I thought CAMUS, A ROMANCE was a terrific book. You see, this year I've read THE STRANGER, THE PLAGUE, and THE FALL and I was interested to learn something, but not everything, about the artist who produced such amazing work. For example, how did Camus's experiences affect such themes in THE STRANGER as North Africa, the sea, and the gentle indifference of nature? What are the connections between Camus's TB, the Nazi occupation of France, and THE PLAGUE? And, what emotional forces contributed to the perplexing THE FALL? Well, CAMUS, A ROMANCE addresses these and other questions that might occur to readers of these novels. The artist, though sui generis, didn't come from nowhere.
In providing this information, Elizabeth Hawes takes a somewhat unusual approach to her biography. Instead of functioning as a detached narrator who gathers, organizes, and interprets information, she admits to being profoundly affected by Camus and his work. Thus, the second subject of her book is the mystery of her interest in Camus. She wants to know, in other words, why the man and his work are so meaningful to her. While Hawes actually reveals little about herself (she likes dogs, she has a summer house near the ocean), she does put front-and-center the highly personal relationship that readers develop with writers who affect them. In this case, Hawes describes herself as feeling, at times, like Camus's wife or sister, as well as a reader and student. Ultimately, she ends up in the right place, where she considers Camus her friend.
CAMUS, A ROMANCE is not only about Camus's books and the grip they exert on many imaginations. While not going into unnecessary detail, Hawes also discusses the pied noir in Algeria, intellectual life in post-war France, the famous exchange with Sartre following the publication of THE REBEL, Camus's writer's block, the Algerian War, Camus's Nobel Prize, and so on. But this information exists to illuminate the man and his work, which always has a serious moral dimension. Data doesn't dominate.
Even so, I would have cut the paragraph where Hawes relates her most recent dream of Camus. "...he was full of ordinary life. I had joined him walking down a crowded city street, and as we duck around people trying to keep abreast of each other, we laughed..." Regardless, recommended.
I wish Elizabeth Hawes had written Camus, A Romance long ago, not only so that my students might have read and discussed the book with me, but because the book brings the man to life in a way that no ordinary biography could. I relished every page (as I suspect Hawes relished writing every page) because for the first time I had a sense of the kind of person Camus was and what his life was like in the times in which he lived and wrote.
I recommend this thorough and extraordinary book.
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. CAMUS, A ROMANCE covers well the major aspects of his life and character: his morality, which defined him intellectually much more than "existentialism"; his love for his homeland Algeria (when he accepted the Nobel Prize, he did so as a French Algerian); his love for the theater; his tuberculosis, which forced him to grapple with mortality at a much earlier age than most; his good looks, elegance, and attractive personality (he reminded virtually everyone of Humphrey Bogart); women; and his mother (a near deaf-mute housemaid). Appropriate attention is given to his stint as editor of "Combat" and the importance of his journalism and editorials to the Resistance and to France immediately after the Occupation, as well as to his condemnation of Stalinist communism and the highly publicized break with Sartre (or, more accurately, Sartre's malicious repudiation and belittlement of Camus). There also is adequate discussion of his major works of literature. In addition, Hawes does a good job of culling Camus's journals and his letters, uncovering and bringing to the fore useful and instructive excerpts. For example, in 1946, observing a post-War world roiled by strident ideologies and political manifestos, Camus wrote: "Justice is the concern of everyone, freedom of only a few. That is what must change."
The Camus that Hawes gives us (I think accurately) was a very admirable person -- more so than most literary giants (at least literary figures of sufficient magnitude to be awarded the Nobel Prize). The personal qualities that are evinced are dignity, reserve and forbearance, honesty, "self-respect and endurance", and "a certain elemental morality." His one weakness was his inveterate womanizing and attendant infidelities, but then both his marriages might be characterized as unfortunate.
In the end, CAMUS, A ROMANCE, convinced me to make Camus one of the authors whose major works I read (or re-read) in 2010. That, and the comments on Camus by Clive James in his "Cultural Amnesia", including his remark, "The widespread notion that Camus's mind was not really very complex at all is the penalty he paid for being blessed with good looks, the Nobel Prize, too many women and too much fame."
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