Book Review: 'Camus, a Romance' by Elizabeth Hawes

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By Heller McAlpin
Sunday, July 26, 2009


By Elizabeth Hawes

Grove. 319 pp. $25

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 its personal slant, her book's 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 theatre.

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, multi-faceted 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."

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based book critic whose reviews appear regularly in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times and Newsday.

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