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BOOK REVIEW

'Camus, A Romance' by Elizabeth Hawes

July 05, 2009|Wendy Smith

Albert Camus grappled with virtually every crisis of the 20th century intellectual. He was an anti-colonial activist in his native Algeria during the 1930s and a member of the Resistance in occupied France. He struck a chord in a world engulfed by war and despair with two books in 1942: his first novel, "The Stranger," which depicted a man adrift in an absurd universe; and a philosophical essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," which argued that this sense of the absurd must propel us to create our own meaning. "The Plague," his 1947 novel of collective suffering and struggle, and "The Rebel" (1951), the anti-totalitarian treatise that led to his bitter break with Jean-Paul Sartre in 1952, urged empathy and a sense of limits as we strive to make a better world.

By the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1957, Camus was virtually a pariah in the European left because of his anguished, ambivalent stance on the Algerian civil war, although his warnings about the consequences of terrorism seem prescient today. Misjudged first as an avatar of existentialism, then as an out-of-touch reactionary, he was in fact, Elizabeth Hawes reveals in her intimate study, a deeply private man propelled into the public arena by the tides of history and his sense of responsibility. "He is not a man of action but a man of feelings," Hawes writes, "and it was the man of feelings to whom readers like me responded so readily. . . . "

The subtitle and prologue announce that this book is a very personal affair. Hawes fell in love with Camus as a teenager, she tells us, electrified by the "feeling of connection, compassion, and love for all of mankind" that his work inspired and expressed. She tacked quotations from his writings on the walls of her college dormitory, alongside "the famous Cartier-Bresson portrait with the trench coat and dangling cigarette." (He was delighted to be told he resembled Humphrey Bogart.) But by the time Hawes arrived in France as a graduate student, just a few years after his death in a car crash in 1960, "it was already a different era," and although Camus remained her literary hero, her intense investigation into his life and work grew "sporadic" in the 1970s and '80s. She reconnected with him in 1995, following publication of his unfinished novel, "The First Man." Reading it, she found, "all the old feelings came flooding back." That moment sparked the quest that culminates here. "After decades of devotion, I wanted to understand why I cared so passionately about him," she explains. "I needed to know who he was."

Hawes' idiosyncratic narrative runs more or less chronologically through Camus' life but assumes readers' familiarity with such mundane facts as the year of his birth (1913) and with the content of his books. Her approach slightly scants Camus' historical importance, first as a voice of the French Resistance and eloquent articulator of a humane philosophy to counter nihilism and hopelessness, then as a painfully conflicted spokesman for the non-aligned left during the most polarized years of the Cold War. What Hawes does brilliantly is bring to life Camus the human being: the charming friend, the seductive womanizer, the lifelong outsider "from somewhere else."

That "somewhere else" was working-class French Algeria. He was the son of a deaf, illiterate cleaning woman whose husband was killed in World War I; Camus dedicated his final novel to his mother, "who will never be able to read this book." It's characteristic of Hawes' delicately perceptive text that this brief quotation opens a vast inner panorama: The man regarded as a quintessential French intellectual was born among people to whom the world of ideas was literally a closed book, and Camus never forgot them. He was always most at ease, Hawes writes later, with his working-class copains (pals); among them he dropped his famous pudeur, that untranslatable word for the modesty and reserve that made even Maria Casares, the actress who was his lover for two decades, say that she never really knew him. The sun and sea of coastal Algeria gave Camus an unabashed joy in life's physical pleasures that distinguishes even his darkest works; the tuberculosis he contracted at age 17 in Algiers' cramped, unhealthy Belcourt quarter instilled the sense of life's mortal absurdity that afflicted so many as the world lurched toward bloody confrontation with fascism.

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