Camus, a Romanceby Elizabeth Hawes
“A rich hybrid of biography, literary criticism, intellectual history and memoir. . .[an] intriguing, multi-faceted portrait.” —The Washington Post
Albert Camus is best known for his contribution to twentieth-century literature. But who was he, beneath the trappings of fame? Camus, a Romance reveals the French-Algerian of humble birth; the TB-stricken exile editing the war resistance newspaper Combat; the pied noir in anguish over the Algerian War; the Don Juan who loved a multitude of women. These form only the barest outlines of Camus’s life, which Elizabeth Hawes chronicles alongside her own experience following in his footsteps. Camus, a Romance is at once biography and memoir—wrought with passion and detail, it is the story not only of Camus, but of the relationship between a reader and a most beloved writer.
“A rich hybrid of biography, literary criticism, intellectual history and memoir. . . . An astute literary critic, Hawes does a sensitive job relating Camus’s novels, plays, essays, political journalism, journals and letters to his life. . . . Intriguing, multi-faceted portrait.” —Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post
“A beautiful memoir of a life-long obsession, a peek behind the curtains at the biographer’s art, and, not least, a rich and vivid portrait of Camus himself.” —Benjamin Moser, Harper’s Magazine
“Elizabeth Hawes knows what she’s doing. With Camus, a Romance, her new and unconventional work, she isn’t simply writing a biography. She’s presenting a sui generis opus: a biography-memoir. . . . In the process, she makes an even larger 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
“What Hawes does brilliantly is bring to life Camus the human being: the charming friend, the seductive womanizer, the lifelong outsider ‘from somewhere else.’ . . . [a] delicately perceptive text . . . Throughout the book, Hawes sensitively reads Camus’ writings and judiciously dips into his biography to vividly evoke his character and milieu.” —Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times
“[A] memoir of literary obsession . . . In many ways [Camus is] the perfect literary crush. . . . Hawes’s ultra-thorough portrait of Camus does pretty much what it’s meant to: It transfers a few degrees of her obsessive fever to the reader. . . . You revel in the humanizing trivia . . . those little rips in the space-text continuum through which so much magic trickles out.” —Sam Anderson, New York Magazine
“Camus, a Romance does much to bring this troubled and complex writer back into the light. We experience the tragic velocity of a committed life cut short, and at the same time we get the intensity of the postwar era, the sense of high stakes and intellectual urgency. We are also reminded, lest we forget, that while ideas and attitudes go in and out of fashion, moral vigilance stays. Camus lived full throttle with both eyes open. We may not be lofted quite to romance by Hawes’ account, but it’s hard not to be stirred.” —Sven Birkerts, Boston Globe
“What a wonderful adventure this book is! A biography. An autobiography. The history of an obsession. It is our very good fortune that Elizabeth Hawes’ dream of Camus turned into a conversation with his books, his letters, and the people who shared his life—and most of all into a determination to pierce his equal determination to elude her.” —Jane Kramer, winner of the National Book Award for Europeans
“Elizabeth Hawes takes us on a remarkable, deeply personal journey of discovery—about Camus himself, the nature of biographical inquiry, and her own four-decade fantasy romance with this elusive, solitary figure. With tremendous sensitivity and reportorial skill, Hawes beautifully ‘reads’ Camus the writer and the man in her radiant portrait-memoir.” —Jean Strouse
“Elizabeth Hawes has channeled her lifelong ardor for Albert Camus into a rich, unusual hybrid of a book that is part biography, part personal memoir. While writing her college thesis in the late 1950s, Hawes developed a crush on the Humphrey Bogart-handsome French-Algerian author so irresistibly endowed with what Susan Sontag called ‘moral beauty.’ . . . She was attracted, in part, by ‘his basic message—that in a world that was absurd, the only course was awareness and action.’ His fatal car accident in 1960, at age 46, did little to dampen her enthusiasm. Decades later, she determined to understand her passion for the man behind such books as The Stranger and The Plague. Hawes’ admitted bias and reflections on the biographical process add intriguing dimensions to this intellectually stimulating literary portrait.” —NPR.org
“Providing graphic insights into how [TB] both debilitated and motivated him from its onset in his teenage years, Hawes correctly notes how it magnified his sense of exile, of being the outsider. . . . Hawes provides delicious detail about Sartre’s public attack on Camus’s character and work, a painful betrayal by his former friend.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Delightful and vibrant . . . Hawes’ book is passionate, enlightening and terrific fun to read . . . [Hawes deserves] credit for adding to our knowledge of Camus’ legacy, and to his importance to our perilous times.” —William Hughes, American Chronicle (online)
“[A] meticulously researched biography/memoir. . . . a detailed and vivid picture of the time, places, and people that shaped the author’s life. . . . an engaging, vibrant, notably passionate and unique biography of the author. Highly recommended for all academic libraries, this should also be strongly considered by public libraries.” —Ali Houissa, Library Journal
“Camus, A Romance is a most tender book, at once biography and autobiography. Elizabeth Hawes brings the great writer (and his legion of friends and lovers) alive in unexpected ways, from his boyhood in Algeria through the war and his years as a Resistant, to his titanic struggle with Jean-Paul Sartre and the thought that brought him such derision in France: I love justice but I also love my mother. Camus once described an intellectual as someone whose mind watches itself. This fine book achieves something like that and as such is a gem.” —Ward Just, author of An Unfinished Season
“Elizabeth Hawes’s love for Camus begins as she writes her senior thesis about him; years later she has given us this vivid portrait. Hawes, a former staffer at The New Yorker, presents in fresh detail his relations with his American editor, his life as a literary celebrity, his modesty and rectitude, his devastating illness and much more. Camus, A Romance is eye-opening and a huge pleasure to read.” —Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce
“What a refreshingly twenty-first-century sort of biography of a quintessentially twentieth-century man. Camus, a Romance is a revealing chronicle of a great artist’s life and work, and an intimate, charming, inside-out exploration and celebration of how we’re shaped by the books and writers we love.” —Kurt Andersen, author of Heyday and Turn of the Century
“A worshipful college sophomore discovers Albert Camus and after forty years of reading, pursuing, and pondering him, she produces this heartfelt tribute, refracted through her journey, that’s part memoir, part biography, all passion.” —Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
During my last college years, I had a photograph of Albert Camus prominently displayed above my desk—the famous Cartier-Bresson portrait with the trench coat and dangling cigarette. He was a celebrated and sophisticated writer; I was a young and serious French major at one of the eastern academic establishments then known as the Seven Sisters. I was writing an honors thesis on Camus’s work, and in the process I had fallen in love with him. Not romantic love in the only sense I had experienced it in those days, an overheated yearning mixed with perpetual daydreaming, but something deeper, like the bonding of two souls.
In addition to the photograph, I had posted quotations from Camus’s work around my dormitory room—stuck in the frame of a mirror, propped up against a can of hair spray, sharing a thumbtack with a Picasso print on the wall. They were inscribed on index cards in a careful script: “Pour devenir un saint, il faut vivre,” “To become a saint, you need to live.”
“Si le monde était clair, l’art ne serait pas,” “If the world were clear, art would not exist.” This display—the photo, the words, together with a large poster of the grand Pont Neuf in Paris, which I had never seen, and the stack of Edith Piaf records I played every night—was my testimonial. It was everything that mattered then; in its way, it summed up who I was. Even the hair spray had its significance as a weapon against the naturally curly hair that did not fit my image of the intellectual I wanted to be.
If writers only knew, or at least remembered in their solitary travail, what an impact they can have on the psyche of a reader, how with just a random insight or a phrase or even a prose style they can change the course of someone’s life, alter thinking forever. Perhaps Camus, struggling with his admitted desperation to produce what would be his last novel in a study on the rue de Chanaleilles in Paris, might have been at least amused to know that in a room full of stuffed animals and drinking mugs in the backwater of western Massachusetts, there was a very unworldly young woman who was being transformed by his work. I, of course, did not appreciate the extent of his influence then, but I knew that as I read his words I felt both grounded and empowered by the simple fact that I understood exactly what he meant. I accepted his basic message—that in a world that was absurd, the only course was awareness and action.
In my innocence, I was confident that one day I would arrange to meet Camus. After I graduated, I planned to go to Paris, and I imagined that somehow we would have a drink at the Café Flore or one of the other Left Bank establishments I had heard about, and that over a café filter or a vin blanc, we would talk for hours. Then, on January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car crash outside Paris. He was only forty-six. I had just turned nineteen. I was still on Christmas vacation with my family, so I did not hear the news until I returned to school. Only then did I see the awful headline and the picture of the Facel Vega wrapped around a tree. I felt bereft, and I was also more helplessly involved with him than ever.
I have unearthed a copy of the thesis I completed after Camus’s death, entitled “La Notion de Limite dans l’Oeuvre d’Albert Camus,” “The Idea of Limit in the Work of Albert Camus.” It is a period piece now, yellowed and brittle, typed on the newly invented “corrasable” paper on a heavyduty Royal portable that I had customized with French accents. I remember the weeks of all-nighters I spent physically producing this manuscript, working in the bright lights of the dorm’s dining room while my roommate slept undisturbed upstairs. I used two sheets of carbon paper for copies and an ink eraser or white-out for errors, staving off exhaustion with coffee, No-Doze, and an incipient and exhilarating sense of accomplishment. I also remember the great sadness that came with the knowledge that my affair with Camus was ending. I had never before experienced such an intimate relationship with a writer, poring over his prose and filling up with his rhythms, thinking his thoughts, trying to crawl under his skin. Inadvertently, my kinship with Camus had progressed far beyond academic interest. However unlikely it seemed, I had come to identify with Camus, the courageous expatriate from Algeria, and for my own sake, I needed to know more about the man than his public pronouncements and his published work.
Thus began what has become a forty-year quest that effectively connects my past to my present. My pursuit of Camus has been neither always constant nor even conscious, but our relationship has endured. In the mid-1960s the pursuit was active, for I was at last living in France, and I expected to find Camus at every turn. But it was already a different era, and his death seemed to have been one of those turning points that divide time into then and now. In Paris, a new wave of writers was the rage, Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault. The multicultural Algeria that Camus had labored to preserve was a lost cause and the FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella had been elected president of the newly independent Arab country. Dutifully, I collected some of the many volumes of homage that were issued after Camus’s death and studied the photographs in them—Camus at the lycée in Algeria, Camus with Sartre and Beauvoir, Camus directing the actress María Casares in his play Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding). The images still had that beautiful presence. I bought the impressive leather-bound Pléiade edition of his complete works, which had just been issued by Gallimard, edited and annotated by Roger Quilliot, a critic I had admired in college and had also hoped someday to meet. To have your complete works issued in the Pléiade series was a distinct honor in France, often awarded posthumously and reserved for fine writers of enduring interest, but in Camus’s case it also seemed to be a confirmation of his death. A professor at the Sorbonne told me that scholars from all over the world—Swedes, Germans, Americans, Chileans, and Libyans—were preparing doctoral theses on Camus: on Camus the Hellenist, Camus the pagan, or Camus the picaresque saint. Camus was being consecrated, I thought; his tomb was being sealed. Other than in an academic way, it was too late to know him.
During the 1970s and 1980s, my investigation of Camus was sporadic. For long periods of time, I completely forgot him. He still qualified as a literary hero, but as a subject he had proved difficult—and impenetrably private, even in his journals. The two volumes that had been published in the 1960s revealed the struggling human being that was intimated in the work, but made no reference to events and people, to the life behind the writing. For better or worse, I had to be content with the identity that I had created for Camus on my own. The moral positions of his characters, for example, their pathos and stoicism, suggested that Camus’s own life was also about the importance and pathos of moral position. The austerity of his message—that in a world without hope we must still struggle to survive—spoke to his own despondency and courage; his prose style, direct and unadorned, to his honesty. These qualities, together with the sensuality, passion, and yearning that I had found in his early Algerian essays, and the unwavering principle of essays such as “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which made the case against capital punishment, matched up with the Camus of my photos: the handsome young loner with the cigarette, the high furrowed forehead, and the sad Mediterranean eyes; the Camus who inspired uncommon devotion.
It now seems ironic and probably fortunate that I was not able to confront the private Camus until a time when I could better relate to and understand his life, when I had grown up and was effectively on more equal terms. I am older now than Camus was when he died, and the original gaps between his world and mine have narrowed. I have lived in France, visited North Africa, had love affairs, joined protest movements, married and had children, become a writer and a literary person. I know writers who knew the Paris of the 1940s and 1950s, writers who met Camus, even Camus’s literary agent. Along the way, I have acquired other literary heroes and have felt a pressing curiosity about their journey through the world, their “life and letters”—but never the sort of attachment I had to the passionate young man from Algeria.
Camus resurfaced in my life with primal force in 1994, the year that his daughter and literary executor decided to release for publication the long-withheld manuscript of Le Premier Homme (The First Man), the unfinished novel he was working on at the time of his death. Reading that book, which, as it stands, is patently autobiographical and tells the story of Camus’s childhood in poverty and his search for an identity, I was struck by the uncanny sense that I had anticipated its message. The voice was Camus’s as I heard it in the truthful essays of his youth. Although told in the third person, the chronicle was unmistakably Camus’s own. Here was the absent father, the beloved silent mother, the honesty, the self-doubt and self-determination. With both astonishment and a sense of gratification, I read The First Man as the beginning of an autobiography that was long overdue. I reveled in its spontaneity, its transparency, its sense of immediacy and purpose, as well as in my own intense response to a resurrected mentor. Camus had originally entitled his novel Adam. Coming, as it did, several years after the confessional novel La Chute (The Fall ) and at a time of personal decline and depression, it represented a new beginning for him. It was also a new beginning for me and Camus.
For many years, I had thought about Camus only indirectly, when I read about new violence in Algeria, or learned that after his brother’s death, Bobby Kennedy turned to Camus for his thoughts on fate and suffering, finding support in his message that the apparent meaninglessness of the world is not an end but a beginning. (Kennedy, too, kept his favorite Camus quotes on index cards, and in his journal he wrote down Camus’s line “Knowing that you are going to die is nothing.”)
Occasionally, working in my study, I would glance up at the shelf full of yellowing paperback editions of his work and feel a particular, rather possessive pleasure. But reading The First Man brought Camus dramatically into the present. Again he was relevant and again he was real. In fact, his voice in that book was so real that it affected me like a visitation. All the old feelings came flooding back, all the drive of my original mission, and then, perhaps most strongly, a profound pride in Camus simply because he was still the Camus I knew him to be. It struck me that it was ironic but not out of character that in what would be his final work, he had at long last relinquished his privacy, climbed down from his pedestal, and faced up publicly to his real self. In effect, he was asking for understanding. And I was quite helplessly engaged anew.
I spent a long time looking at the cover of The First Man, which shows a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old gamin-like Camus grinning shyly at the camera. He radiates the mischief and innocence of boyhood, but he also looks unmistakably and irresistibly like himself, the man as child. On an inside page of the volume, I studied a reproduction of a page from his original manuscript, written in a tiny, tight, almost indecipherable script. I had not seen Camus’s handwriting before, and trying to recognize words and read beneath the cross-outs, I could imagine his hand moving across the page. That is why I resumed the pursuit: I felt a flicker of his living presence, and beyond the work I wanted to find the man.
There is more to know about Camus today than when I was a student and he was in large part a mythic figure. The final volume of his journals and an assortment of youthful writings, including a novel, have been published. Most of his essays from the Resistance newspaper Combat have been translated into English. Friends of Camus’s have written memoirs; an American and a Frenchman have written compelling biographies. The appearance of The First Man added Camus’s own direct voice to the mix; it created a literary sensation in France, and he became the focus of magazine articles and television shows. He is again a popular and provocative subject there. In America, he is material for book clubs, and his relationship with Sartre is the focus of seminars at important universities. Yet after all these years, I still think of Camus as my subject. He has proved himself to be at the very least a good man and a credible hero. His beliefs have taken on the added weight of prescience; his thoughts on violence and terrorism are timely; his humanism and honesty, sometimes astonishing, are more admirable than ever. As an independent thinker in difficult times, he provides a model that is very relevant in our current day. But my reaction derives from more than all this. Ultimately, it is personal. To my way of thinking, Camus would not have existed without me or I without him. Our relationship is about both of us, about who he was and who I was and still am. If he is my writer, I am his reader.
Last night I found myself thinking about Camus’s life during the Resistance. I was alone at home with the radio and the dog, and I had been reading an article in The New York Times about France’s latest crise de conscience over national behavior during the Vichy years. This brought to mind a story I had read about one of Camus’s encounters with the police at that time. He was carrying copy for the underground newspaper Combat and was in the company of María Casares, the beautiful young Spanish actress with whom he was having a passionate affair, when they were caught in a roadblock in the center of Paris and shaken down by a commandant. Camus, however, had quickly passed Maria the incriminating papers to hide in her coat, and they were released. Like the other small dramas that were then his daily fare—sheltering dangerous friends, changing apartments under the cover of night, a hasty exodus from Paris by bicycle—this story had made me proud of Camus and his unhesitating engagement, and also pleased with myself, because by the sheer force of knowing about this event I was in a way associated with it. But this feeling of complicity, however natural to the subject-mentor relationship, was objectionably shallow, for even now, enlightened by biographies, war histories, and documentaries, I have no way of understanding what it meant to suffer a long war and live under an occupation, no way to shed my Americanness, my time line, or my innocence. As if to confirm my situation, I suddenly became aware of a song on the radio, which the announcer was introducing as number two on the 1963 hit parade. As I listened to “Don’t Hang Up,” I realized that I knew the words in French (“Ne Raccroche Pas”) as well as English, because in 1963, as a young graduate student in France, I was as caught up with pop singers—Sheila and Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Halliday—café life, bistro food, and the purchase of a bikini as I was with deconstructing Camus.
In 1963, I did not know how much I didn’t know about Camus. I had read everything he had written that had been published then: three novels, three volumes of lyrical essays, two volumes of philosophical essays, four plays, a volume of short stories, a collection that included the “Algerian Chronicles,” his “Letters to a German Friend,” “Reflections on the Guillotine,” and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I was involved with his words rather than his life, and our relationship had an enviable purity, a desert-island quality of privacy that had to be compromised once I became more than a mere reader and imaginary sidekick and began to accumulate facts. Facts, with their cool and incontestable authority, have a way of sabotaging understanding, clouding perspective, and shattering the intimacy one has enjoyed with a subject. Once I had taken a footstep into his past, I would be caught in the impossible task of playing catch-up with an era with which I had only the most tenuous connections. I would be alternately exhausted and exhilarated by Camus, but as his life unfolded in bits and pieces and a tentative narrative emerged, I began to feel that I knew him, and this feeling was the beginning of understanding and a new kind of love.
Guide by Barbara Putnam
1. How would you describe the author’s approach to her subject? Fascination? Empathy? Did you share her excitement as she picks up the scent in what she calls this “game of endless connections”? Hawes admits to hero worship but also learns about biography, “which teaches you that your subject is only one piece in the enormously intricate web of other people’s lives.” Did you grow to trust her more as the book went on? Was it partly her growing competence in research?
2. Two sides of Camus emerge from this book: his reserve, need for privacy (“pudeur“) and his need to express opinions. “I must bear witness . . . I must write as I must swim, because my body demands it” (p. 26). By the end of her quest, Hawes found a Camus who had not basically changed in her view but was “more weathered, more explicit, and more complex” (p. 269). Is that your sense of the man, too?
3. In Camus’s Notebooks we see that central ideas in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus are death as a finality, centrality of a life of the senses, importance of mental clarity, and a firm resistance to organized religion. Do you see these themes evolving in his life as Hawes depicts it?
4. Camus admired the Mediterranean sense of “mesure,” of balance, a golden mean. Was he able to achieve this moderation in his life? His writings? How? Talk about how he was paradoxically pulled both by a longing for discipline and a far looser nature, anarchic at times, as he explored his ideas of liberty. Did TB and enforced rests put a brake on some of his overexertions? Give examples.
5. Which of Camus’s works are you tempted to read or reread? “The Adulterous Woman”? (The story is described on p. 239 as “a highly sensual version of basic Camus, a lesson in solitude, life and death, and redemption, transposed to a new, exotic locale in the desert.”) The Rebel? (This is the philosophical work savaged by Sartre and other Paris intellectuals.) The Stranger? Others?
6. His homeland, Algeria, Camus called “belle et effrayante—beautiful and frightening.” We read about “the streetscape, the poverty, the heat, the dance halls on the beach, the bleached light, the winds off the plateau” (p. 235). Talk about this country three times the size of France, whose history and brutal war continue to haunt the French. Why did it keep such a strong hold on Camus? “In these desolate dried out landscapes . . . I have always been able to find a lesson about poverty and bitterness that almost always takes me back to myself” (p. 239). Describe “the moral dilemma he is facing in supporting the nationalist movement while opposing its use of violence” (p. 240). How did he feel about independence for Algeria (pp. 255-257)? Are you surprised he didn’t speak Arabic?
7. Is part of Camus’s appeal his persistent youthfulness, even when he is world-weary? A friend once said, “Camus continues to think despair. Even to write it, but he lives hope” (p. 34). Camus called himself “ce vieux maniaque de Bonheur—this old maniac for happiness” (p. 197).
8. When Hawes asked Robert Gallimard what was enduring about the man Camus, “he said that it was a sense of Camus the charmer. It was the way he walked, the way he danced, the way he liked to kick a pebble down the street” (p. 285). Hawes herself values Camus’s honesty, responsibility, and sense of fun. Talk about examples of these qualities in his life.
9. When you think of Camus, do you think of him as philosopher? Moralist? Political activist? Or primarily writer? What was it that Camus hoped to achieve in his fiction? He admired philosophical writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Melville, and Faulkner. In his Notebooks he wrote, “People can think only in images. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.”
10. “Negative capability” was defined by Keats as a writer’s ability to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Would you say Camus functioned in “negative capability,” not driven by intellectual or philosophical rigidities?
11. Talk about Camus and the Resistance and his work on Combat (pp. 70-75). How did Camus become a celebrity? How were some of the expectations unrealistic? Hawes says that his days of writing for Combat “may have been Camus’s purest moment of glory. Never again would the truth as he saw it be so clear, so patently patriotic” (p. 73). Why then does he look back later (from the perspective of sunny Italy) on his complicated life in Paris as “his dark and derisory years” (p. 192)? What happened with Sartre? See also page 196 for Camus’s retrospective thoughts on Simone de Beauvoir and her roman a clef The Mandarins.
12. “Camus quite simply loved women” (p. 214). He also felt loyalty and guilt in his multiple relationships. Are you surprised that he has been accused of being a misogynist in his novels? What interested you most about the women in this book? (see especially chapter 11.) Francine? Maria Casares? His mother? Do you smile to hear Camus say he “would have preferred to be a man who could be faithful” (p. 220)? Was he lucky to have the actress Casares who described his infidelities as a form of “vitality” (p. 225)? His wife Francine, however, faced him down with “How can you talk about love if you are incapable of it?” (p. 226).
13. Talk about Camus and his fears of entrapment. How do claustrophobia and suffocation relate to his illness? His reputation? Marriage? Even the Nobel Prize?
14. What has been the influence of Camus? Ironically, as Europeans tired of him and viewed cynically his Nobel, his readership flourished in America. Styron said he was moved by The Stranger, that “Nat Turner was his version of an existential hero” (p. 267). Hawes tells us that medical students have read The Plague as essential education, and judges have learned from Camus’ views on capital punishment. Are you curious to read or see his theatrical versions of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky?