A stranger, no more

An insightful, if worshipful, look at Albert Camus, the complex rock star of postwar intelligentsia

(Bettmann/ Corbis/ 1959)
By Sven Birkerts
Globe Correspondent / July 19, 2009
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By Elizabeth Hawes
Grove, 304 pp., illustrated, $25

In the pantheon of photogenic writers with auras, Albert Camus shares the dais with Ernest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett, no question. Camus, with his trench coat, Gauloises, and Bogart mien. In my high school crowd, I remember, our epithet of highest praise was: “Existential!’’ We were thinking of Camus when we said it: Paris, “The Stranger,’’ some notion of the writer engagé. Elizabeth Hawes clearly had the same feeling, if not in high school then in college - she admits as much. “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.’’

Hawes’s Camus infatuation led her to write her honors thesis on the man, and then matured into a decades-long involvement in the work and the biography (much travel to his places, many interviews with surviving family, friends, and colleagues), and has led at last to the publication of “Camus, A Romance,’’ a biographical study which could not be more aptly titled. From start to finish Hawes is in relation with her subject, his writings and his life, all her energy devoted to getting closer, though her admiration at times carries her from sleuthing to something a bit more enmeshed.

Camus compressed a great deal of living into his tragically short life. Born in Algeria in 1913, he announced himself early as a writer of lyric as well as reflective and polemical gifts. He moved to France in 1942 and very quickly found himself at the center of Parisian intellectual life, which for a period seemed to be the center of intellectual life period. During the war and immediately after, Camus was everywhere. Heralded as a thinker and writer by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he became part of their cadre, joining the “fiestas with the heavy drinking, dancing, casual sex, and desperate fun.’’ At the same time he was editing the pro-Resistance journal Combat, writing and staging plays, and before long trying to shrug off the “existentialist’’ tag conferred by the international press. It was no use. Camus was destined to be the avatar of the post-war craze - the chic - that life was absurd. His protagonist Merseault killed a man without a motive; his rats brought plague to the city of Oran; and his editorials in Combat excoriated the war that left millions dead in trenches and concentration camps. He resonated the mood of the times. Life was meaningless, and Camus was its prophet.

Hawes’ accomplishment in “Camus, a Romance’’ is to get behind the limiting popular perception to disclose both the complexity of the man and the fluctuating trajectory of his career and reputation. The glamour of the icon masked a driven, ailing, often self-divided individual. Hawes identifies “two elements in constant opposition, the solidaire and the solitaire’’ - he was both the man of action and the recluse.

Camus was, further, debilitated all his life by tuberculosis, and afflicted as well by recurrent depression and prolonged creative blockages, especially in the wake of his years’ long feud with Sartre. His literary stardom had proved short-lived. It was overshadowed, at least in Paris, by virulent attacks from his old ally and his cohorts for the positions outlined in “The Rebel.’’ In that work Camus had denounced left-wing totalitarianism in no uncertain terms, offering the original version of Susan Sontag’s provocative “Communism is Fascism with a human face’’ proclamation. Camus wrote: “Today things are clear and what belongs to the concentration camp, even socialism, must be called a concentration camp.’’ The Nobel Prize, which he was awarded in 1957, only added to the zeal of his detractors. He died in a car accident in 1960, known the world over, but with his reputation in many quarters in dispute.

Hawes’ account is thoroughly researched, and it mainly gains from her almost obsessive determination to evoke and understand her subject. In places, though, her adoration overcomes her, and the distance so essential to portraiture collapses. At one point, for instance, Hawes describes herself viewing footage of Camus accepting his Nobel Prize: “but as I watched him moving across the floor, lithe and lean, eyes lowered, smiling shyly, looking both humble and proud, I was so overcome with emotion that my eyes began to fill with tears.’’ Later in the passage she observes: “Sometimes I feel almost like his wife or his sister as well as his reader, student, and Boswell, watching over him, worrying about his health or his spirits.’’ How close is too close?

Overall, though, Hawes finds the balance and “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 is author of “Reading Life: Books for the Ages.’’ He edits the literary journal Agni at Boston University and directs the Bennington Writing Seminars.

CAMUS, A ROMANCE By Elizabeth Hawes

Grove, 304 pp., illustrated, $25

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