Camus, a Romance: Review of Elizabeth Hawes’ Memoir-Biograhy

Hawes concludes her work by saying that through the nine years she passed researching the life of Albert Camus, she felt she had become the friend of a man she never met.  I make no such claim because my knowledge of Camus is minute compared to that of Hawes.  And unlike Hawes, I have not haunted his paths in Paris and Algeria. I have not drunk where he drank nor sat where he surveyed the sea; let alone met his son and daughter. I have not sat in the gravel near his grave. Yet I have felt a peculiar affinity to Camus.  He simply comes to me frequently as an acquaintance whom I would make my friend, too. I have re-read The Stranger several times since I was alone at Meursault’s  age myself.

When I learn from Hawes that Camus drew upon his experience of Melville, again a writer whom I have enjoyed,  I begin to feel a certain circle of influence pressing on me.  The circle widens when I read that Camus had sensitivities for Keats, but then what reader with a heartbeat does not.  In the questions for discussion of Hawes book the editors suggest thinking about Keats’ concept of Negative Capability and again I feel more and more among friends.  Of course, Camus, a fellow tubercular would have been a reader of Keats. In his way Camus is a Romantic, too.

What is harder for me personally to understand is how I, a son of Appalachia and basically the product of upper middle- class, Midwestern influences have been influenced by, I must say it, “existentialist” literature. On the other hand, questions of existence were around long before the bohemian fad.  Camus himself rejected this term and “absurd” as well; therefore I will, too.  I am content with Keats’ preference for a literature that simple does not seek “irritable reaching after fact and fiction” or philosophical labels. That absolves me also from my own attraction to things French.  I have no mitigation nor apology for my respect for la civilisation française.

I suspect that my Francophilia also contributes to my enjoyment of Camus, a Romance (Grove Press, 2009). Hawes is an extraordinary Francophile whose love affair with Camus began as a coed when she pinned a poster of him on her wall in college.  She admits to being a “fan,” but her dedication to and discipline in the biographer’s art impresses me immensely.  Sustaining a professional point of view was paramount and she succeeded. Indeed, her sharing of the memoirist and biographic process makes the book even more interesting.  I passed weeks savoring it as I also tried to empathize with Albert Camus who had never been much more to me than “the stranger.”  And yet, even at the end of his life, he was still a stranger in the world — especially among Parisian intellectuals.  Sartre and others broke his heart over their criticism of The Rebel .  The controversy became virulently personal.  Camus mended, of course, but the scar remained.  Camus condemned capital punishment, terrorism and violence.  His cause for a French Algeria died, as one might say an Algeria died, too.

I was looking for signs of happiness in a so-called “philosopher of despair.”  Hawes found it in his devotion to his sense of responsibility, the most important thing to know about Camus,  she says; and after that his sense for fun.  Hawes chronicles the latter in the man’s love for his women, dogs, friends, Citroëns, the sun and the beach.   Catherine Camus, his daughter, trying to express the intangible in her father,  said of him, “It’s that one feels solidarity in a situation of happiness.” This would account for his passion for the theatre.  And Camus himself said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

His Nobel Prize actually became a burden that required nearly two years of adjustment.  At the end of it, not long before the fatal car accident, he said, “Absence, painful frustration.  But my heart is alive,  my heart is finally alive.  So it was not true that indifference had overcome everything.” In Hawes’ words Camus believed ” it was a duty to be happy [and] not to give in to inevitability, whatever face it took.  Sisyphus speaks here: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”

I will let a photo gallery speak. And you can also visit “Albert Camus Quotations” to your right and down on the Blogroll.

For me,  having read Hawes’ biography, Camus stands even bigger in life.  He was a devout humanist above all.  As for what he does for me, Camus epitomizes what he thought Europe has to offer America — “a useful sense of disquiet.”  In our current relapse into dysfunctional adolescence in the world, American behavior is absurd and a dose of Camus’ conviction taken to heart could do us much good.  He has never been more relevant.

David Milliken

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