CAMUS, A ROMANCE. By Elizabeth Hawes. Grove Press. July 2009. 304 pages. $25 hardcover.
As an undergrad, Elizabeth Hawes became fascinated with Albert Camus and embarked on an exploration of not only the work but also the world of the brilliant, handsome and charismatic writer and philosopher. Although she was physically half a world away and metaphorically a universe away from her subject, she was determined to somehow enter her idol’s world.
After Camus’ sudden death in a car accident, Ms. Hawes delayed her pursuit until the publication in 1995 of his unfinished autobiographical novel, The First Man. As a mature woman and an accomplished writer, she renewed her commitment to track down the enigmatic author through his journals and letters as well as interviews with Camus’ few surviving friends and associates. The result is a meticulously researched and thoughtfully analyzed account of the activist and Nobel Prize winning author.
Ms. Hawes’ dogged pursuit of her subject has unearthed hundreds of documents, including journals and letters, notes for Camus’ novels and essays, transcripts of speeches, journalistic pieces and interviews. From Paris, where she immersed herself in the café society of the postwar artistic community, to a library in Austin, Tex., where she pored over reams of notes and letters from an extensive Camus collection, Ms. Hawes set out with admirable determination on a quest to walk in the footprints of the man who will forever be associated with the exist entialist movement.
What emerges is a portrait of a man of contradictions. As Ms. Hawes so succinctly puts it, “The pattern of alternating social engagement and lonely withdrawal was his personality, two elements in constant opposition, the solidaire and the solitaire, essential to the making of Camus the artist.”
The seeds of Camus’ philosophy are seen clearly to have been planted both by a childhood of poverty in the sensory rich land of Algeria and by Camus’ intense commitment to the French Resistance movement. Camus’ fierce nationalism and loyalty to his friends emerge as the character traits that helped him survive a brutal assassination in the press by his former friend and fellow existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.
Ms. Hawes, in the position not only of a chronicler, but also an empath, follows Camus through his lifelong struggle with tuberculosis, his disenchantment with the Communist party, his disillusionment with the intellectual community in France, and his self-imposed exile after his very public humiliation after the publication of The Rebel.
While Camus, a Romance does not attempt to be the definitive biography of the man, it affords a marvelous opportunity to read carefully chosen snippets from the less accessible essays, notes and journals and to enjoy easily digestible gems served à la carte. The result for the reader is a more profound understanding of the man and his ideology.
The unique approach Ms. Hawes has taken reveals truths discovered by both her subject and herself in her pursuit of an understanding of a brilliant philosopher. Just as she recognized Camus as a kindred spirit as a young woman, in later life she has discovered that the author was a constant companion throughout her life, whether she knew it or not. Camus a Romance gives one of the most important 20th century thinkers his due, not only through unabashed adulation but also through Ms. Hawes’ treatment of Camus as a mortal man and a confrère.
Elizabeth Hawes will discuss and sign copies of Camus, a Romance on Wednesday, July 15, at 7:30 p.m. at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Main street in Vineyard Haven.