Although I knew the ins and outs of Morocco, I don’t know much about neighbouring Algeria and its history as a French colony. So, when I first learnt about Albert Camus who writes in French and an Algerian, champion of existential thought, a journalist and an activist, my interest is piqued.
But who was Camus, beneath the trappings of literary fame?
Elizabeth Hawes, who first became enamoured with Camus as a young woman, embarks on a personal exploration that tells the story of Camus and her pursuit of the man. Camus, A Romance reveals the French-Algerian of humble birth, stricken by Tuberculosis and an exile in France was the editor of the WWII resistance newspaper Combat; A patriot, a Don Juan who loves a multitude of women, a voice for Muslim Suffrage, writes playwright for Theatre de l’Equipe, write for magazine called Tivages, he writes novels, essays, plays, and critical analyses of his evolving philosophy and political views etc. and everything that I have just mentioned Camus was doing them all concurrently. It was this moment that I respect and relate to the man. To one that is so dedicated to his art that even in his extreme poor health, he did not stop living and championing for what he believed in passionately.
Camus concerns about moral issues at the expense of political ones (page 96) labelled him as a rebel and fall out with political parties and newspapers publishers. Camus lived through a tumultuous political situation in Algeria, and talked frequently about destiny and fate, thus germinated the view that life as absurd with no seemingly logic to what was going on – “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.” (Page 2)
The man himself is as much a mystic and a sociable guy who was both true and real and put people at ease (page 74)
“Here Camus is who he was to himself, a perceiving, struggling, utterly solitary being. He needed his solitude to confront “this intense emotion which frees me from my surroundings,” to impose order on his disordered life, to restore an all-powerful awareness. “I do not know what I could wish for rather than this continued presence of self with self” but he also needed the world and the company of men and women. He suffered from what he called “A Spanish solitude”: “Strange inability to be alone, inability to not be. One accepts them both. Both profit.” – page 27
Camus then went on to find fame with the publication of his novel titled The Plague and became a celebrity over the Atlantic in America.
On 4 January, 1960, Camus died in a car crash outside Paris, he was 46, three years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. His cemetery is in Lourmarin in Provence. For a man who was short-lived, we asked not how long he had lived, but how much he had achieved in his lifetime, which is massive.
Hawes takes you through huge amount of research materials that involves letters, journals, archives, libraries, archives, and her visits to many sites that Camus had passed through and interviewed people whom Camus are closed to. Although Camus is the spotlight of the book, Hawes’ emotions and love for Camus are prevalent throughout the pages.
The fact I that I took so long to read this book is partly due to my fault alone because of my propensity to be distracted with other books that came onto my radar, partly due to the changes recently in my personal life; but it is also partly attribute to the well-researched nature of the book, with many footnotes and side quotes. For an intellectual figure like Camus, I wouldn’t expect any biography writers to do less than what Hawes had done so, an arduous research biography with rich details for a man who had done so much. I will not pretend this is an easy book to read, but when I really get into it, it is an intriguing read.
The fact that I took so long to review it shows how difficult it is to encapsulate such a rich book in a few words.
(As Elizabeth researches about Camus) there were always loose thread, incomplete evidence, and uncoorperative facts. I wanted to freeze Camus, isolate him, make him stand still in a given place for a definitive portrait. Although I wasn’t writing a formal biography, I was encountering all the problems and paradoxes that biographers face. My quest was stranger, I already loved Camus and yet I need to know who he was. After decades of devotion, I wanted to understand why I cared so passionately about him. Somehow I still imagined that we could meet. – page 13
With this biography of Camus, I felt as if Elizabeth had finally met Camus and with the labour of love and patience had written a great biography befitted of the great man. I dare anyone who could find me a better biography written about Camus than this because now I am inspired to read all of his works, no matter how hard going it could be, in my lifetime; and I have this book to thank for.
A book I will treasure, re-read and refers to in the future.
Big thanks to Carolina Reid from Atlantic Grove, who sent me this book for review.
My review of Albert Camus’ The Outsider (or The Stranger in the North America edition).
Paperback. Publisher: Grove Press 2009; Length: 319 pages; Setting: Non-fiction. Source: Review copy. Finished reading at: 20 February 2011.
About the writer:
Elizabeth Hawes is the author of New York, New York, How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City, 1869-1930. A former staff member and contributor to The New Yorker, she has also written for The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, The Nation and numerous other publications