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Non Fiction

Camus: A Romance by Elizabeth Hawes

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

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

22 thoughts on “Camus: A Romance by Elizabeth Hawes

  1. Wow, cool! That’s neat that the author went to such lengths to get to know Camus. If Oscar Wilde had been alive at any point in the last century, I’d have done this same thing with him. Jealous.

    Posted by Jenny | February 20, 2011, 10:37 pm
  2. I used to read a lot of Camus and of all the existentialist writers he is my favourite. I love the books and the man behind them. Thanks for this review as I haven’t heard of this book before but I am sure I would like it. I think it is good she calls the book A Romance. That way we know immediately where she stands and that she does admire Camus.

    Posted by Caroline | February 21, 2011, 8:43 am
    • Caroline, it is interesting that the title is called, Camus, A Romance. Hawes is very detail in her research and there are many fascinating facts about Camus, like he is also a Middleweight boxer. 😉 Thanks for the first comment.

      Posted by JoV | February 23, 2011, 10:41 pm
  3. oh this sounds good Jov ,I ve enjoyed all the camus books I ve read and to find out more about the man behind the books would be really good ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | February 21, 2011, 10:16 pm
  4. Yes great post JoV –
    I had no idea who Camus was until I found his book – The Plague – looking for some classic apocalyptic books a few months ago. Which I have not read yet.

    Posted by Shellie | February 22, 2011, 6:11 pm
    • Shellie, I have “The Plague” on my shelf too, which I haven’t touch it yet. If you and I find the right time, perhaps we could read this together. I do want to read more of Camus’ work. 😉

      Posted by JoV | February 23, 2011, 10:44 pm
  5. I read The Plague in high school I think, an impressive author of whom I always have wanted to read more. I had no clue that he was Algerian. This biography really sounds like a book I would enjoy. Thanks for the review!

    Posted by Chinoiseries | February 22, 2011, 6:30 pm
  6. Wonderful review, Jo! This book looks wonderful from your description and I want to add it to my ‘TBR’ list. Is the ‘fight’ between Camus and Jean Paul Sartre mentioned in the book?

    Posted by Vishy | February 24, 2011, 9:10 am
    • Vishy, amaze at your rich knowledge in all things literature! 🙂 Yes, the FIGHT between Camus and Jean Paul is mentioned. I won’t say this book is an easy read, but it is certainly jam packed with loads of information!

      Posted by JoV | February 26, 2011, 11:36 am
  7. Here’s the thing. Though I don’t always like memoirs and auto-biographies, I do have an inexplicable attraction to biographies or stories about specific authors. This sounds like a good balance between an author’s personal experiences and the actual facts and life of the more famous (and shall I say more interesting?) author.

    Posted by Biblibio | February 25, 2011, 10:35 am
  8. This sounds lie an excellent biography! Now I just have to read something by Camus first (except for exceperts in philosophy class 😀 )!

    Hope you’re doing well, Jo, and love the new job! 🙂

    Posted by Bina | February 26, 2011, 11:04 am
    • Bina, every Saturday morning I know you will be here and it always cheers me up! 🙂 You are a lit student, you should read something by Camus!! LOL 😀
      I am doing very well Bina, Thank you. I love my new job a lot more, but I miss my old colleagues a lot and hate the feeling of someone constantly keep watch on me on what time I get into the office and what time I clock off. I came in before 8am and left the office at 5:30pm most days, which already considered to be clocking too many hours for European standards. 😦

      I hope you are having fun with your studies! So nice to be able to read lit as part of the assignment, but I won’t be able to write an analytical review as good as you though. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | February 26, 2011, 11:45 am
      • I really should read Camus! 😀

        Hope all is well with you, Jo! Clocking can be really annoying sometimes, but I’m sure you’ll adjust. Those hours are really long, don’t they know they are keeping you from reading!? 😉 I really hope it’ll get less stressful for you.

        And you’ve been so busy with blogging this week, yay! I might need the whole weekend to get through your posts! 🙂

        Posted by Bina | March 3, 2011, 10:44 pm
  9. Reblogged this on The Silent Angels and commented:
    What a great book for Simon and Chloe to read

    Posted by the nomadic angels | March 10, 2014, 10:41 pm

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  1. Pingback: It’s a Wrap: February 2011 « Bibliojunkie - February 28, 2011

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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JoV's bookshelf: read
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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
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Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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