Excerpt: 'Camus, a Romance'

Custom: 'Camus: A Romance' by Elizabeth Hawes
Camus, a Romance
By Elizabeth Hawes
Hardcover, 304 pages
Grove Press
List price: $25.00

Prologue: From the Beginning

During my last college years, I had a photograph of Albert Camus prominently displayed above my desk—the famous Cartier Bresson portrait with the trenchcoat and dangling cigarette. He was a celebrated and sophisticated writer; I was a young and serious French major at one of the eastern academic establishments then known as the Seven Sisters. I was writing an honors thesis on Camus's work, and in the process I had fallen in love with him. Not romantic love in the only sense I had experienced it in those days, an overheated yearning mixed with perpetual daydreaming, but something deeper, like the bonding of two souls.

In addition to the photograph, 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. They were inscribed on index cards in a careful script: "Pour devenir un saint, il faut vivre," "To become a saint, you need to live," or "Si le monde etait clair, l'art ne serait pas, "If the world were clear, art would not exist." This display — the photo, the words, together with a large poster of the grand Pont Neuf in Paris, which I had never seen, and the stack of Edith Piaf records I played every night—was my testimonial. It was everything that mattered then; in its way, it summed up who I was. Even the hairspray had its significance as a weapon against the naturally curly hair that did not fit my image of the intellectual I wanted to be.

If writers only knew, or at least remembered in the solitary travail, what an impact they might have on the psyche of a reader, how with just a random insight or a phrase or even a prose style they can change the course of someone's life, alter thinking forever. Perhaps Camus, struggling with his admitted desperation to produce what would be his last novel in a study on the Rue de Chanaleilles in Paris might have been at least amused to know that in a room full of stuffed animals and drinking mugs in the backwaters of western Massachusetts, there was a very unworldly young woman who was being transformed by his work. I, of course, did not appreciate the extent of his influence then, but 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.

In my innocence, I was confident that one day I would arrange to meet Camus. After I graduated, I planned to go to Paris, and I imagined that somehow we would have a drink at the Cafe Flore or one of the other Left Bank establishments I had heard about, and that over a cafe filtre or a vinblanc, we would talk for hours. Then, on January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car crash outside Paris. He was only 46. I had just turned 19. I was still on Christmas vacation with my family so I did not hear the news until I returned to school. Only then did I see the awful headline and the picture of the Facel Vega wrapped around a tree. I felt bereft, and I was also more helplessly involved with Camus than ever.

I have unearthed a copy of the thesis I completed after Camus's death, entitled "La Notion de Limite dans l'Oeuvre d'Albert Camus," "The Idea of Limit in the Work of Albert Camus." It is a period piece now, yellowed and brittle, typed on the newly invented correasable paper on the heavy-duty Royal portable that I had customized with French accents. I remember the weeks of all-nighters I spent physically producing this manuscript, working in the bright lights of the dorm's dining room while my roommate slept undisturbed upstairs, using two sheafs of carbon paper for copies and an ink eraser or white-out for errors, staving off exhaustion with coffee, No-Doze and an incipient and exhilarating sense of accomplishment. I also remember the great sadness that came with the knowledge that my affair with Camus was ending. I had never before experienced such an intimate relationship with a writer, pouring over his prose and filling up with his rhythms, thinking his thoughts, trying to crawl under his skin. Inadvertently, my kinship with Camus had progressed far beyond academic interest. However unlikely it seemed, I had come to identify with Camus, the courageous expatriot from Algeria, and for my own sake, I needed to know more about the man than his public pronouncements and his published work.

Thus began what has become a 40-year quest that effectively connects my past to my present. My pursuit of Camus has been neither always constant nor even conscious, but our relationship has endured. In the mid- 60's, the pursuit was active, for I was at last living in France, and I expected to find Camus at every turn. But it was already a different era, and his death seemed to have been one of those turning points that divide time into then and now. In Paris, a new wave of writers was the rage, Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault. The multi-cultural Algeria that Camus had labored to preserve was a lost cause and the FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella had been elected president of the newly independent Arab country. Dutifully, I collected some of the many volumes of homage that were issued after Camus's death and studied their photographs—Camus at the lycee in Algeria, Camus with Sartre and Beauvoir, Camus directing the actress Maria Casares in his play Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding). The images still had that beautiful presence. I bought the impressive leather bound Pleiade edition of his complete work, which had just been issued by Gallimard, edited and annotated by Roger Quilliot, a critic I had admired in college and had also hoped someday to meet. To have your complete works issued in the Pleiade series was a distinct honor in France, often awarded posthumously and reserved for fine writers of enduring interest, but in Camus's case, it also seemed to be a confirmation of his death. A professor at the Sorbonne told me that scholars from all over the world, Swedes, Germans, Americans, Chileans and Libyans, were preparing doctoral theses on Camus, on Camus the Hellenist, Camus the Pagan or the Picaresque Saint. Camus was being consecrated, I thought; his tomb was being sealed. Other than in an academic way, it was too late to know him.

During the 70's and 80's, my investigation of Camus was sporadic. For long periods of time, I completely forgot him. He still qualified as a literary hero, but as a subject he had proved difficult, impenetrably private, even in his journals. The two volumes that had been published in the 60's revealed the struggling human being that was intimated in the work, but made no reference to events and people, to the life behind the writing. For better or worse, I had to be content with the identity that I had created for Camus on my own. The moral positions of his characters, for example, their pathos and stoicism, suggested that Camus's own life was also about the importance and pathos of moral position. The austerity of his message—that in a world without hope we must still struggle to survive—spoke to his own despondency and courage; his prose style, direct and unadorned, to his honesty and his efforts to transcend. These qualities, together with the sensuality, passion and yearning that I had read in his early Algerian essays, and the unwavering principle of essays like "Reflections on the Guillotine," which made the case against capital punishment, matched up with the Camus of my photos, the handsome young loner with the cigarette, the high furrowed forehead and the sad Mediterranean eyes, the Camus who inspired uncommon devotion.

It now seems ironic and probably fortuitous that I was not able to confront the private Camus until a time when I could better relate to and understand his life, when I had grown up and was effectively on more equal terms. I am older now than Camus was when he died, and the original gaps between his world and mine have narrowed. I have lived in France, visited North Africa, had love affairs, joined protest movements, married and had children, become a writer and a literary person. I know writers who knew the Paris of the 40's and 50's, writers who met Camus, even Camus's literary agent. Along the way, I have acquired other literary heroes, with a pressing curiosity about their journey through the world, their "life and letters," but never the sort of attachment I had to the passionate young man from Algeria.

Camus resurfaced in my life with primal force in 1995, the year that his daughter and literary executor decided to release for publication the long withheld manuscript of Le Premier Homme or The First Man, the unfinished novel he was working on at the time of his death. Reading that book, which, as it stands, is patently autobiographical and tells the story of Camus's childhood in poverty and his search for an identity, I was struck by the uncanny sense that I had anticipated its message. The voice was Camus's such as I heard it in the truthful essays of his youth. Although told in the third person, the chronicle was unmistakably Camus's own. Here was the absent father, the beloved silent mother, the honesty, the self-doubts and self-determination. With both astonishment and a sense of gratification, I read The First Man as the beginning of an autobiography that was long overdue. I reveled in its spontaneity, its transparency, its sense of immediacy and purpose, as well as in my own intense response to a resurrected mentor. Camus had originally entitled his novel Adam. Coming, as it did, several years after the confessional novel La Chute (The Fall) and at a time of personal decline and depression, it represented a new beginning for him. It was also a new beginning for me and Camus.

For many years, I had only thought about Camus indirectly, when I read about new violence in Algeria, or learned that after his brother's death, Bobby Kennedy turned to Camus for his thoughts on fate and suffering, finding support in his message that the apparent meaninglessness of the world is not an end but a beginning. (Kennedy, too, kept his favorite Camus quotes on index cards, and in his journal, he wrote down Camus's line, "Knowing that you are going to die is nothing.") Occasionally, working in my study, I would glance up at the shelf full of yellowing paperback editions of his work and feel a particular, rather possessive pleasure. But reading The First Man brought Camus dramatically into the present. Again he was relevant and again he was real. In fact, his voice in that book was so real that it affected me like a visitation. All the old feelings came flooding back, all the drive of my original mission and then, perhaps most strongly, a profound pride in Camus simply because he was still the Camus I knew him to be. It struck me that it was ironic but not out of character that in what would be his final work, he had at long last relinquished his privacy, climbed down off his pedestal and was facing up publicly to his real self. In effect, he was asking for understanding. And I was quite helplessly engaged anew.

I spent a long time looking at the cover of The First Man, which shows a 13- or 14-year-old gamin-like Camus grinning shyly at the camera. He radiates the mischief and innocence of boyhood, but he also looks unmistakeably and irresistibly like himself, the man as child. On an inside page of the volume, I studied a reproduction of a page from his original manuscript, written in a tiny, tight, almost indecipherable script. I had not seen Camus's handwriting before, and trying to recognize words and read beneath the crossouts, I could imagine his hand moving across the page. That is why I resumed the pursuit, because I felt a flicker of his living presence, because beyond the work, I wanted to find the man.

There is more to know about Camus than when I was a student and he was in large part a mythic figure. The final volume of his journals and an assortment of youthful writings, including a novel, have been published. Most of his essays from the Resistance newspaper Combat have been translated into English. Friends of Camus's have written memoirs; an American and a Frenchman have written big biographies. The appearance of The First Man added Camus's own direct voice to the mix; it created a literary sensation in France, and he became the focus of magazine articles and TV shows. He is again a popular and provocative subject there. In America, he is material for book clubs and his relationship with Sartre is the focus of seminars at important universities. Yet after all these years, I still think of Camus as my subject. He has proven himself to be in the very least a good man and a credible hero. His beliefs have taken on the added weight of prescience; his thoughts on violence and terrorism are timely, his humanism and honesty, sometimes astonishing, are more admirable than ever. As an independent thinker in difficult times, he provides a model that is very relevant in our current day. But it is more than all this. Ultimately it is personal. To my way of thinking, Camus would not have existed without me or I without him. Our relationship is about both of us, about who he was and who I was and still am. If he is my writer, I am his reader.

Excerpted from Camus, a Romance by Elizabeth Hawes. Published by Grove Press. Copyright Elizabeth Hawes, 2009.

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