(Disclosure: I was requested to read and review this biography)
Say you’re a college student studying philosophy and you spend hours trawling through Kant and Heidegger and Plato and even Sartre and maybe a female philosopher now and then and then you hit upon Camus with his melty good looks, his melancholy expression and his cute out-of-proportion ear. You are going to sit up and pay attention. He looks approachable, modern, if a bit retro. There’s no denying Albert Camus was an attractive man, a writer who was also a philosopher and moralist and who was fated to be an intellectual sex symbol. If he’d been American, Marilyn Monroe would have eaten him whole.
Elizabeth Hawes was writing her thesis on Camus when he died in a car crash. In college, she developed an obsession for him that lapsed, but never died out. Later in life, her passion was rekindled when she read the posthumous “The First Man.” She resolved to write a biography, one that would allow her to actually befriend him, even find intimacy with him. Her own motives figure in the book, and I couldn’t help but ask– is Hawes a stalker? It is a bit off-kilter how she goes off in search of Camus “the man,” how she sometimes feels they’re walking along together, or she remembers one of his jokes and laughs. It’s only her professed admiration for Camus that makes sleuthing seem occasionally like stalking. Many biographers are motivated by a desire to get closer to their subject, they just don’t come out and say it.
Despite her confessed idolization, she’s not a gusher. She gives the reader enough distance, and a number of times when she entered the book I was HAPPY to see her. I admired her devotion and scholarship and it was interesting to learn more about Camus. Still, Hawes’ obsession wasn’t contagious. I didn’t feel smitten. I thought Camus’ philandering, for example, was a huge weakness. I didn’t want to mother him through his tubercular suffering. When the big blowout between Sartre and Camus went down, I don’t think he handled it well, even though I sided with him. (Sartre, what an asshole! And with time Camus is vindicated, a major part of the conflict having centered on Sartre’s support of Stalin(ism). As it’s revealed what a monster Stalin is, Sartre defends himself by saying he was “right to be wrong.” Gawd, as my 10-grade English teacher would say: ship him off to 1950’s Russia and we’ll see how he feels about it then!)
I enjoyed this book. I learned a lot. I never knew Camus was a bosom buddy of the poet René Char, and I never really knew the fallout with Sartre had so much to do with communism. For all the warmth Hawes’ book brings to Camus, however, nothing brings him to life like his work. Two-thirds through this I picked up “The Stranger” and remembered what made Camus marvelous. Not his ear or his tuberculosis or the sultry cigarette dangling from his mug, but his writings.