A whimsical sojourn into the life of Nobel-winning French “writer of conscience.”
Former New Yorker staff writer Hawes (New York, New York: How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City, 1869-1930, 1993) claims that she feels “a cosmic connection” to Albert Camus (1913–60). The author mostly forgoes literary analysis, focusing instead on what his daily life was like, and how the challenges he faced informed the literature he produced. Passing cursorily over Camus’s years in Algeria, primarily for lack of source material, the early chapters are choppy. Extensive quotations from his personal journal are juxtaposed with musings and descriptions of Hawes’s trips to France to find “the essence of the French identity.” The author then breezily discusses Camus’s meteoric rise to fame in Paris as editor of Combat, and the publication of his most enduring book, The Stranger (1942). Though Hawes claims that Camus’s editorials were “the talk of the town,” she doesn’t tell us why. Instead she attempts to capture the atmosphere of postwar France by staying at the Hotel Lutetia and ordering “a dozen oysters and a glass of Sancerre.” The narrative picks up when Hawes examines the impact of TB on Camus’s life. Providing graphic insights into how the disease both debilitated and motivated him from its onset in his teenage years, Hawes correctly notes how it magnified his sense of exile, of being the outsider. Camus saw himself as having a “high moral purpose,” and when he published his nonfiction book The Rebel in 1951, criticizing the tyrannical aspects of revolutions, he invoked the ire of Jean-Paul Sartre and the Parisian pro-Soviet, communist intelligentsia. Hawes provides delicious detail about Sartre’s public attack on Camus’s character and work, a painful betrayal by his former friend. After a period of shock and writer’s block, Camus’s rejection motivated him to write The Fall (1956), which earned him a Nobel Prize before his death in a car crash in 1960.
Heartfelt but patchy. For more penetrating insights, see Olivier Todd’s Albert Camus: A Life (1997).