Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Camus: A Life

We recently read a new biography on Albert Camus by Elizabeth Hawes, titled Camus: A Romance. If you want to find out more about the life of Camus, and what sort of fellow he was, without tackling the doorstopper tomes of Lottman or Todd, then we recommend the book. It is not a straight-ahead biography, but more an exploration of a life by a writer who is a fan. Hawes brings her own journey into the story. It makes for easy reading.

Hawes does not deal as much with Camus’ ideas as she does with his life. She gives a lot of the backstory on where Camus was, what was happening in his life and in the greater world around him, as he wrote his various works.

Camus was born in Algeria in poor circumstances. He was a good student, though, and that was his ticket to get out of poverty, attend school and enter the literary world. He contracted TB at 17, which would affect him the rest of his life.

At this early age, the absurd starts to make its appearance. Camus remembers the episodes of coughing up blood and his mother being no more worried about it than if he had a headache. Hawes writes:

“But if he was initially disconcerted by his mother’s “surprising indifference” to the gravity of his condition, he also knew that in his seventeen years he, too, had learned indifference, which was both a cover-up for suffering and a commitment to getting on with life.”

After reading Hawes, we want to read some of Camus’ other works that we have not tackled yet, such as The First Man, which is largely autobiographical or his Notebooks, which Hawes quotes from liberally.

In the course of her portrait, we also see Camus as a very human figure. He is the absurd man, but he is hardly always so. He frets about criticism, has black episodes of depression and has all the emotional highs and lows of any man. At one point, in one of his many bouts with TB, he is feeling particularly sick and tired and he writes in a letter, as if to dispel the gloom: “It’s necessary to know how to make friends with your rock.”

This is a reference to the myth of Sisyphus, where Camus imagines Sisyphus as happy. We love this quote, as it again shows the indomitable spirit of the absurd man to persevere, to find happiness in whatever circumstance.

There are other gems. Another favorite quote Hawes finds is also from a letter. Camus writes: “That’s what I call happiness, to talk about sausages when the others are interested in the soul’s destiny.” This gets at the idea of enjoying the moment and the experience of the present rather than worrying about the future or about things we cannot know or control.

There are interesting connections Hawes makes along the way. For instance, there are several pages devoted to A.J. Liebling, the great New Yorker writer, and his relationship with Camus. As Liebling is one of our favorite writers, we found it interesting that, as Hawes writes, “Liebling loved Camus.” It seems the affinity between the two writers as mutual. They went pub crawling together in New York and had some adventures in the seedier side of the city. Hawes writes: “Camus loved seeing the underside of the city with such a wry and seasoned guide.” Both loved sports, women and good food and wine.

Liebling also wrote the obituary for Camus that appeared in the New Yorker. He wrote of his old friend: “He felt the world as close as water then and never grew the scales appropriate to a Big Fish. He was without insulation – the antithesis of the detached Stranger.”

Readers will also find Camus as essentially a moralist. Hawes quotes from a letter, in which Camus writes: “For my part, I have always thought that there was more to admire in a man than to despise. That is why it is always necessary to begin with kindness.” That is interesting, because critics of Camus’ absurdism – even in the comments of this blog – often accuse him of dancing on the lip of the volcano of nihilism. The man himself, though, had many beliefs about how to live well and in harmony with your fellows. He was greatly concerned with moral questions and wrote about them (such as his opposition to capital punishment or his opposition to bloody revolt – the latter belief was, in part, behind his famous break-up with Sartre. Camus thought Stalin a thug; Sartre, a communist, thought otherwise. History judged Camus correct, though it was a very unpopular position at the time, especially in France.)

In reading her portrait, you will get to know Camus, the man, a little better. You will learn more about the context of his thoughts and works. And it will send you scurrying to a bookstore to track down some of his books. We enjoyed it, too, as it made Camus a much more human and flawed figure, and thus even more admirable.


  1. Camus was certainly an incredible human being.
    Speaking of favorite quotes of his, mine is the following:
    "In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."
    This shows that he experienced depression and yet as you state in your piece he was able "to find happiness in whatever circumstance".
    I like your blog very much - thank you !

  2. Delightful. I 'found' your blog in the link to the NYT article on play--and back to school. Thank you.