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Harper's Magazine
Friday, September 18th, 2009
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Camus, A Romance

by Elizabeth Hawes

Camus, a Romance

A review by Benjamin Moser

I don't imagine many readers bother to peruse the acknowledgments section of a biography, that laundry list of copyright holders, helpful archivists, encouraging spouses, and generous foundations without whom the work would never have seen the light of day, and none of whom bear any blame for the work's eventual flaws, responsibility for which, the writer modestly emphasizes, is entirely his own.

But when I recently had occasion to acknowledge everyone who helped with my biography of Clarice Lispector, I realized that those few pages contained the kernel of an entirely new book, one that would tell of my adventures in creating it, including my acquisition of a never-before-seen manuscript in exchange for a bagful of the highest quality Dutch skunk seeds, destined for a back yard in Rio de Janeiro.

So it's thrilling to see that precisely such a shadow biography has now been written, not about Lispector but about another great writer, Albert Camus. It isn't often that I read a book with which I have as much personal affinity as I did with Elizabeth Hawes's Camus, A Romance (Grove, $25), which tells of her lifelong fascination with the Algerian, and which reads as if she has filled out all the stories lurking in the acknowledgments section. This is a biography that allows the reader such unfettered access into the actual process of writing, which often is as full of intrigue as the story of the life it purports to tell.

Hawes tells us where the archives are, describes her unexpected emotions when handling a rare edition, and captures the biographer's weird jet lag of spending the day in 1930s Algiers only to walk out, at closing time, past the fraternity houses, coffee shops, and taco joints of contemporary Austin. She speculates, as I so often have, about the letters that might still be out there and who might have them. She berates herself for being too lazy or distracted to have found the time to track down vital witnesses -- who then die before she gets around to it. She never did see the car Camus died in, but Hawes sheepishly admits that she still wants to. (She knows where it's stored, of course.)

And she describes how her romance with Camus was tied up with that other great romance, one common to so many generations of artistic kids stranded out in the provinces: the romance of France. Looking back half a century later, she remembers her hokey teenage dreams. "After I graduated, I planned to go to Paris, and I imagined that somehow [Camus and I] 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 filtreor a vin blanc, we would talk for hours."

By the time she made it to Paris in 1963, the brooding genius was gone, victim of the car crash that ended his life at just forty-six. Now, all these years later, she has produced a beautiful memoir of a life-long obsession, a peek behind the curtains at the biographer's art, and, not least, a rich and vivid portrait of Camus himself.

Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.


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