Monday, 11 October 2010

Camus' Other Life

Camus – A Romance – Elizabeth Hawes
Published by Grove Press, New York

When I say Camus' other life I don't mean that he had a hidden or secret life - any more that is than any of us do - which this book uncovers, but rather that this book reveals Camus to us, as a recognizable human being, one we can relate to, feel empathy for, it celebrates his solidarity with others as well as his sense of isolation, and brings him vividly to life.

Like all good biographies, a large amount of research has gone into its creation. But it differs from others in one important respect, which is probably why the author called it 'a romance'. Most biographies take pains to be detached – or at least to present it in this way. It's hardly possible for us to be detached from whatever subject we study, there will always be our personal interpretation, even if we claim this is not so. But Elizabeth Hawes makes no such claim. She loves her subject, she is deeply involved in Camus' life and work, and in my opinion this makes for a far more interesting book.

While Camus' life and work is followed more or less chronologically, the book also weaves backwards and forwards in time, as some of the chapters are presented thematically. There is for example, a chapter devoted to his illness, TB, and how it must have affected his world view as well as his values, emotions and his decisions.

But most of all, throughout the book Hawes, rather than simply analysing the influences and effects in his life, of the places and the times he lived in, the people he knew, his family and upbringing etc, spends time with what Camus himself wrote, with the words written about him by others and with his photographs, in order to feel what it was like to be him. She charts but does not judge, the troubled self behind the creative works.

This inclusion of feelings and intuitions as well as the more interpretive capacities of the mind, is what turns it into 'a romance'. Bringing affection and compassion to bear on the man and his work produced on me anyway, the kind of effect that going outside into warm sunlight does, after one has been shut inside in a stuffy room. The sense of relief and expansion is palpable.

In an earlier post I mentioned reading a biography of Camus which left me feeling sad and somewhat melancholy, as if the main theme in his life had been – despite his huge amount of work - struggle against isolation, despite his many friends and loves, despite the successes of his books, journalism and plays. Struggle against feeling an outsider [in Paris] against his later writing being misunderstood, against published attacks both literary and personal. Culminating in an early death, the total effect was of struggle followed by failure.

While struggle was definitely a part of his life, Hawes never gives us the impression of failure but on the contrary, charts a series of successes, often against the odds. She describes the background to these struggles, the creative work, the finished oeuvres, published or performed. In the process she draws us into the most secret and private corners of his life. She shows us not just the humane philosopher, the man deeply concerned with ethics and values, but also the person who felt he had to speak out, who could not keep silent in the face of the upheavals and revolutions - both literal, in terms of the wars, and inner or metaphorical, in terms of people's lives, actions and thinking - that took place throughout his short lifetime. She examines both the public and the personal Camus as well as his own sense of conflict and paradox as he recognized the difficulties, at times, in reconciling the two.

His illness, his determination to speak out, his sense of responsibility, his vulnerabilities, his prolific output, his struggle to write when he felt attacked and alone, his deep and lasting friendships, his compassion for others, and his love of life, all these are addressed. From his lyrical essays, particularly about Algeria, to his struggle with humanity's moral questions, in a time of war and totalitarian regimes, to the symbolism of his novels, and the reflections contained in his journals, his Carnets, we see the immense range of his thinking and feeling, we are struck by his honesty, his suffering and his capacity for love.

This book includes the writer. It does not try to see Camus purely in objective terms. It is Camus in relationship to the writer's focus, in the light of the writer's mind. This is no blind love however, but one which seeks understanding and knowledge. Her scrutiny is sensitive. She does not judge but rather tries to go with Camus when his moods and feelings shift, to the places that his emotions and his ideas take him.

It is a fascinating experience as the reader too, feels drawn in to the very fabric of Camus' life, in particular his search for authenticity both in his ideas and his feelings. When he describes his love and nostalgia for Algeria for example, you feel it too, emanating both from Camus' sometimes terse jottings, and from Hawes' ability to lead you to this point and place in his life, where you can almost hear the deep silence of the French countryside, the rooster calling at first light.

Many well thought of and esteemed writers [or any others in the public eye] can become caught inside their own image or their own positions. Sartre for example, seemed unable to shift his position vis a vis communism, even when confronted with the facts of Stalin's persecutions, while Camus was able to say, once he realised what was going on in Stalin's Russia, that he was wrong, and to condemn a regime that could mete out such treatment to others.

Camus' search for authenticity meant that he was constantly grappling with the effects of the persona, the public image. Shortly before his death, Camus was returning to the theatre, writing and directing plays. More than anything, he liked working with others in the context of the theatre and he was popular with all kinds of different people, typesetters, printers, stage-hands as well as writers and actors.

At the time of his death Camus was also working on a novel The First Man. This was not published until several decades later. Incomplete, it tells a story that is clearly drawn from his own life. To know the experiences of Albert Camus the man, for someone unfamiliar with his work and his ideas, this novel may well be the one to start with. And while his most well known novels, The Stranger and The Plague contain his more philosophical and ethical ideas, his essays - particularly those written about Algeria - contain his most lyrical, moving and deeply-felt writing.

'Each artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth.......But the only people who can help the artist in his obstinate quest are those who love...
The Enigma, Camus

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