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Stalking the Stranger

Albert Camus and the pleasures of literary obsession.


One of the most powerful lessons I learned growing up in a semi-rural suburb far from any recognizable cultural center is that celebrities—and especially great writers, who to me were the most magical possible subclass of celebrity—were totally unreal super-beings with whom you had literally nothing in common. All authors existed in a Platonic fourth dimension of abstract verbal perfection (sometimes called “France” or “Russia”) where they never had to put up with subliterary indignities like being vomited on by carsick siblings or having their off-brand shoes mocked by bullies—and if they did suffer such things it would only have been by choice, as an experiment, so they could write prizewinning literature about it later.

It was a big shock, then, to grow up and discover that this was not actually true—that the big famous highly anthologized names printed on all my book spines referred, in fact, to physical human beings with bodies and vomiting sisters and (in rare cases) shoes even more shameful than my own. The insight came to me only gradually, through a series of disorienting revelations. I once saw Jacques Derrida, for instance—the reigning high priest of French theory, a man so intimidatingly abstract I imagined he pooped exegeses—shuffle out of a lecture hall and load his papers not (as I’d expected) into a rickshaw pulled by grad students or onto the shoulders of cynical chain-smoking French angels but into the trunk of a bright-red Daewoo sedan—a car as terminally lame as any my family had ever owned, and which he then proceeded to drive slowly across a parking lot indistinguishable from the anti-intellectual parking lots of my youth.

This was a powerful, tender, humanizing, even revolutionary moment for me. The great empire of Western thought, I came to realize, had been founded not on metaphysics and griffins’ wings but on hairbrushes, socks, cutoff jean shorts, headbands, wastebaskets, and Daewoo sedans. I became fascinated by the gulf between literature’s abstract power and the trivia that always attends its creation. A great author’s toothbrush (or manuscript or cane or razor) is like a saint’s relic—a little rip in the space-text continuum, a wormhole through which the private abstract ecstasy of reading manages to stream in to the real world. Soon I started hunting earthly remnants of the literary gods. I visited Victor Hugo’s house in Paris and Charles Dickens’s house in London, where I wrote some words with what I was told was Charles Dickens’s pen. In Dublin I spent a summer reading Ulysses in the heart of Ulysses territory.

This is probably why one of my all-time favorite genres is the memoir of literary obsession—that aesthetic wreck at the intersection of biography, confession, literary criticism, travelogue, love letter, and detective story. In it, some maniacally devoted reader stalks an author across the continents and centuries, hounding old acquaintances, fondling leftover junk, using every possible tool to scratch down to the elusive base-level reality of a person whose life has been reduced almost entirely to words. It’s ontology porn. I can’t get enough.

The canon of literary obsession includes such odd classics as Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, in which the author fails to write the D. H. Lawrence biography he’s been planning all his life, producing instead a memoir about his failure to write that biography; and U and I, Nicholson Baker’s little comic masterpiece about his reverence for a still-living John Updike. Obsession adds a radioactive element to potentially boring genres: They become gloriously subjective, unstable, irresponsible, and creative. It’s exponential literature: textuality multiplied by itself.

It was with great pleasure, then, that I read Elizabeth Hawes’s brand-new entry in the genre, Camus, a Romance. I have never personally been obsessed with Albert Camus—I always leaned toward Dostoyevsky—but I can see the attraction. In many ways he’s the perfect literary crush. He was the most glamorous exponent of the twentieth century’s most glamorously nebulous intellectual movement, existentialism. He looked like Humphrey Bogart, suffered nobly all his life from TB, and died young in a car accident shortly after winning the Nobel Prize. He was a batch of contradictions: an artistic philosopher, a private political figure, a celebrity recluse, and a moralistic philanderer. He was doubly exotic—not only French but Algerian. And he’s still many Americans’ gateway to serious European literature—everyone has their mind at least a little bit blown, in high school, by The Stranger.

As a bonus, Camus himself was prone to literary obsession: He was always comparing the timeline of his achievements to those of his heroes (Tolstoy, Melville, Dostoyevsky), and he planned to retrace the route of Homer’s Odyssey before he died. Hawes, a journalist, returns the favor tenfold. She’s addicted to Camus like an existentialist lab rat in a Sisyphus box pressing its reward bar for absurd pellets. “Camus would not have existed without me or I without him,” she writes. “If he is my writer, I am his reader.”

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