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Stalking the Stranger

Clockwise from top left, Victor Hugo; Charles Dickens; D.H. Lawrence; Dostoyevsky.  

Like most good addictions, this one started early: As a young college Francophile, Hawes had just fallen for Camus, even pinning his picture up Tiger Beat–style in her room, when he very suddenly died. The tragedy inspired what she calls a “40-year quest” to find out everything she possibly could about him. She went to his apartments and houses, his favorite bars and restaurants, and to all the major research archives. She read his journalism and his notebooks and his unpublished letters and talked to everyone who might even possibly have considered knowing him. She became fluent in his difficult handwriting, a process she compares to “trying to see a tiny object in a very dark closet.” The book, she says, took nine years to write.

Hawes’s ultra-thorough portrait of Camus does pretty much what it’s meant to: It transfers a few degrees of her obsessive fever to the reader. It makes you want to know him and read most everything he’s written. You flinch when, at 17, he contracts tuberculosis, the disease that will ruin his lungs; you cheer his rise to fame as the editorial-writing conscience of occupied France; you share his discomfort with the popular rage for existentialism (eventually he had to stop using the phrase “It’s absurd” in casual conversation, because people assumed he was making philosophical pronouncements). You detest Jean-Paul Sartre, who insulted Camus viciously in public when they disagreed about the relative merits of Stalin. You feel protective when he gets really popular and succumbs to intellectual Beatlemania: mountains of mail, people stopping him on the street, his children’s nanny exposed as a tabloid reporter. You lament the absence of his unfinished final novel, The First Man, which was apparently going to be uncharacteristically long (900 pages) and autobiographical and narrated in alternate chapters by the voice of his illiterate mother, to whom the draft was dedicated. (“To you, who will never be able to read this book.”)

But most of all you revel in the humanizing trivia—again, those little rips in the space-text continuum through which so much magic trickles out. Camus, we learn, loved Ping-Pong and had a cat named Cigarette. He never locked his car. He wrote standing up. When he fell into a depression after winning the Nobel Prize (panic attacks, claustrophobia), he tried to break out of it with yoga. On his only trip to New York he visited the Central Park Zoo twenty times.

As an obsessive, Hawes is sometimes a little dutiful for my taste. Much of the book is earnest biography, with the spirit of her obsession floating politely in the background. The most exciting moments are when she allows herself to intrude—she makes compulsive lists, rereads Camus’s notebooks until they start to fall apart, and is reduced several times to the brink of tears: watching old TV footage of Camus, holding a first American edition of The Stranger, and discovering that the tape of her interview with Camus’s daughter has been partially ruined by barking dogs. As the book proceeds, eerie things start to happen. Her lung collapses in Paris. Roger Quilliot, her great predecessor as a Camus obsessive, and the critic she hoped most to meet, kills himself a few weeks before their scheduled interview. In a library archive, Hawes accidentally smudges out a word on one of Camus’s original letters with her thumb, thereby changing the author’s oeuvre forever through a trivial accident of her own experience. It’s a perfect allegory of literary obsession: the devotee finally touching her hero’s ghost. As Hawes puts it: “In a very real way I had just interacted with Albert Camus. I felt giddy and a little spooked.”