Stalking the Stranger

Photo: Kurt Hutton/Getty Images

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.”

Clockwise from top left, Victor Hugo; Charles Dickens; D.H. Lawrence; Dostoyevsky.Photo: Len Sirman/Retna (Hugo); Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Dostoyevsky); Camera Press/Retna (Dickens); Bassano/Camera Press/Retna (Lawrence)

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.”

Stalking the Stranger