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Writing Under the Influence, Living Under the Influence

Although her title is an eyebrow-raiser, Elizabeth Hawes knows what she's doing. With, her new and unconventional work, she isn't simply writing a biography.
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Although her title is an eyebrow-raiser, Elizabeth Hawes knows what she's doing. With Camus, a Romance, her new and unconventional work, she isn't simply writing a biography. She's presenting a sui generis opus: a biography-memoir. As much as she's delving into the life of the late novelist-playwright-essayist-philosopher, she's also flaunting her own infatuation-rising-to-love disposition. In the process, she makes an even larger statement about reading and its long-lasting effect on an reader's sponge-like psyche.

As a student in the sixties, Hawes reports, she fell for Albert Camus's mind--and also for the man's physical appearance as a Gallic Humphrey Bogart. She fell head over heels for the world-view Camus espoused, his contention that life can only be understood as absurd (a word he liked using), irrevocably leading to an existential outlook (a Sartrean condition with which he claimed to disagree.)

Enamored of Camus for decades, Hawes began her just-published volume because she found irresistible the need to study up-close-and-personal someone who'd been so influential to her core beliefs. Indeed, in pursuing her goal to comprehend as much as possible the Camus myths and mysteries, Hawes might be considered less a researcher than a benign stalker with only the best intentions in her fluttering heart.

Her determination to get to the bottom of all things Camusian (if not to caress the bottom of the long-deceased Algerian) is what makes the bio-memoir such a fascinating spin on the mere biographies others produce. But my fascination with Hawes's book goes beyond beholding such unguarded enthusiasm from a safely objective distance.

The truth is that I, too, was a sixties student with whom Camus had his intellectual and emotional way. Not to the extent that I wanted to seek him out or to seek out--as Hawes does--the people who knew him (his children, surviving colleagues). But he affected me to the perhaps more important extent that I, like Hawes, absorbed Camus's philosophical convictions as mine.

I adopted his notion that the world is absurd and--once understood as such--tolerable, livable. I committed the opening confession of L'étranger (The Stranger) to memory, as did thousands like me. It's the chillingly unemotive remark "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte" ("Today, mother died"). I saw Camus's death in a 1960 car accident as further confirmation that la vie est absolument absurde.

I went for Camus hook, line and sinker and realize now that as an adult I've never challenged the ideas he espoused in his novel, short stories, plays and essays. Scanning my shelves in preparation for this Hawes-like outpouring, I found his first novel, A Happy Death (Richard Howard's translation of La morte heureuse), as well as L'étranger and La peste (The Plague).

I located Exile and the Kingdom, which I bought in Justin O'Brien's English translation. It's a third edition, issued in 1958 shortly after the first and second edition, printed prior to publication, had sold out. Apparently, I was fast but not fast enough for that first edition. When I was in Paris in 1994, I grabbed a copy of his just-released (though unfinished before he died) autobiographical novel about an Algerian childhood, Le premier homme (The First Man). One reason for my going to Paris that year was to secure the long-awaited tome.

Yet, while I want to associate myself with Hawes's undying allegiance to Camus, I also want to emphasize how writers, no matter who, affect inveterate readers, which I am and always have been--to the point that I've read Marcel Proust's On Reading and have had to take seriously its conclusion that reading is only meaningful if it causes the reader to acknowledge that life must be lived, not just read about.

Reading is inevitably influential. Indeed, although much of our belief system is intact before the age of five, there are still influences that act on us in adolescence when our minds remain impressionable. I'm not ashamed to admit that the authors besides Camus whom I devoured in my teens and early twenties--Ernest Hemingway (who has Catherine Barkley declare life a joke in A Farewell to Arms), William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger (if only for Holden Caulfield's unyielding disdain for the "phoney"), Thomas Wolfe--are largely responsible for the person I am today.

To illustrate my point further, I'll mention another recently-published book, Thomas Wright's Oscar's Books, which in the United States is called Built of Books, with the subtitle How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde. Wright, another fan on the prowl, takes a look at the famous British wit's well-documented library, citing likely influences from childhood on.

Given Hawes and Wright's works and my own experiences, I can't avoid concluding that while supposedly we are what we eat, we are also undeniably what we read--contingent on when we ingest it.