Forgetting Camus (and Other Literary Fumbles)

Watch out below! Name-dropping ahead!

“So there is a bathroom we can use in here,” I said to the woman as she sat back down next to me.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t have been able to stay otherwise,” she said.

This, my friends, is an example of my sparkling conversation with the literati at a recent Village Voice reading.

Actually, I had no idea who I was scrunched between at the time. All the better – I prefer my embarrassment after the fact. (Plus, I didn’t know that you could plead your way into the private bathroom in the bookshop if desperate. Good to know!)

Last week, Elizabeth Hawes, a former New Yorker contributor, presented her biography Camus, A Romance to a packed crowd.

I have to admit I wasn’t particularly motivated to go to the reading at first. I’ve been riding the positivity high of late, and an evening talk on Camus just sounded like, well, not exactly a funfest.

Thankfully I went (note to self: I’m always glad when I go). It was a fascinating talk, I picked up a new book, and I’ll soon be better equipped for literary cocktail conversation after reading it.

As I decided to go last minute, I arrived at the bookstore with hardly a second to spare. The only seat left was right in the front row (why is that? I like being up close!)

I clumsily made my way into the small folding chair (although the folding chairs are about the size of a nickel, so I’ll forgive myself for being less than graceful). I apologized to the older man behind me for blocking his view (I’m tall) and moved on to toilet talk with the woman on my left.

Camus Titles

To my surprise, Hawes was presented by Diane Johnson (author of many books, including Le Divorce). My knees practically touched Johnson’s she was so close. (And I truly felt like a giant next to her as she’s also so tiny.)

As soon as she sat down my neighbors started talking to the star pair like old friends. Ah-ha, I discovered, they were writers, too! (Witness my astounding feats of deduction). Later googling revealed I was next to Kathleen George and not far from her husband Hilary Masters. I never did find out who the other woman next to me was, but she knew everyone.)

But onto the real event:

“Albert Camus is a much simpler hero for Americans than for the French,” Hawes said at one point during her talk.

From my own limited perspective, that’s certainly true. I’ve read The Stranger, his connection to Sartre rang a bell. I knew Camus was Algerian by birth with a brooding Bogart look about him, a cigarette always between his lips. Basically, I had an almost cartoonish image of a bright existentialist thinker, if you will.

The talk (and I’m sure even more so the book, once I finish) set me straight on a lot of points (not least of which is that Camus rejected the label of existentialist and had a falling out with Sartre that would have implications for the rest of his life).

So it’s a bit of an existential faux pas this week, but wow, just how could I have forgotten Camus? And living in France, no less!

One of the most potent feelings I’ve had to contend with in France is that of being an outsider. I have lived in other countries (I studied in Ghana and Mexico), yet never experienced the ‘foreign feeling’ as much as I have here.

I even wrote a long essay recently about being a foreigner in France and the society’s (non)discussion of race (yes, I do sometimes tackle more serious topics). And yet I’d been ignoring Camus, the classic writer of alienation! (Better that I didn’t think about him too much while I was writing my essay, though. I probably would have put my pen down otherwise, realizing my own attempts futile).

Albert Camus street, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico 7993 (Albert Camus Street in Guadalajara, Mexico, where I studied in the late ’90s)

I wonder what I’d make of Camus’ work now. Would it resonate with me more now that I have lived here? I might even be able to read them in the original French. (Though I have some perhaps surprising thoughts on translation vs version originale. Maybe for another post).

Near the end of the evening’s event, when the floor was open to questions, the older man behind me rose, and as he put it, “revealed” himself. He was William Jay Smith, a celebrated poet and teacher, and one time Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress. (Geez, as if I wasn’t already feeling like the riff-raff).

With tears in his eyes he recounted having met Camus and vouched for his integrity. (One of the most fascinating parts of the talk was the discussion about the rejection Camus suffered after initial fame. It’s only been recently in France – and Algeria – that he’s seen his reputation revived again. Even his own countries forgot him, in a way).

So, a moving and stimulating evening all around. I waited awkwardly to have Hawes sign my book – all the literati were now talking amongst themselves – and then she finally turned to me.

“Ah, I kept looking at you while I was speaking,” she said. “You have such a nice face.”

I am an active listener, interested and encouraging; it’s not the first time someone has said that to me.

I may be a faux pas, but I have a nice face. Fine trade-off, right?

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13 Responses to “Forgetting Camus (and Other Literary Fumbles)”

  1. 1 Lindsey April 23, 2010 at 9:25 am

    I don’t see a faux pas here! Sounds like it was a fascinating evening around intimidating writers 🙂 I really should check out the events at the Village Voice more often!


    • 2 parisimperfect April 23, 2010 at 9:33 am

      Haha. Yeah. You’re right. I’m being a little self-deprecating. Just felt like a walking faux pas incapable of interesting conversation with intimidating writers, as you say 🙂 Plus, I actually hadn’t given Camus much thought in years. I mean, there’s something to that, right?


  2. 3 Ben April 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I’d say your work on this blog, as well as the fantastic piece you wrote about health care in France, raises you a bit above the faux pas din in which the rest of us operate. 😉


    • 4 parisimperfect April 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm

      Oh my gosh, Ben. That is like the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me! Thank you (massively blushing here). Though please let me assure you – I am *so* not above the faux pas din. (Please see my past faux pas examples for proof. Plus more upcoming, I’m sure!) 🙂


  3. 5 Adam April 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    I’m sure I’d have done much worse than you had I been there. The one anecdote that I always remember concerning Camus is that he was a decent goalkeeper in his youth. I’m sure I’d have mentioned that during any discussions and perhaps even asked if his first love wasn’t in fact football!


    • 6 parisimperfect April 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm

      Well, Adam, that’s actually quite an astute observation you’ve made there. Camus himself said he had an equal passion for football as for writing. Erm, not a direct quote, obviously, but you get the gist 🙂 So you see, you would have done *much* better than me!


  4. 7 Carolyn April 24, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Great post for many reasons — had to smile re ‘toilet talk’ — enjoyed your musings re Camus.

    How cool re William Jay Smith! I just read James Baxter’s ‘A Pound of Paper’ (subtitle ‘confessions of a book addict’) and he mentions Smith several times. They crossed paths at Hollins College in VA and later in Paris where both live now (or maybe Smith only lives there six months a year – not sure).

    Anyway, cheers and happy reading.


    • 8 parisimperfect April 24, 2010 at 1:12 am

      Thanks, Carolyn. Yes, it was a fun evening – had no idea it would be so star-studded! And now I’m into the book. Besides lots of information on Camus, it’s the biographer’s personal relationship to the writer. She never met him, but she’s carried on a lifelong love of his work and tried to get to know the person behind the very private figure. Kind of a fresh take.

      And cool! That James Baxter book sounds great, too. I need to get off this computer and get back to my books! 🙂


  5. 9 Res April 24, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Sounds like an amazing evening, I’m sorry I missed it (I stupidly passed thinking – very snooty of me – that it would be too odd hearing Camus discussed in English after spending all that time in the Lycée studying his books. That will teach me…)
    Going to readings has become my new drug, hopefully I will run into you at a future event! (I’ll look out for a tall person with a nice face – I’ll be the short one with the silly grin I get whenever I’m surrounded by books).


    • 10 parisimperfect April 25, 2010 at 3:37 pm

      Hi there. It *was* a good evening, though I understand your hesitation. Heck, I said in the post I almost didn’t go. But, the biographer studied in France, knows French fluently, and has a life-long passion for Camus, so she was definitely a person to hear talk about him – even if it was in English! Plus in the biography I’m reading, she always quotes lines in French first before giving the English translation.

      Cool! I would love it if we met up at a reading sometime. Shouldn’t be too hard to find each other. I mean tall woman/nice face, short woman/silly grin – how could we possibly miss each other? 🙂


  6. 11 chasing bawa April 25, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Camus is someone I’m very familiar with but still struggle to understand. And L’Etranger is my father’s favourite book (I grew up with the refrain ‘Maman est mort’:)) – both my parents were students in Paris in the late 60s. Thanks for a wonderful post, I’m going to go back and re-read some Camus, just to see what all the fuss is about (again!) and will definitely check out Hawes’ biography of the great man.


    • 12 parisimperfect April 25, 2010 at 3:31 pm

      Hi there. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I need to go back and read some of Camus’ work again now that I am older (didn’t say wiser, but hopefully) and have also lived in France – not to mention feeling like a ‘stranger’ myself sometimes. He is such an enigmatic figure, Camus; can’t say I quite understand him either. The biography is a good one, though, and I’m learning a lot as I make my way through it. You should definitely pick it up if the subject interests you! Happy reading!


  1. 1 Spreading Rumors and Indecent Searches « paris (im)perfect Trackback on April 30, 2010 at 9:09 am

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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