“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.
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).
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?