Alice Kaplan, Looking For “The Stranger”:
Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic
In Looking For The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, Alice Kaplan, Professor of Literature at Yale University and one of the English-speaking world’s leading authorities on modern French literature, seeks to bring a fresh perspective to Albert Camus and his signature novel, L’Etranger — known in North America as The Stranger and in Great Britain as The Outsider. Kaplan describes her story as a biography of a book, “connected to the life of its creator but also separate and distinct from him” (p.3). Finding that Camus’ personality overshadows his novel in traditional biographies, Kaplan aims to tell the story of how Camus “created this singular book” by getting “as close as [she] can to his process and his state of mind as he creates The Stranger” (p.3-4).
Kaplan’s central premise is that the elements of The Stranger were nearly fixed in Camus’ mind before he started writing. The job of writing the novel entailed coaxing these elements out of the mind and onto the written page, then tying them together. In this sense, Camus “discovered the novel within himself” (p.3). Kaplan thus examines how The Stranger went from glimmers and flashes in Camus’s mind in the late 1930s to a published volume in 1942, and in the years after publication became one of the 20th century’s most widely read novels.
The Stranger changed the course of modern literature, Kaplan contends. Camus gave “new energy to the novel, a form that had existed for centuries, by turning it outwards, simplifying its expression and deepening its purpose” (p.83). The story itself is, as Kaplan puts it, “deceptively simple” (p.1). The lead character, Meursault, like Camus an Algerian of French descent, learns in the book’s opening paragraph that his mother died. He attends her funeral. The day after the funeral, in Kaplan’s succinct summation, Meursault:
goes swimming with a girl friend and takes her to the movies. He writes a letter for a friend who is a pretty rough character. He kills an Arab on a beach in Algiers. He is tried and sentenced to death and, as the novel ends, he awaits execution (p.1).
Camus divided the story into two parts, with Meursault’s first person narration before and after the murder. The Arab whom Meursault kills is given no name in the novel, a matter that raises more questions today than it did in Camus’ time.
Among The Stranger’s many mysteries is the spelling of the name of the novel’s narrator. The only surviving draft spells Meursault without the first “u,” Mersault. Inserting the “u,” Kaplan notes, adds an allusion to the French word for plunge, sauter, and to death, meur, as well as being the name of a famous French wine that apparently impressed Camus as a young man. Without the “u,” the name has more of a Spanish sound and could have belonged to a European of Spanish descent. Kaplan raises the possibility that the fateful “u” was added only by the publisher in the final page proofs. There is no record that Camus ever clarified how he intended to spell his lead character’s name.
As she endeavors to unlock this and other enigmas of The Stranger, Kaplan also includes enough about Camus the man to give the work some of the flavor of a traditional biography. With the novel set in pre-independence Algeria, where Camus was born in 1913 and grew up as a dirt-poor European in a predominantly Muslim and Arab country, Kaplan also gives her readers a sense of what Algeria was like as a French colony. But The Stranger was published not in Algeria but in Paris in 1942, at the height of the Nazi occupation, “one of the most humiliating and complicated climates for publishing in French history” (p.3). Kaplan thus provides an incisive look into the milieu in which French writers and publishers struggled to survive during the Nazi occupation (a subject covered in more detail in Alan Riding’s fine work, And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012). Kaplan skillfully weaves this contextual background into her biography of Camus’ novel, making her compact and thoughtful book highly engaging and often intriguing.
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Algeria in the 1930s was in its final decades of colonization before achieving independence from France in 1962 after a protracted war of independence. First colonized in the 1830s, Algeria by the 1930s was more than a French colony: it was part of la France d’outre mer, overseas France (or Greater France), made up of three administrative units that were départements every bit as much as the départements in mainland France. Algiers, where Europeans lived in neighborhoods that looked like Marseille, was France’s fourth largest city. But liberté, égalité and fraternité went only so far in la France d’outre mer. By one of the odder particularities of colonial rule, Jews born and raised in Algeria were deemed full-fledged, 100% French citizens — like Camus and his family. Arabs and Berbers, whom we might today term indigenous peoples, enjoyed by contrast almost none of the rights of Frenchmen, making Algeria a society structured on rank inequality. Although Camus was “appalled by colonial violence and deeply hostile to [French] government policy” (p.51) in the 1930s, he was not yet a proponent of independence. He saw his duty as a social critic to “strengthen French humanistic values” (p.51) in the administration of Algeria.
Camus’ family was part of Algeria’s settler class, at the bottom of the European hierarchy, but nonetheless with privileges foreclosed to the Arab population. His mother was of Spanish descent, illiterate, and almost totally deaf. His father, an agricultural worker of French descent, died in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne in World I, when his son was one year old. Although brought up in dire poverty, young Camus was a promising pupil in primary school and received a scholarship that allowed him to attend a lycée, an elite French secondary school. At the lycée, he proved to be an outstanding student, as well as a gifted athlete who enjoyed football, boxing and swimming — a “force of nature, physically unstoppable” (p.9). At age 17, however, Camus contracted tuberculosis, at the time frequently a fatal disease.
Camus received a degree from the University of Algiers in 1936, where he had studied philosophy and literature. While an undergraduate, Camus met his first wife, Simone Hié, whom he married in 1934, when he was 21 and she was 20. At both the lycée and university, Camus was a student of philosopher Jean Grenier, who helped him develop his literary and philosophical ideas and became Camus’ life-long mentor. Throughout the 1930s, Camus read avidly, was active in theatre, and became a prominent figure among left-wing intellectuals in Algiers, joining the Algerian Communist Party for a short time.
After university, Camus worked for the Alger Républicain, a struggling, anti-fascist, anti-colonialist newspaper, where he wrote literary reviews and covered major trials, including several that grew out of ethnic tensions between Europeans and Arabs in Algeria. As a court reporter, Camus assumed the role of what Kaplan terms a “lobbyist for justice,” earning a “reputation as a troublemaker with the colonial government” (p.39). Camus’ impatience with the hypocrisy of the courts became one of the cornerstones for the novel that was then percolating in his mind.
As the novel percolated, Camus drew on memories of his own life with his near-deaf mother, “whose vocabulary amounted to 400 words and who had little language to give him beyond her gestures” (p.67). In this concrete world, “objects come first, concepts last, and each sense is given its due.” Because his first, most intimate attempts at communication were “defined by the absence of verbal understanding,” as Camus formulated his novel the physical world “became essential” (p.67). Meursault and The Stranger thus emerged from the conditions of Camus’ own life. But Kaplan is emphatic that The Stranger should not be considered autobiographical. If anything, Camus was reversing his life story, she argues:
Camus’s childish love for his deaf mother became Meursault’s indifference. The silent world in which he had grown up became the noisy place where Meursault heard every sound. Camus’ hatred of colonial violence expressed itself through Meursault’s murder of an Arab (p.85).
Camus had a moment of epiphany in the fall of 1938, when he wrote the first five sentences of his percolating novel. These five sentences did not change over the next four years, prior to publication in 1942. At that moment, Camus realized that “this was his beginning, and he stuck with it” (p.65). By mid-1939, Camus knew that his narrator “was going to kill an Arab,” at a time when there was “an abundance of material in the press about conflicts between Arabs and Europeans” (p.43-44).
When war broke out later in 1939, Camus, 26 years old, was determined unfit for military service because of his tuberculosis. With France at war, Alger Républicain was targeted as a security risk that authorities sought to shut down. Camus then embarked on a four-year odyssey in which he moved back and forth between Algeria and France, ended his marriage to Simon Hié and married Francine Faure, all the while continuing to plug away at The Stranger. In 1940, Camus landed a job with Paris-Soir, a prestigious French newspaper based in Paris, while he worked on The Stranger every day and part of every night.
Living and writing in a drab Montmartre hotel, Camus “discovered that he could be in the middle of a paragraph, go off to work his shift at Paris-Soir, come back to the hotel and pick up exactly where he had left off, with no difficulty . . . [H]e had never done creative work with so much ease, and certainly not fiction” (p.79). By April 1940, Camus had completed chapters 1 and 2 of his novel, and had started on chapter 3. On May 1, 1940, Camus pronounced The Stranger finished, although significant vetting still lay ahead as he sought a publisher. But the exaltation he felt upon completion of The Stranger was quickly dissipated by a relapse of tuberculosis — a relapse which subsequently rendered him too weak to read the page proofs of his novel.
Later that same May 1940, the Nazis invaded France and in June 1940 the occupation of Paris began. Camus followed Paris-Soir out of Paris when the paper moved to Clermont-Ferrand. By the end of year, however, he returned to Algeria, where he joined his new wife Francine and, relying upon the uncertain wartime mail service, continued his efforts to find a publisher for The Stranger, along with Caligula and his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, two other pieces he had been working on simultaneously. He sent his manuscripts to Jean Grenier, his former lycée and university teacher then living in France, and Pascal Pia, an editor at Paris-Soir. Both men provided Camus with comments on The Stranger.
Grenier, still an esteemed mentor, did not give his former student high marks for his work. In what Kaplan terms “one of the great misunderstandings of a literary achievement” (p.109), Grenier seemed to go out of his way to highlight perceived shortcomings in The Stranger. Grenier emphasized how the work did not measure up to those of Kafka, as if Camus was intent upon following in Kafka’s path. In addition, Grenier had the temerity to compare the parts of the draft he liked to his own work. Grenier’s reservations about The Stranger, Kaplan notes, although deeply discouraging at the time, may have been a gift to Camus that permitted him to break free of his former mentor.
Pia’s response, by contrast, was “a beautiful example of generous reading, of enablement,” to the point that he and Grenier “seem to have read entirely different books” (p.113). Pia also sent the manuscript to Roland Malraux, who passed the draft to his brother, renowned French writer André Malraux. A “wonderful reader” (p.122), André Malraux was wildly enthusiastic about The Stranger and offered several practical suggestions for revisions. Unfortunately, Malraux’s comments and Camus’ reaction to them have not survived, and we therefore do not know the extent to which Camus followed Malraux’s advice.
Working independently, Grenier and Pia gravitated toward the major Parisian publishing firm Editions Gallimard as the potential publisher for The Stranger. Publishing had become a particularly delicate enterprise in occupied Paris, involving an “unpredictable and politically fraught” process (p.132), in which Nazi overseers closely monitored the activities of publishing houses. The houses were barred from publishing anything by Jewish writers, and otherwise had to stay away from works that looked “political,” a porous term that could encompass any work that reflected unfavorably upon the Nazis and their occupation of France and its capital. Somehow, The Stranger was able to navigate through these obstacles: the novel was deemed “apolitical” and Camus was of the “right” ethnic heritage.
On December 12, 1941, Camus authorized Gallimard to publish The Stranger before he had signed a contract, something he never would have done in ordinary times. On April 21, 1942, after overcoming a wartime paper shortage, the last pages of The Stranger rolled off the printing presses. In May 1942, Camus received a promised advance, and an advertisement for the book appeared in the Parisian daily newspaper Le Figaro in June.
In a review in Le Figaro later that year, André Rousseaux, a highly literate, conservative Catholic, delved deeply into the novel and, as we would say in modern parlance, trashed it. Rousseaux showed no sympathy for Meursault, who was “simply inhuman” and Camus’ talent had “made his narrator’s inhumanity all the more despicable” (p.147). But The Stranger survived this unflattering review, in no small measure because of a far more sympathetic assessment from none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, the ubiquitous philosopher and writer who by then set the terms of intellectual debate in France.
Sartre’s review, entitled “The Stranger Explained,” was published in February 1943, and served as a major turning point for Camus’ novel. Sartre characterized The Stranger as a work that comes from “across the sea; an outsider novel, interested neither in burying the ancient regime one more time nor in indulging in self-loathing – two commonplaces of the modern French novel.” The Stranger, Sartre wrote, was thus a “welcome reminder, in a terribly political moment, that a novel could exist with nothing to prove” (p.158-59). The attention that Sartre paid to Camus and his seriousness of analysis “defined The Stranger as an essential contemporary novel,” Kaplan writes. “Once Sartre had spoken, The Stranger’s future was all but guaranteed” (p.156). Camus became close to both Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir in the years immediately following The Stranger’s publication, although they fell out in the 1950s, ostensibly over political differences during the Cold War.
The Stranger gained in stature in the late 1940s, as France struggled to reestablish its vaunted cultural life, and soared in esteem throughout the 1950s, the final decade of Camus’s life. In 1957, Camus earned the Nobel prize for literature, based primarily upon the success of The Stranger (p.197). By this time, Camus had been recognized as a proponent of existentialism, the philosophy most closely associated with Sartre and Beauvoir. It was a label Camus resisted.
Camus and Sartre had, Kaplan notes, a different notion of human potential that precluded Camus from embracing Sartre’s brand of philosophy. “For Sartre what mattered was consciousness – people getting along, or not getting along with one another. Whereas for Camus what mattered was the insignificance of man against the world” (p.191). But these distinctions were overlooked in the 1950s by the “demands of publicity and by the excitement over the latest intellectual fashion” (p.191; existentialism and Camus’s relationship with Sartre are at the heart of Sarah Blackwell’s highly-acclaimed At the Existentialist Café, reviewed here in April 2017).
However Camus may have considered himself, the world saw him as an existentialist in January 1960, when he died in an automobile accident while riding to Paris with publisher and friend Michel Gallimard and Michel’s wife Janine. A train ticket was found in Camus’ pocket, indicating that he may have decided only at the last minute to travel back to Paris by car with the Gallimards. With his premature death, Kaplan wistfully observes, there would be “no bad books for Albert Camus and he would never disappoint his readers” (p.198-99).
In the years since Camus’ death, The Stranger has been analyzed in all the modern schools of literary construction and interpretation: in addition to existentialism, these include new criticism, deconstruction, feminism, and post colonial studies. The most consistent criticism of The Stranger has been the lack of a name for the Arab killed, for many a stark reminder of the raw inhumanity of colonization in Algeria. In 1962, two years after Camus’ death, colonization came to an end as Algeria achieved independence after a brutal civil war that had begun as World War II ended.
Recently, Kaplan notes, an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, has written a well-received work of fiction, The Meursault Investigation, which tells The Stranger’s story from the viewpoint of the brother of the Arab killed. In the French translation from the Arabic, the narrator’s brother is “Moussa,” a name that “delicately echoes Meursault” (p.206). But in the English translation, Moussa becomes “Musa,” closer, Kaplan notes, to Camus than Meursault. Perhaps it is fitting that the Arab with no name in Camus’ novel has become, in the languages of two of history’s most wide-ranging colonizers, an Arab with two names.
In just over 200 pages, Kaplan presents a comprehensive “biography” of one of the 20th century’s most consequential novels – its gestation period, birth, early years, adolescence and adulthood – strengthened by her judicious account of the novel’s author and his times and places. Her work should appeal to those who have read The Stranger recently as well as those who read it decades ago. It should also entice those who have not yet read Camus’ enigmatic work to do so.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 27, 2018