PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

'Looking for The Stranger': Sometimes the Truth Is as Strange as the Fiction

Aspiring writers with ambition to shape the philosophies of the future can benefit from Camus as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.

Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic
Alice Kaplan

University of Chicago Press

Sept 2016

Amazon
Other

There is no shortage of books about Looking for the Stranger. Albert Camus could hardly have anticipated the longevity or diversity of the response to his short but epic novel of existentialism. The latest installment of his legacy comes courtesy of Alice Kaplan, chair of the French Department at Yale. Sure, she has the translation chops, the theory background, and the biographical interest. Most people extending the life of Camus have those things. What many of them don't have is any literary inclination or writerly sensibility, which is what puts Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic a cut above many other forays into existential legacy territory.

There's a world of difference between writing about the life of an author versus writing about the life of a book. Kaplan is working on something akin to the director commentary track found on many film DVDs. Audiences often wonder where a certain color scheme came from, or how deliberate a dialogue choice might have been, or whether a favorite scene was particularly troublesome to get right. To watch a movie that has been overdubbed by its makers with their analysis of how things turned out the way they did is, for a certain kind of fan, the ultimate in background detailing. Camus is dead, but Kaplan has done this intense kind of behind-the-scenes legwork on his behalf.

She presents the facts of Camus life, but neither completely nor in chronological order. Instead, she neatly slices out only those parts that are highly relevant to the construction of Looking for the Stranger. A relatively cohesive portrait of Camus does end up emerging anyway, but Kaplan keeps an admirably tight grip on her mission to explain the genesis of the novel. Those of us who teach Looking for the Stranger in classrooms all over the world will no doubt inject pieces of this book into our lesson plans, as its use of biographical and historical context ultimately works in service to a doggedly close reading of the novel itself.

Kaplan provides a series of powerful explainers for the major plot points and overarching themes of the work, but also a detailed evaluation of how the diction and syntax operate to create Camus's memorable tone and haunting characterization. She examines the tiniest word choices with the same gusto and seriousness given to her consideration of the more iconic quotations. Every element of the book comes from somewhere and goes somewhere, means something valuable to the novel as a whole. Students will appreciate the specificity and clarity, but the lessons therein will also be of utmost interest to prospective writers.

A third of the way through Looking for the Stranger, the novel is finally launched into publication right in the middle of a war zone. Its circulation, publicity and critical reception are all marred by the machinations of Hitler. Kaplan's parsing of the differences of opinion between reviewers in occupied versus unoccupied France is a real marvel, and the book is full of sourcing direct from Camus's correspondence as to his own thoughts on the press reactions to his work. Camus's life impacted Looking for the Stranger right up until publication—but once a book is published, its impact on an author's life makes equally great food for thought.

The final third of the book charts how the novel made the leap into American readership and the profound philosophical distinctions Camus attempted to make about its mission and legacy so as to distance himself from the kind of existentialism promulgated by Sartre. Kaplan's excavation of Camus's professional lives as philosopher and journalist segue smoothly into her examination of Kamel Doud's award-winning, modern rewrite of the novel, The Meursault Investigation. Eventually, she arrives at a genuine first-person mystery that provides the title to her work and creates a sudden heave of momentum in the epilogue.

Ever so much has been said in speculation about the nature of the nameless Arab that Meursault shoots on the beach that day. Camus had done crime reporting for the local paper and his experience observing the stupidity of court proceedings formed much of the heart of his motivation for the content of his novel. Contemporary postcolonial scholars have analyzed ad infinitum the symbolism of this character and the fate that befalls him. His nameless itself makes an obvious argument. Yet Kaplan dares to ask: who is the Arab in real life? She does find him—a true story whose disclosure provides a striking degree of catharsis on which Kaplan can conclude her investigation of Looking for the Stranger, even as what she's revealed will no doubt launch a thousand fresh inquiries.

The whole project is pointed enough to appeal to high school kids who are struggling to get their research paper together and teachers who are struggling for high-interest, narrative secondary sourcing to bolster understanding of this beloved classic. Aspiring writers with endless ambition to shape the philosophies of the future can benefit from Camus as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. There's good "nuts and bolts" detail of his process and plans, of how he worked, of how he responded to setbacks, and so on. Philosophers will appreciate the thorough yet fresh take on a novel's place in their canon. The suspense of looking for the real case on which this fictional crime is based provides ample entertainment for readers of novels and non-fiction alike. It's so hard to say anything new about Looking for the Stranger, but Alice Kaplan has done it well.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.