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

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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.

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