Looking for ‘The Stranger’: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic

Camus's classic has finally earned its very own biography.

The American existentialist philosopher Robert C. Solomon once said of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: “It marked, when I first read it in high school, one of those ‘existential’ turning points in my life.”

How many readers of Camus’s novel would say the same? I, for one, when I first read Stuart Gilbert’s English translation in high school. Gilbert’s translation has numerous flaws, and has since been supplanted by Matthew Ward’s, but as Alice Kaplan argues in her outstanding new book Looking for ‘The Stranger’: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, “by some miracle of literary transmission, the many problems with the Gilbert translation did not stand in the way of English-speaking readers grasping what was essential about The Stranger, and the force of the original came through, allowing the novel to take hold.”

Its hold continues to this day, more than 70 years after its original publication. “Reading The Stranger is a rite of passage. People all over the world connect the book to their coming of age, to grappling with the toughest questions of existence.” And Looking for ‘The Stranger’ is essentially Kaplan’s biography of Camus’s book, a chronicle of its insemination, gestation and birth, from its origins in “his failed experiment in fiction, A Happy Death“, through the direct experiences and preoccupations of its author as documented in his notebooks and personal letters, and on through its reception and continued influence on what Pascale Casanova calls “the world republic of letters”.

Kaplan’s research is exhaustive (she includes an extensive bibliography), her tone is conversational, and her analyses convincing and often surprising. As many readers know, before contracting tuberculosis Camus was on track to becoming a professor like his mentor Jean Grenier, but having the disease disqualified him from the teaching corps. To make ends meet, he was forced into journalism, and he found the work disappointing. Yet, Camus’s foray into journalism would have an enormous impact upon his thinking and writing, especially with regards to his work on The Stranger.

Camus would cover several murder trials imbued with moral dilemmas and ethnic tensions in colonial Algeria, parts of which would find their way into his novel. The murder trial of Raphael Cozzolino, for example, involved a European who shot and killed an Arab dockworker. At another murder trial, Camus bore witness to a French magistrate, Louis Vaillant, who waved a crucifix at an Arab defendant in court.

Kaplan is a superb storyteller. One of the best chapters of the book, “Gallimard’s War”, reads like a philosophical thriller with its Nazi censors, misunderstandings, and moral conundrums. Yet, through all this she never loses focus on the novel to which her book is dedicated.

Equally engaging are her chapters documenting the initial reception of the book in both the French- and English-speaking world. The Stranger has always been a deceptively-easy novel. On the one hand, the prose is readily comprehensible to French foreign language students and earned it access to high school classrooms — though not always without alterations, Kaplan notes. On the other hand, the book has vexed major critics and close friends of the author’s alike. Solomon, cited above, found the book very problematic and challenged Camus’s assertion that Meursault was a martyr for truth; and Kaplan tells us that “Jean Grenier’s letter in response to a draft of The Stranger has gone down in literary history as one of the great misunderstandings of a literary achievement.”

Sartre’s review is interesting both for its penetrating insights and its egregious omissions; Maurice Blanchot, and especially Andre Malraux, are shown to be discerning readers. Yet, it’s Kaplan’s own critical commentary that helps to flush out the strengths and weaknesses of all of these reviews.

Elsewhere, Kaplan notes that both Sartre and Camus were greatly influenced by the American detective genre, perhaps more than most Americans realize. “Sartre rewrote Nausea after reading Dashiell Hammett. For Camus the model for The Stranger was James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

“To position Meursault in time, Camus used one of the features that makes James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice so unsettling. The reader of Cain’s novel will eventually discover that [the narrator] is telling his story from his prison cell on death row… That became Camus’s plan for Meursault.”

In Looking for ‘The Stranger’ Kaplan creates suspense with another mystery, one that she revisits periodically throughout her book. It revolves around Meursault, “a man whose name contains a plunge (saut) into death (meur).”

“In the only surviving manuscript of the novel… Camus still spells his narrator’s last name ‘Mersault’… Where did the ‘u’ come from?” she asks.

“Some Camus experts claim he thought of the name change at a dinner party where he was served the delicious and expensive white Burgundy wine, Meursault.” Later on she informs us that the official Gallimard reader’s report also spells the name “Mersault”.

“Was it only a slip of the pen — did the manuscript… actually say Meursault?”

Curiously, the promotional letter from the University of Chicago Press that accompanied my advanced reading copy also spelled Meursault without the “u”.

Though readers continue to conflate the novel’s protagonist with its author, Kaplan insightfully demonstrates that The Stranger is not Camus’s autobiography. If anything, what Camus was doing was reversing his life story: 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’s hatred of colonial violence expressed itself through Meursault’s murder of an Arab.

The Stranger is undoubtedly a part of Camus, but it is “a book he found in himself, rather than a book he wrote about himself.”

To explore how exactly that happened, to discover how the book was received both in France and abroad, and to appreciate the continued influence it has had upon literature (Kaplan interviews Kamel Daoud and analyzes his recently-translated The Meursault Investigation) and popular culture (to wit, The Cure’s post-punk hit “Killing an Arab”), readers will need to read Looking for ‘The Stranger’, which is surely destined to become the quintessential companion to Camus’s most enduring novel.

RATING 9 / 10