Looking for ‘The Stranger’

Looking for ‘The Stranger’ book cover

Alice Kaplan, the John M. Musser Professor of French

(The University of Chicago Press)

Since its publication in France in 1942, Albert Camus’ debut novel, “The Stranger,” has been translated into 60 languages and sold more than six million copies. How did a young man in his twenties turn out what is now considered a masterpiece? With “Looking for ‘The Stranger,’” Alice Kaplan tells that story.

Born in poverty in colonial Algeria, Camus started out as a journalist covering the criminal courts. The murder trials he attended, Kaplan shows, would be a major influence on the development and themes of “The Stranger.” Making use of Camus’ diaries and letters, she re-creates his struggle with the novel in Montmartre, where he finally hit upon the first-person voice that enabled him to break through and complete “The Stranger.”

The initial critical reception to the novel was mixed, and it wasn’t until after liberation that “The Stranger” began its rise. As France and the rest of the world began to move out of the shadow of war, Kaplan shows, Camus’ book — with the help of an aggressive marketing campaign by Knopf for their 1946 publication of the first English translation — became a critical and commercial success, and Camus found himself one of the most famous writers in the world. Suddenly, his seemingly modest tale of alienation was being seen for what it really was: a powerful parable of the absurd, an existentialist masterpiece.

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