‘Looking over Albert Camus’ shoulder’: Kaplan offers a biography of ‘The Stranger’
“The Stranger,” Albert Camus’ classic novel, which is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary in print, almost wasn’t published. Alice Kaplan, the John M. Musser Professor of French, recounts this near miss in her most recent book “Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic,” which is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
“The Stranger” is for many Americans the first book that they read in French in high school, notes Kaplan, adding that she first read the book as a teenager at French summer camp, and has read it many times in the years since — and that, in part, is what prompted her to write her latest book. Kaplan says that it wasn’t until the 1980s when she became a professor that she realized that she had never been taught anything about the Algerian context of “The Stranger,” and that she was scarcely aware that the book was set in Algeria. “This seemed scandalous to me and I wanted to repair that,” she says.
“Looking for The Stranger” is not traditional literary criticism or an interpretation, says Kaplan; instead, it is a biography of Camus’s book that recounts the “life of the book.” She explains that her intent was not to tell the reader what ‘The Stranger’ means, but to allow the reader “to be with Camus as he is writing, to feel what he is feeling, and to see what he is seeing.” Kaplan was able to achieve that in part by traveling to Algeria — where Camus became a writer — to better understand the places and experiences that inspired “The Stranger.” Kaplan researched the primary sources that Camus used to write the book, and studied diaries and correspondence in which he discussed the process of writing the book. She also worked with the book’s only surviving manuscript.
Kaplan says that she felt as if she was “looking over Camus’ shoulder as he was getting his first flashes of inspiration.” She attributes much of that inspiration to his courtroom reporting for the newspaper Alger- Républicain, and discovered that some of his courtroom experiences found their way directly into the “The Stranger.”
“During one of the trials Camus was covering, an examining magistrate waves a crucifix at the accused. Camus used that exact detail in the ‘The Stranger,’” she says.
“Looking for the Stranger” is also a history of France and Algeria in the 1930s and 1940s, says Kaplan. It recounts the nearly impossible climate for publishing, and the ethical dilemma of publishing under a Nazi occupation. If that weren’t enough of an obstacle, Camus was suffering a severe relapse of tuberculosis, and had to leave final proofreading of the book as well as his author’s biography to his publisher.
While Kaplan has read the book countless times over the years, she still found some surprising details when she researched “The Stranger’s” history. “People have always blamed Camus for not giving a name to the Arab in ‘The Stranger,’” says Kaplan, and many critics have argued that not giving this character a name was a racist gesture. Reading a book that inspired Camus, James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Kaplan noticed that the murder victim in that novel is called simply “The Greek.” She believes that Camus deliberately chose to call Meursault’s victim “The Arab” because he was trying to represent racism in Algiers — not because he was a racist. “When I saw ‘The Greek’ used over and over again in ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ l sensed I had found a key to Camus’ creative process,” she says.
Kaplan is currently teaching a freshman seminar on Camus, and says that her students read his previous novel “A Happy Death,” and did “amazing work” seeing all of the ways in which Camus took details or attitudes from “A Happy Death” and used them in “The Stranger.”
“The students make everything fresh for me,” she says.
“L’Étranger” was translated into English and published in the United States in 1946. The translations throughout Europe were a first step on the novel’s path to becoming a classic read by millions of people, says Kaplan. Camus, who was marketed by his American publisher “as the important writer of the postwar generation,” had been the editor of an underground newspaper in Occupied France, and emerged from the war as a resistance hero. “He was a glamorous figure in New York right after the war, when French books were finally available again,” says Kaplan.
“The Stranger” has continued to be an influential book because the book “has really grown and changed with each generation,” says Kaplan, adding that it was the first book that helped people understand the concept of existentialism, and it went on to become an important book for understanding post-colonialism and racial violence. “The Stranger” may be turning 75, she says, but “it could have been based on the most current events. It’s a book that asks us today to think about how, in our society, some lives are treated as if they matter more than others.”
Alice Kaplan (pictured with Gérard Araud, French Ambassador to the U.S.) was recently named Chevalier in the French National Order of the Legion of Honor in recognition of her “exceptional contribution to the promotion of French literature and the enhancement of transatlantic intellectual exchanges.”