book cover imageLooking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic
by Alice Kaplan.
University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $26.

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote in The Philosophy of Existentialism that Jean-Paul “Sartre’s world is the world as seen from the terrace of a café.” The other major French existentialist writer, a very different one, was Albert Camus (1913–1960). If Sartre wrote of life as seen from a café, Camus wrote of it as seen from a beach on a hot sunny day overlooked by a house on a hill where a group of friends live. In other words, Sartre’s existentialism focused on other people; Camus’s on the natural world and its indifference to humankind.

Sartre and Camus both wrote philosophy and novels. The general consensus was—and both men grudgingly admitted it—that Sartre was the better philosopher and Camus the better novelist. Why this is so lives in the mystery of personality and talent, but it is interesting to note both men had fraught family lives: after his father’s death, Sartre was raised by his mother and her father and grew up afraid of God’s gaze and the gazes of other people; Camus’s father was killed in World War I before Camus was born to his deaf mother, who had a vocabulary of four hundred words. Alice Kaplan, a French professor at Yale, writes, “That an execution made Lucien Camus sick [he had gone to see a man executed by guillotine], that it filled him with such horror he couldn’t speak, was really the only thing Albert Camus ever learned about his father.”

Kaplan tells the story of the life of Camus’s most famous work: his relationship with his mother is the most salient biographical fact with regard to The Stranger. After all, its opening paragraph, one of the most famous in twentieth-century literature, reads, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.’”

“In May of 1935,” Kaplan writes,

soon after his marriage to Simone Hié, Camus began to jot down his insights in notebooks that would nurture every project to come. In a first entry, he reflected on those origins. Could he stay true to the poverty in which he had been born without giving into romanticism, and could he ever convey the strangeness of his relationship to his mother? “A certain number of years lived in misery are all it takes to construct a sensibility. In this particular case, the bizarre feeling a son has for his mother constitutes his entire sensibility.”

Not that The Stranger is an autobiographical novel. Camus was a much more fun-loving, animated fellow than his narrator, Meursault. At the novel’s beginning, Meursault is an almost affectless character. But as the novel progresses and he is drawn into a neighbor’s abusive relationship—which ends with his killing a nameless Arab on the beach under a blazing sun and then being tried and condemned to death—Meursault awakens emotionally. And as Camus writes of his anti-hero, whom many traditionalists denounced, “I see something positive about him and that is his refusal, unto death, to lie.”

Kaplan shows how The Stranger appeared to Camus slowly over a number of years. He had already published two books, with very small print runs, and then written a novel called A Happy Death, which comprised many of the same elements as The Stranger. Camus tried to cram his whole life into it and it was too packed with material to be effective. But while he was writing it, and also becoming a journalist in Algiers, snippets of another story kept arising disconnectedly in his notebooks. He had studied philosophy under the direction of Jean Grenier, his first mentor, and was now learning the journalistic trade under the guidance of his second mentor, Pascal Pia.

When the selfless and energetic Pia went to Paris for work, he soon sent for Camus, who then worked as a layout man for page four of a tabloid. Camus had been a court reporter in Algiers—a thorn in the side to the colonial government—and now that experience plus the solitude in Paris and his reading of James Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice—combined to help him begin and finish writing The Stranger. Pia introduced him to André Malraux, famous French man of action and letters, who read and constructively criticized certain scenes in the novel, and helped get it published by Gallimard.

The only hitch was that Germany had begun World War II and divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones. The manuscript of The Stranger was shuttled back and forth and in all directions before finally being published in April of 1942. Camus, meanwhile, because of a recurrence of tuberculosis, had returned to Algeria. When he made it back to France, he joined the Resistance by writing and editing for the underground newspaper, Combat. The Nazis imprisoned and executed several of his colleagues. He began to write The Plague.

Publication of The Stranger sent Camus into the first rank of contemporary French writers. The more religious and traditional writers disliked and often misunderstood it. François Mauriac, the preeminent writer of the Catholic left, wrote, “I have no taste for [The Stranger], but strictly for technical reasons: I find its style too derivative.” Sartre was the most perceptive critic. He skewered Camus for his philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus—“the Paris intellectual was giving lessons to the man who had written from Algeria,” Kaplan writes—but The Stranger enchanted him. Sartre saw that Camus’s use of language was unique (“each sentence of the novel was like an island”) without knowing anything about Camus’s childhood. Kaplan notes, “Sartre’s ‘The Stranger Explained’ is proof that it’s unnecessary to know anything about an author’s life in order to understand a work of literature.”

The Plague appeared after the war, and in 1957 Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had already become famous after an American lecture tour and the appearance of Cartier-Bresson’s black and white photographs of him wrapped in a trench coat and with a cigarette dangling from his lips. In 1948, a murderer tried to use The Stranger as part of his defense, claiming the book had influenced his crime. The father of the victim asked Camus to condemn the accused. Camus replied, “My work, Monsieur—and for once I am saying this with sorrow—does not consist in accusing people. It consists in understanding them.”

Then in 1960, Camus was killed in a car accident. In his pocket was a ticket for the train he had originally planned to take, and in the car was a manuscript of a novel, The First Man, not published until thirty-four years later and, Kaplan says, “as tender and emotional as The Stranger was cool and disturbed.”

In 2013, a novel told from the point of view of the brother of the nameless Arab killed by Meursault in The Stranger appeared. Kaplan:

There is such a thing as a zeitgeist, a spirit of the times. Maybe our current zeitgeist amounts to impatience with talk of the “absent” Arab, and a wish to describe his reality and tell his story. An Algerian novelist, Kamel Daoud, has given a name and a life to that Arab, to this brother and his mother, in a novel called The Meursault Investigation.

The murder of the Arab in The Stranger had been based on a real-life fight that Camus knew about and used. The names of the French brothers involved in the brawl, Raoul and Edgar Benoussan, were well known, but no one knew the name of the Arab. Kaplan looked in the archives of L’Echo d’Oran and found it: Kaddour Betouil. Ironically, both Betouil and Camus were tubercular and could not fight in the war.

Looking for The Stranger is, for Camus fans and those interested in philosophical fiction or fictional philosophy, a compelling read. Its detailed descriptions of the creative process will challenge writers of all stages. Although Kaplan sometimes goes a bit too far in her speculations, overall she writes on solid scholarly ground (there are fifty pages of notes). The book’s ending about the nameless Arab, though it could be construed to be an unnecessary piece of political correctness, may also be seen as a needed rapprochement and satisfaction of natural curiosity.  

Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.