When Albert Camus’s L’Etranger was published in France in early 1942, no one, least of all its 29-year-old author, could have guessed the impact the book would have, then and in the future. The Outsider / The Stranger (Stuart Gilbert’s English translation, published in 1946, had different titles in different countries) wasn’t exactly a best-seller in its early years. It came to have a life of its own, but oftentimes, there was no separating the book from its writer.
It wasn’t just how the book came to be written, or the fact that Camus wrote it as the Second World War broke out, but because of the aura that surrounded Camus soon after the book’s publication. It coincided with the recognition of Camus as a key figure of the French resistance.
The Stranger continues to have a vivid afterlife. It became synonymous with existentialism, to Camus’s own chagrin, and it won its author fame and notoriety in equal measure. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos of Camus – the most enduring one with Camus in a trench coat, looking sideways at the camera, a cigarette dangling from his lips – were all taken between 1944 and 1945, after the War, and after the book was published (when Camus’s favoured Gauloises were once again available).
The Stranger, that sparest of novels, retains its ambiguity 75 years after its publication. It’s a novel born of its times and yet enduring. It has been analysed at various levels: for its characters and the motives – baffling and intriguing – that drive them. What drives Meursault in his life, and what makes him commit the act that condemns him; the disbelief on the part of the magistrate and the chaplain, their (absurd) entreaties in the name of religion; its unidimensional female characters, not just Marie, but even Meursault’s dead mother; and then, the silent Arab in the novel, whose passivity has, however, in recent times, evoked a reaction, especially a novelistic one.
In her book on The Stranger, Alice Kaplan doesn’t attempt to answer every question. It can, almost like the very book it seeks to unravel, be read in many ways. As a biography of a book, and of its author during the time of its writing. It’s also a primer on what makes a great classic, or what makes a writer, write a great classic. It is also about how a book comes into being. As Kaplan demonstrates, a classic is never created in isolation; it is propped up by its admirers, its supporters and an entire team of adherents. Camus, in this sense was fortunate. It was fortune, hard-earned, and richly deserved.
In mid-1940, when Camus finally completed the manuscript in a lonely hotel room in Paris, it was the book he just had to write. The Stranger “was a book he found in himself, rather than writing a book about himself.” It was fiction that was in him, Kaplan writes, waiting to be discovered.
The Stranger was not a straightforward book by any measure. It came out of Camus’s heartbreak and disappointments, within himself, and his own creative life. Both his lungs had already been affected by tuberculosis, his first marriage to Simone Hie had failed, and he faced a life without the prospect of a steady job. Camus had been published twice already, but he was an Algerian writer and this made him somewhat “provincial”. Paris was the scene of literary activity and recognition, but Paris seemed farther away than ever at that time.
For all this, in early 1939, Camus set out to write an oeuvre; to fashion a literary legacy for himself. The Stranger would form the first of his writings: part of a trilogy that included the play Caligula and the long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. These emerged out of Camus’s concerns with the philosophy of the absurd – that freedom is meaningless, and doesn’t signify anything for the universe remains essentially indifferent, his interest in writing “negative fiction”, and his own life, growing up in a working-class neighbourhood, Belcourt, in Algiers. Algeria was a French colony till its independence in 1962.
Kaplan maps out the influences on Camus – literal and personal. His childhood was largely “silent”, and spent with his mother and uncle, both deaf, and so language was reduced to a minimum, largely referencing objects, never abstractions. But it was precisely this period of disappointments that gave him reason for hope. A lifelong idol, Andre Malraux, writer, activist, spoke against the growing threats of Fascism while on a visit to Algeria. Camus’s mentors, besides his teacher of philosophy, Jean Grenier, also included Pascal Pia, a radical journalist and editor. Camus went to work for Pia’s leftist newspaper, Alger-Republicain; and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between them.
Camus reported and wrote of the criminal trials he witnessed in court, a couple of which Kaplan details, such as the trial following the murder of a conservative Islamic theologian. The trials and the courtroom scenes gave Camus several insights into ethnic tensions that prevailed in Algeria, and the absurdity of the justice system; French justice only appeared to heighten the injustices of colonialism.
Like his great contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus also read American noir. As Kaplan writes, Sartre read Dashiell Hammett before he wrote Nausea, a philosophical work that reads like a detective novel. Camus preferred James M Cain’s bestselling The Postman Always Rings Twice, translated into French in 1936. Meursault’s narration echoes, Kaplan suggests, Frank’s first-person confession in Cain’s novel. Cain evoked, as Camus himself acknowledged, “sensationalism through understatement.”
The Stranger was completed as Camus worked during the day in a dingy hotel room in Paris, while in the evenings, he worked for a newspaper set up by Pia. It was a time of loneliness and camaraderie. As the war raged on, Camus moved from Paris to Oran in Algeria, a city on the coast, to the west of Algiers. (The outbreak of typhus in Oran would influence Camus’s second novel, The Plague, published in 1947.)
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