REVIEW: An Engaging, Investigative Look at Albert Camus's "The Stranger"

Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan
University of Chicago Press,  288 pp.
By Madeleine Dobie

In the spring of 1946, Albert Camus visited New York City. Riding a wave of celebrity propelled by his status as editor of the Resistance journal Combat, the French writer spoke to packed halls of students and intellectuals, eager for a taste of the latest currents in French culture. To cement this triumph, the first English translation of his novel The Stranger was published, in dual American and British editions, during his stay in New York.

In her much-anticipated book, Looking for the Stranger, Alice Kaplan, a professor of French at Yale, embarks on a fascinating quest for the sources of Camus’s celebrated novel. She hunts for clues, not only in the author’s notebooks and correspondence, but also in the popular books and movies of the period. Using what she describes as a “close third person narrative,” Kaplan looks over Camus’s shoulder, giving a month-by-month account of his travels, friendships, love affairs, jobs and literary experiments, and asking how they contributed to the genesis of one of the 20th century’s most influential literary works.

What this meticulous research unearths goes far beyond the origins of The Stranger. There are reflections on the role of literature in wartime and the paradoxes of censorship and collaboration. Kaplan gives insight into how first novels get published, looking at the role of mentors and intellectual networks and the nitty-gritty of contracts and advances. There’s also interesting material on the compromises that enabled the Gallimard publishing house, a driving force of French modernism, to survive during the Nazi occupation. And there’s a lot on literary celebrity: the fame of the author, who won the Nobel Prize in 1956 largely on the basis of The Stranger, and that of the book which, contrary to its title, has become a familiar staple of world literature.

In the margins of these themes, we can discern another story—that of the declining prestige of French culture. When Camus visited New York in 1946, he addressed his eager audiences in French. When his visit to Columbia University was reenacted this past March, his speech had to be delivered in English translation, even though his stand-in, the multi-talented actor Viggo Mortensen, is fluent in French.

In looking for the roots of The Stranger’s themes, plot and characters in Camus’s life, Kaplan is practicing a form of criticism that treats the literary text as a product, not only of historical forces, but also of the author’s biography and psychology. To put it more baldly, she’s embracing a model of literary causality that has been the bête noire of twentieth-century theoretical movements from the new criticism to post-structuralism.
This choice is consistent with Kaplan’s previous work. In her 1993 memoir French Lessons, a lively and candid exploration of her love affair with French culture, she describes the years she spent as a graduate student at Yale at a time when deconstruction was the dominant conversation. Under the charismatic leadership of Paul de Man, graduate students learned to dissect literary language, approaching texts as sites where meaning comes apart, rather than as the effects or causes of things in the world.

In this environment, biographical criticism was treated as the ultimate form of naiveté. “Authors’ lives were beneath us,” Kaplan recalled. Her own dissertation, however, tilted in precisely that direction. An examination of French intellectuals who embraced fascism, it explored both the political role of literature and the personal factors that drew certain writers to the Right.
Years later, when revelations surfaced that as a young man in occupied Belgium, de Man had authored collaborationist and anti-Semitic articles, Kaplan was invited to weigh in. Though she carefully avoided gloating, she nonetheless effectively declared victory for the historical method, even undertaking to explain de Man’s theories in light of his biography.
Looking for the Stranger illustrates the rewards of the biographical method, but also its limits. It provides insight into life experiences that may have led Camus to write some of The Stranger’smost memorable scenes. We learn, for example, that the vivid account of Meursault’s mother’s funeral was sketched out in the spring of 1938, after Camus attended a family funeral at a retirement home. Kaplan also sheds important light on the revisions that were made in response to criticism from friends and mentors. We learn, for example, that feedback from André Malraux led Camus to sharpen both the pivotal scene on the beach and the conversation between the unbelieving Meursault and the chaplain who tries to bring about his conversion that appears near the end of the novel.

Other aspects of the text, however, offer more resistance to biographical interpretation. Kaplan explains that until a relatively late stage in the novel’s development, the protagonist was named ‘Mersault’—the name Camus had conferred on the hero of his first, unpublished novel, A Happy Death. In the only surviving manuscript of The Stranger, the name is still spelled this way. How and why did an extra vowel make its way into the text? Did the change reflect a desire to render the novel more French and less Algerian (Mersault, pronounced Merso, sounds like a Spanish name, and colonial Algeria had a large Spanish settler population). Could it have been inspired by Camus’s discovery of the expensive white Burgundy wine, Meursault? Was the change his own idea, or did someone at Gallimard make the call? Scholars have often assumed that the protagonist’s name was chosen to evoke the ideas of death (meurs) and a leap or jump (saut). But perhaps it just evokes these ideas accidentally. As Kaplan observes, the question of the ‘difference’ the ‘u’ makes calls to mind the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s playful spelling of the word ‘difference’ with an ‘a’ to evoke the uncontrollable play of the linguistic sign.

The stakes of biographical interpretation are raised in the case of the most significant piece of detective work that Kaplan undertakes: the quest for the source of the novel’s depiction of the killing of an unnamed ‘Arab’ by a French settler. As a young beat reporter for the newspaper Alger-Républicain, Camus sat through a number of trials in which pieds-noirs were prosecuted for killing ‘natives’—in most cases their co-workers on the city’s busy docks. But the plot may also have been suggested by an incident involving two members of Camus’s circle in Oran that occurred in the summer of 1939. Two brothers, Raoul and Edgar Bensoussan, got into a fight with an Arab after they had accused him of staring at Raoul’s female companion during an encounter at the beach. Like the fight depicted in The Stranger, the incident fell into two parts and involved both a knife and a gun. It has been discussed by Camus’s biographers, Herbert Lottman and Olivier Todd, who interviewed the Bensoussans and one of their friends about the events. Until now, however, no one thought to search for the Arab involved in the fight.
That Kaplan takes this extra step reflects what can be called the postcolonial turn in the reading of The Stranger. Once regarded as abstract philosophical fable, the novel is now regularly treated as a product of colonial Algeria. Over the last few years, several Algerian novelists have gone back to the novel with the objective of resurrecting the missing perspective of the ‘native’. One of these adaptations, Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, has become an international bestseller. Perhaps it was Kaplan’s meeting with Daoud that moved her to go back to the archive to search for that other ‘stranger,’ the novel’s unnamed Arab victim.
I won’t give away too much of what she discovered in a July 1939 edition of a local newspaper, L'Écho d’Oran—though it makes for a riveting ending to her literary detective work. I will, however, say that the man whose life Kaplan sketches is markedly different from the downtrodden figure glimpsed in The Stranger and imagined more fully by Daoud in The Meursault Investigation. Kaplan describes him as prosperous and well traveled, fluent in French and, later in life, married to a French woman. Is this a feel-good ending? Does it go some way to dissipating the colonial guilt in which Camus’s writing about Algeria has, for some time, been bathed?
Before embarking on her study of The Stranger, Kaplan edited Algerian Chronicles, an overdue English translation of the journalism that Camus devoted to Algeria over a twenty-year period. These writings reveal a man at once critical of the colonial system and disappointingly unable to accept Algeria’s political autonomy. Are the same positions reflected in Camus’s Algerian novels? Such was certainly the view of Edward Said, who wrote--pulling no punches--that “The Arabs of The Plague and The Stranger are nameless beings used as background for the portentous metaphysics explored by Camus.”
A more generous reader of Camus, Kaplan dwells on the complexities of her subject’s political leanings rather than rushing to pass judgment. In response to Said, she observes that “Neither the existential nor the political approach [to The Stranger] have much connection to the creative approach that drove Camus in 1940.” This is no doubt true, but can a work’s political meaning be confined to the author’s intentions?

This question has repercussions for the book as a whole. Looking for the Stranger engagingly connects the dots between the novel and Camus’s life. But this method, like most biographical criticism, focuses our attention on how what’s in the book got there. It's not as well adapted to exploring the kind of historical ellipses to which Said alludes.

Madeleine Dobie is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.