During the final months of World War II, American publishers Blanche and Alfred A. Knopf began receiving reports out of Paris about a brilliant young writer named Albert Camus. Eager to import his novel The Plague into the United States, they were told that to seal the deal they would also have to publish Camus’s first novel, The Stranger — the terse story of affectless Meursault, who attends his mother’s funeral, shoots an Arab stranger on the beach, and is sentenced to death.
Dismissing The Stranger as “neither very important nor very memorable,” a reader for Knopf declared: “My best guess is that it will appeal to very few readers and produce something less than a sensation.” Knopf published Camus’s debut novel anyway, and, though The Plague was a huge critical and popular success, The Stranger proved to be nothing less than a sensation, in the United States even more than in France, where it became the bestselling mass market paperback ever. It was the vade mecum of a generation of Americans who read the book as the bible of existentialism, the definitive embodiment of postwar angst and alienation. Even a president of the United States would later attest to the novel’s impact when George W. Bush, trying to counter his image as an intellectual lightweight, announced that he was reading The Stranger. From its first, startling words — “Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (Matthew Ward translation) — The Stranger became one of the most spectacular literary debuts of the twentieth century. Then twenty-eight, Camus would be famous for the rest of his life, which ended at forty-six. (By contrast, Henry Roth, too, was twenty-eight when his first novel, Call It Sleep, was published, in 1934, but it would languish in obscurity for the next thirty years). Though it is now seventy-four years old, The Stranger continues to astonish with its innovative cleansing of French prose and its deft framing of evergreen issues such as individual identity, personal responsibility, gratuitous violence, and capital punishment. Relations between Europeans and non-European Muslims are even more estranged today than they were when the outsider Meursault poured five bullets into the body of an Arab stranger.
In Looking for The Stranger, Alice Kaplan, whose previous books include French Lessons, a memoir of her infatuation with the language, and The Collaborator, a study of the French fascist author Robert Brasillach, does not set out to rival biographies of Camus by Herbert Lottmann and Olivier Todd or biographical sketches by Elizabeth Hawes and Robert Zaretsky. Instead, she provides a biography of his first and most influential novel. She acknowledges inspiration from Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, Michael Gorra’s masterly account of the genesis of The Portrait of a Lady. Kaplan’s book is a distant cousin to the numerous Making of volumes, accounts of how Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Avatar, and other popular movies came into being. Though its prose is more graceful and its erudition less ponderous, it is the grandchild of John Livingston Lowes’s 1927 The Road to Xanadu (1927), a 972-page inquest into the literary sources and personal circumstances that gave birth to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”
Kaplan traces the origins of The Stranger to Camus’s fatherless, impoverished childhood in French Algiers. She notes the encouragement he received from mentors Jean Grenier and Pascal Pia, his experience reporting injustices within the Arab population, and the heightened awareness of mortality caused by contracting tuberculosis at seventeen. She examines the earliest versions of the novel in A Happy Death, a manuscript that Camus abandoned but that was published in 1971, eleven years after a car crash ended the author’s life. She follows the gestation of The Stranger chapter by chapter as its author moves from Algeria to France and the German occupation forces Camus, a participant in the Resistance, to carry his growing manuscript with him from Paris to the relative safety of central France.
During an early stage of composition, Camus wrote in his notebook, “This story begins on a burning hot blue beach, in the tanned bodies of two young people — bathing in the ocean playing games in the sea and sun.” Kaplan traces the story more specifically to a knife fight on an Algerian beach between Arabs and Europeans in 1939. She visits that beach and even interviews the aging brother of the Arab who stabbed a European.
André Malraux read the unknown Camus’s manuscript and wrote to Gaston Gallimard, the most prestigious of French publishers: “Watch out: this will be an important writer, in my opinion.” Malraux’s opinion would be widely shared, especially by readers in English. L’Etranger was first translated into stiff British English by Stuart Gilbert and published simultaneously by Hamish Hamilton in London and Knopf in New York. While the American edition used The Stranger as its title, the British edition went by The Outsider, because, Kaplan explains, Hamish Hamilton wanted to avoid confusion with a Polish novel titled The Stranger it had already published. It has since been translated into English four more times, but British and American editions maintain their separate titles. It would have been fascinating to follow its fortunes in Thai, Japanese, Hebrew, and other languages, but, though she mentions two film adaptations, the Cure’s song “Killing an Arab,” and The Meursault Investigation, Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud’s 2013 rewrite from the perspective of the murdered Arab’s brother, Kaplan remains focused on Algeria, France, and the United States.
In 1957, The Stranger was the only one of Camus’s three novels cited by the Swedish Academy when it awarded him the Nobel Prize. However, by then, Camus, weary of fame and irritated by the worldwide fixation on his fictional debut, yearned to bury it and move on. Nevertheless, as Kaplan notes, “As long as people keep reading novels, The Stranger will live on.” The Stranger was constructed to culminate in the death of its exemplary, feckless antihero. Thoroughly, cogently, Looking for The Stranger traces the birth of a literary classic.