The Stranger is a rite of passage for readers around the world. Since its publication in France in 1942, Camus’s novel has been translated into sixty languages and sold more than six million copies. It’s the rare novel that’s as likely to be found in a teen’s backpack as in a graduate philosophy seminar. If the twentieth century produced a novel that could be called ubiquitous, The Stranger is it.
How did a young man in his twenties who had never written a novel turn out a masterpiece that still grips readers more than seventy years later? With Looking for The Stranger, Alice Kaplan tells that story. In the process, she reveals Camus’ achievement to have been even more impressive—and more unlikely—than even his most devoted readers knew.
“To this new project, Kaplan brings equally honed skills as a historian, literary critic, and biographer . . . Reading The Stranger is a bracing but somewhat bloodless experience. Ms. Kaplan has hung warm flesh on its steely bones.” —The New York Times
“For American readers, few French novels are better known, and few scholars are better qualified than Kaplan to reintroduce us to it . . . Kaplan tells this story with great verve and insight, all the while preserving the mystery of its creation and elusiveness of its meaning.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“The fascinating story behind Albert Camus’ coldblooded masterpiece . . . A compelling companion to a novel that has stayed strange.” —Kirkus Reviews
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Page by page, the flames transformed paper and ink to ash, and more ash. Into the fire went letters from girlfriends, from teachers, from school chums. It was an unexpected act of destruction for the young man who vowed in his notebook to produce an uvre, a body of literature, within two years. He underlined the word uvre with a thick stroke of his pen, three times.
He burned the letters in October 1939, a month after France declared war on Germany. Troops were mobilized, waiting on the Maginot Line. Albert Camus, unfit for military service, journalist at a newspaper about to be shut down by the government, was staying with his mother in the apartment where he'd lived for the first seventeen years of his life. A three-room flat on the rue de Lyon in Belcourt, the working-class neighborhood of Algiers. The place was sparsely furnished, with shared toilets on the landing — impoverished, even by the standards of working-class Europeans in Algeria. His brother, three years older, had married and moved downtown; his grandmother was dead. Only his mother remained, and his Uncle Étienne, both of them deaf and nearly mute. The flat was a shabby, silent place.
Albert Camus was twenty-five years old that October 1939. His hooded eyes were grayish green and his brown hair was combed straight back, emphasizing his high forehead. If you had to guess a nationality, you might see something Spanish in his prideful gaze — his mother's people were from Minorca, one of the Balearic Islands. After work he favored fashionably baggy high-waisted trousers and plaid shirts, but in his job as a reporter he was never without a coat and a tie, and a trenchcoat or tweed overcoat. His face was handsome, but not so handsome as to be uninteresting. Something horsey and asymmetrical about his face, despite his fine features, gave him an expressive force that moved deftly from comic to tragic, from gangster to prince. His scrawny chest, his long legs and arms, his broad hands and physical grace made him seem taller than five feet eight. He was a passionate, deliberate young man whose energy overflowed the small rooms and low ceilings of his childhood.
He dragged out the two trunks of correspondence he had left in the apartment for safekeeping, set himself up in front of the tiny stove in the empty parlor, and fed the pages to the flames in crumpled heaps. "I have five years less weighing on my heart," he wrote to Francine Faure, his fiancée, after the bonfire did its work. It must have taken him a long time. Five years in the life of an ambitious young writer means a lot of paper.
That apartment was the place where he felt most deeply, where he'd honed his sense of observation, his ear for language, and his sense of what he began to call, from the wisdom of his twenty-five years, the absurd. He had studied the absurd in philosophy class, but his own sense of the concept came from his own body, from an illness contracted at age seventeen that threatened his sensual delight in the world around him. All men were condemned to death, some sooner than others. It was absurd not only that life was finite but also that humans were meaningless before the physical world. He was determined that his first important artistic creations be born out of these simple truths.
* * *
In the jargon of the colonies, you would say that Albert Camus came of age in a world of petits blancs (little white men) or petits colons (small-time settlers): "poor white trash" would be too harsh a translation for an expression that meant a working-class European who was neither a colonizer — a big landowner — nor a disenfranchised native. He was part of a settler class, at the bottom of the European hierarchy but with privileges of race and citizenship virtually unknown to the native population. He grew up in Algiers, a city of mixed ethnicities — Spanish, French, Arab, Berber, Jewish — in a country conquered in 1830, which France had not only colonized but annexed, turning the territory into three départements (states).
Though technically they were living in France, most Algerians, whatever their ethnicity, had never seen the mainland. That was the case for Camus's father, Lucien, who saw France for the first time as a soldier in the Battle of the Marne, where he promptly lost his life. Albert was less than a year old. His father's death made him a "pupil of the nation" — a scholarship student. His mother worked as a cleaning lady; his uncle made barrels. School gave him his chance. A primary school teacher named Louis Germain recognized his talent and talked his grandmother, the real head of household, into letting him go on to secondary school rather than start an apprenticeship like his brother Lucien. For a boy from this family, from this neighborhood, going on to lycée was an almost unheard-of step, transporting him into a totally unfamiliar environment.
Albert Camus was a child who could barely sit still, whose exuberance in class, on the soccer field, at the beach, was exceptional. He was a force of nature, physically unstoppable until, in 1930, at age seventeen, he began to cough up blood. He'd contracted tuberculosis. He was sent to live with his uncle Gustave Acault, a butcher who had a ground-floor flat on the rue Languedoc with a large library and a courtyard garden. His uncle's comfortable home became a refuge for Camus, the place where he began to read seriously and where he could eat regular portions of red meat, considered essential for a cure. He was told he might die, and if he were lucky, he faced a lifetime of repeated treatments: months of bed rest, x-rays, and injections to collapse the affected lung so that it might heal.
The diagnosis coincided with his most formative intellectual relationship. In 1930, Camus met Jean Grenier, his lycée and then his university teacher, who guided his early reading and encouraged him to take the double path of philosophy and literature. Writing became essential, a conquest of the silence he grew up with and a compensation for the breath that began to elude him. Still only seventeen, he wrote literature and music criticism in a student magazine, Sud, with an acumen beyond his years, and he started to draft the barely disguised scenes from his childhood that he would transform, over the next seven years, into a first collection of personal essays, The Wrong Side and the Right Side.
He shared his work in progress before it was published with a few loved ones but especially with Jean Grenier, who gave him a steady supply of novels to inspire him. When Camus first discovered Proust's account of his wealthy childhood and Gide's self-conscious intellectual games, he feared that only the rich could become writers. Then Grenier gave him La Douleur, published in 1930 by a little-known twenty-three-year-old writer named André de Richaud. La Douleur — "grief" in English — is the story of a World War I widow, her loving son, and the German prisoner of war who becomes a deadly wedge between them. The plot, driven by the widow's guilty, sensual longings, ends in betrayal and tragedy. Camus was captivated by the desperate love of mother and son and by an aura of misery that permeates the book — not the economic misery he knew so well, but the moral misery of desperate people. He considered La Douleur his license to write, to let the circumstances and feelings of his childhood guide his creative work. Later he went back to Gide and Proust with enthusiasm, but he remained an anxious reader of fiction. When he discovered a writer he loved, he was often struck with a wave of envy, wondering if there was anything more for him to say.
As he dreamed about what it would take to become a real writer, he approached philosophy as a discipline. In the 1930s, French lycées and universities transmitted a brand of Continental philosophy that was a close cousin to literature. In courses such as Jean Grenier's survey on esthetic creation, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Bergson, and Kierkegaard nourished Camus's thinking about a godless world, and a world of forms. Philosophy also seemed the best path to a stable teaching career. Grenier, who wrote stylish, atmospheric essays for the best literary magazines in Paris, clearly had time to teach and to write, and so would he.
Camus finished his advanced work in philosophy — the equivalent of a master's degree — at the University of Algiers in 1935, with a thesis on two African philosophers, the Greek Plotinus, and the early Christian Saint Augustine. He sympathized with the tubercular Plotinus, and even more with the sensual but disciplined Saint Augustine. Though he refers in the thesis to Augustine's Confessions, and to the use Augustine makes of his personal experiences, nowhere in this academic study does Camus mention the detail that links the fourth-century Augustine, in word and deed, to Camus's twentieth-century Meursault, but it must have lodged in a corner of his imagination: miserable over the death of his mother, Augustine refuses to weep at her funeral, and looks for a cure to his sorrow by going to the baths.
Camus's education in philosophy lacked the depth and rigor it might have had in the Paris academy. But the fact that Camus never quite conformed to formal philosophical modes of reasoning was also a feature of his character. Nietzsche was the writer who counted most for Camus in those years, in style and substance; he admired Nietzsche, he wrote, as a poet-philosopher, "susceptible of engaging in contradictions." He might as well have described his own love of paradox, his attraction to images and intuitions above and beyond structured argument. Even when he still hoped that a career as a philosophy professor could buy him freedom for his creative work, he made a note to himself: "If you want to be a philosopher, write novels."
* * *
The year he finished his philosophy thesis, 1935, Camus's literary ambitions were sparked by a visit. André Malraux, the author of Man's Fate and one of Camus's literary and political heroes, flew to Algiers on a hydroplane to address a gathering of antifascist intellectuals. Malraux spoke in a movie theater in Camus's neighborhood to an enthusiastic crowd who greeted the writer with raised fists, signifying their shared commitment to the Popular Front against fascism. When Camus was a child, he used to go to movie houses in Belcourt with his domineering grandmother, who insisted that he shout the subtitles of silent films into her ear, since she couldn't read and couldn't hear very well, what with the piano and the moviegoers' loud reactions. Those were humiliating memories. By 1935, he was just beginning his own career as a writer and a political activist, and his relationship to the places he associated with his childhood was changing. Camus may have had the chance to shake Malraux's hand that day in Belcourt, but that was all. Only in his wildest dreams could he imagine he would ever see Malraux again.
* * *
By October 1939, when he burned his letters, a hopeful period of political and cultural activism was behind him: he had believed in the Popular Front against fascism, but it failed to stave off Hitler's march through Europe. There was now little left for him in Algiers. With the start of the war in September, between the pressures of censorship and a dwindling paper stock, Alger-Républicain, the newspaper that had galvanized his energies since 1938, was reduced to a two-page bulletin called Le Soir Républicain, distributed locally and regularly censored for its antiwar positions. Camus, the solitary editor-in-chief, was considered a security risk by the government. He'd applied to compete for a state-sponsored teaching position, the logical next step after his philosophy degree, but he was declared ineligible because of his tuberculosis — one lung infected when he was seventeen and the other lung when he was twenty-one. The government didn't want to invest in a teacher who might not be around for very long, and official policy meant that no one with a contagious disease could join the teaching corps. The academic degree that should have led him to a stable career was worth nothing. The disease also disqualified him from military service while his comrades at the newspaper, and his brother, had all gone off to fight. He canceled a summer trip to Greece because of the war; turned down a temporary teaching position, and used the time instead to finish a first draft of a play about the Roman emperor Caligula, whose story he knew from his studies. He had plenty of time on his hands to ruminate, and to imagine the future.
Over the course of five years, Albert Camus lived in at least six different houses and apartments in Algiers. He even married, but it didn't last. In 1939 he was separated, though still not divorced. After his wife came a new girlfriend, followed by others. Now he had reached a threshold in more ways than one. He had met a brilliant math student and pianist named Francine Faure. She lived in Oran, a smaller city to the west of Algiers, and her intelligent seriousness, the high standards she set for him, made him see himself in a new light. Telling her that he had burned his letters from other women was a way to reassure her, and perhaps himself, that his affairs were a thing of the past.
There were personal reasons to burn letters, and plenty of political reasons as well. In August 1939, following the Hitler-Stalin pact, the French government declared Communist Party membership illegal, and although Camus was expelled from the party in 1937, he feared he was under surveillance. He had begun his work for the Communists going door to door in Belcourt to recruit Muslim members. But Moscow was concerned about the coming war, and activism in favor of indigenous Algerians was not a priority. Camus was purged — a report to the Comintern said he was a "Trotskyist agitator." He found a better outlet for his beliefs as a journalist, and was well known for the positions he defended in Alger-Républicain, for his attacks on the colonial government's heartless policies, and for his pacifism. Those positions were reason enough to add political correspondence with his university teachers and his friends to the flames.
The past five years had been mixed, including gratifying work in the theater, where he founded two companies with friends, but also a miserable trip to central Europe, which ended his first marriage. He wrote a story called "Death in the Soul," about lonely days spent in a run-down Prague hotel and concluded, with the sense of paradox already so like him: "Any country where I am not bored is a country that has nothing to teach me." Camus found a home with friends from the theater after his separation, and he spent an idyllic period living with them in a magical house in the heights of Algiers. There on the Chemin du Sidi Brahim, in the place he called "the House Above the World," he first tried his hand at writing a novel. A Happy Death followed the story of a tubercular young man who commits murder for freedom. Camus wrote, rewrote, and finally abandoned the manuscript. His newspaper work covering trials turned out to be better preparation for The Stranger than this first jagged attempt at fiction.
A journalist, a political activist, a writer, a man of the theater, a lover, briefly a husband, a son to his mother, a child of his poor neighborhood, Belcourt — by the time he was twenty-five Camus had played many roles. That was the problem. "I haven't kept the same face for any two people," he wrote Francine, in the tone of melancholy self-deprecation that would be a constant of his character. "I have never made anyone happy who loved me...." And he added: "To really do it right, I'd need to burn your letters as well, since what good are these pieces of evidence? I was about to do it, and I don't know what prevented me." Even as he played on her sentiments, he was trying to stop playing, to strip himself down to the essential elements, to get rid of the pose, the décor. He was ready, he wrote, to destroy even the few precious letters he'd received from well-known writers like Henry de Montherlant and Max Jacob, but he had to think about it. Those belonged to literature, not life, and he wasn't giving up on literature.
In two months, after the demise of Le Soir Républicain, he would be without work and without prospects. But he was already the author of two books — The Wrong Side and the Right Side, his essays reflecting on childhood and failed love in a discreet, melancholy first person, and Nuptials, a joyous ode to the Algerian landscape, including his beloved ruins at Tipasa. Both books were published locally at a small press started by Edmond Charlot, another student in Jean Grenier's circle. Print runs for the books were tiny — 350 copies each — and the reviews nearly nonexistent. But Montherlant, the great Henry de Montherlant, wrote from Paris in a dashing stylized hand to praise Nuptials: "I feel closer to what you've written than to anything else I've read about Algeria." And if that wasn't praise enough, he added, "you write the way I want to write." Montherlant hoped a future volume would be published in Paris, so that Camus would have a larger audience. In the end, Camus saved the letter.
Excerpted from "Looking for The stranger"
Copyright © 2016 Alice Kaplan.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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