Biography of a Book: Zaretsky on Kaplan on Camus

By Robert ZaretskySeptember 15, 2016

Biography of a Book: Zaretsky on Kaplan on Camus

Looking For “The Stranger” by Alice Kaplan

IN DECEMBER 1941, André Malraux was in urgent need of paper. Between dashing around the globe and dashing off best-selling books, Malraux caught his breath at the prestigious publishing house of Gallimard, where he worked as an editor. But he was in a quandary: it had been easier to find (and steal) ancient sculptures in French-occupied Indochina than it now was to find paper stock (and print books) in German-occupied Paris. What paper wasn’t shipped off to Germany was mostly reserved for French collaborationist newspapers and publishing houses.

What was one to do, especially when he wished to publish a novel by a newcomer that, he remarked, “is not insignificant”? (A phrase that, when uttered by Malraux, was not insignificant.) The answer — at least if you were Malraux — was to ask the manuscript’s young and unknown author to provide his own paper. After all, the writer’s native French Algeria, which was not (yet) occupied by the Germans and abounded in alfa bushes, the ingredient of choice for high quality paper. Writing from Oran, where he lived with his wife and her parents and scraped together a living as a tutor, the young man was delighted to do what he could: “I’ve made contact with the right people [and] I want nothing more than to be helpful.”

As it turned out, Gallimard was able to locate enough paper on its own to publish slightly more than 4,000 copies. In April 1942, bound in the publisher’s distinctive beige cover, the novel reached the bookstores. The title, announced in bold-red letters, was L’Étranger; its author, revealed in black letters, was Albert Camus.

This is one of the many striking details Alice Kaplan offers in her absorbing account of the making of The Stranger. For American readers, few French novels are better known, and few scholars are better qualified than Kaplan to reintroduce us to it. The author of several fine biographies of French and American writers, as well as the ravishing memoir French Lessons, Kaplan here sets herself the task of writing a biography of a book. “[N]o one,” she notes, “has told the story of exactly how Camus created this singular book — I’m tempted to say, how he discovered the novel within himself — and how it came to be published during the Nazi Occupation.” Kaplan tells this story with great verve and insight, all the while preserving the mystery of its creation and elusiveness of its meaning.

At times, Kaplan suggests, Camus himself was a bemused spectator to the book taking shape under his eyes. In 1937, after his first visit to Paris — his thoughts catalyzed by the strangeness of the city — he jotted in his journal: “Sometimes I need to write things that escape me in part, but which are proof of precisely what within me is stronger than I am.” These “things,” often enough, were the stuff of everyday experience, keenly observed. A conversation overheard on a tram in Algiers or a news story in the local paper, the working-class argot of his neighborhood and the warmth of the sand, rumble of the waves and blast of the sun at his beloved beaches. As Kaplan unearths these details, we realize that Camus — belying the black-and-white profiles captured by Cartier-Bresson — was a sensualist. (As was, in his peculiar way, the novel’s unforgettable and unknowable hero, Meursault.)

The trick, obviously, was to cast these sounds and sights into words. Words that got out of the way, words that didn’t call attention to themselves. The terse, nearly telegraphic language in The Stranger came, in part, from Camus’s journalism. In 1938, he joined a young and brash newspaper, Alger-Républicain, where he quickly became the bête noire of the local elite. Whether reporting from the city courthouse or far-flung villages, Camus always fought for the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Ultimately, the local administration, weary of Camus’s repeated provocations, shut down the paper in early 1940.

But in the midst of these battles, Camus remained committed to the cause of art. Gathering words, gestures, and expressions, he squirrelled them away for later use in his fiction. One striking example occurred at a murder trial Camus was covering. The judge, frustrated by the evasive defendant, pulled out a crucifix, waved it in front of his face, and demanded to know if he believed in God. This was the seed of the devastating scene in The Stranger, when the uncomprehending judge brandishes a cross at Meursault and concludes that the prisoner, unmoved by the symbol, was a monster.

Influences from as far away as the United States also reached Camus. In particular, there was the American tradition of hard-boiled detective stories. But rather than falling under the spell of Dashiell Hammett like many, Camus was mesmerized by James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Following the lead of other scholars, Kaplan pursues the ways in which the plotting and language of Cain’s novel, translated into French in 1936, shaped Camus’s writing. Frank Chambers, the story’s protagonist, narrates his own story while somehow straddling both the present and future, as does Meursault. Their voices, though clear and terse, underscore the opacity of their inner lives.

Kaplan rightly notes that the most important source of Camus’s writing — his relationship with his mother — can never be fully plumbed. When she lost her husband in World War I, Catherine Camus moved with her two sons — Albert was scarcely a year old — to her mother’s apartment in Algiers. Deaf, partially mute, and illiterate (like her brother who also lived in the apartment), Catherine worked as a house cleaner. The great silence that marked the relationship between mother and son forever shaped Camus’s literary sensibility and sense of himself. Kaplan neatly captures this legacy: “Meursault contains both Camus’s mother — walled off from the world — and the son to that mother, hyper-attentive to what he hears, as though he could compensate for her deafness by hearing for her.”

Of course, Meursault contains so much more, which is why the novel remains a best seller. In the nearly 75 years since its publication, more than 10 million copies of the French edition have been sold; only Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince has sold more copies. (Bringing up third place is Camus’s The Plague.) While some might question Kaplan’s claim that the novel “changed the course of modern literature,” few will ever question either the work’s perennial appeal or the brilliance with which Kaplan has told its story.


Rob Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning was published by Harvard in November 2013. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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