Novel approach to a writer’s life
In July 1944, two years after the publication of L’Etranger, Albert Camus spent an afternoon forging a copy of the manuscript. His book and materials relating to it had become valuable to bibliophiles, and Camus was taking advantage of the situation. Josette Clotis, Andre Malraux’s partner, read out loud from the published version of the book, while Camus wrote it out in his own hand. He included fabricated corrections, crossing out words and sentences, as well as adding marginalia doodles: a sun, a guillotine. He then threw the pages on to the floor and walked over them, to give them the appearance of age.
In 1948, a student from a private school outside Paris murdered a fellow student. In his defence, he cited several modernist novels as influencing his actions, including L’Etranger, which has at its centre a murder committed without hatred.
The victim’s father wrote to Camus, wanting him to denounce this defence strategy. But Camus refused. He wrote to the father — in a private letter that was then leaked to the press — saying that although he did not want to assist in the accused’s attempt to relinquish responsibility, he could not diminish his own responsibility as a writer in influencing his readers, for good or bad. Furthermore, Camus did not want to directly assist the prosecutor in what was a death penalty case.
These two vignettes, drawn from Alice Kaplan’s Looking for the Stranger, go a long way to bringing into relief the character of Camus: he may not have taken the literary and publishing world too seriously, but he took his responsibility as a writer, and the value of literature, very seriously indeed.
Kaplan presents this book as a biography of a book — L’Etranger — rather than its author. Although the two cannot entirely be separated, and Kaplan does not attempt to do so, this change of emphasis does produce a fresh perspective from which to see both the book and the writer in new and startling ways.
Indirectly, I think Kaplan in fact creates a more accurate, a more human portrait of Camus than many of the more dense biographi- cal and academic studies available, precisely because of this shift in perspective. The reason being, as demonstrated by the vignettes above, that this is the ironic perspective Camus had of himself and his relationship to his own work.
The failure of his first attempt at writing a novel, La mort heureuse ( A Happy Death), was that it was too earnest, too autobiographical, too much an expression of himself, and it did not involve questioning himself. It was this process of distancing himself from his work that led Camus to abandon this early manuscript and to create instead what would become L’Etranger, best known in English as The Outsider.
It is a process Kaplan reconstructs with painstaking detail, drawing on notebook entries, scraps of paper and letters, as well as biographical research. She considers the court cases Camus reported on as a journalist — exchanges from some trials resurfaced as dialogue in the novel — the films he watched, such as Le Schpountz, which also appeared in the novel, and the books he read, such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which appeared in French translation in 1936.
That American novel influenced the telegraphic style of prose in Camus’s manuscript, but also provided the overarching structure of the novel: a first-person narration of a man, speaking from his death row cell, who confesses to the crime that brought him there.
By focusing on the creative process behind a single work of fiction, Kaplan is able to go into more detail than many of the other full-length studies of Camus’s life and work. And this is the value of her book. She is able to drill down to see the progress of the manuscript, month by month and at times day by day, knowing what chapters he wrote, and when and where he wrote them, in a house in Algiers or in a Paris hotel room.
Camus finished writing the first draft of his novel in Paris, in May 1940. Kaplan then traces the progress of L’Etranger from manuscript to publication, its translation into English, and its establishment as a cultural icon. Again, it is Kaplan’s attention to the seemingly unimportant details that adds to the overall effect of her book: for example at one stage, amid wartime shortages, Camus in Algeria was asked by French publisher Gallimard if he could source the paper stock for his own book.
Or else, she focuses on the mundane, and often chance, explanations for aspects of the book on which scholars have since placed undue significance: such as when the character Mersault became Meursault (adding the u that made the name sound less Spanish/Algerian and more French), or when a transatlantic miscommunication led to the English translation being The Stranger in the US and The Outsider in Britain (a hiccup with consequences that continue to this day: Kaplan’s book has had to share the name change in the title of her book in its British and American versions).