Novel ap­proach to a writer’s life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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).

Al­bert Ca­mus

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