Books: Who is The Stranger?

Looking for The Stranger by Alice Kaplan

 ROME -- The biography of a writer is normal procedure but the biography of a book?  Some books live on after the death of a writer and the story of the various interpretations and even progeny can be intriguing as shown by Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger.  The Stranger in question is Albert Camus’s 1942 novel which was published also as the The Outsider.

 The biography of the book, which is only novella-length, allows Kaplan to make a many-layered reflection on Camus’s life, work and literary influences which she does in narrative form. It is the story of how Camus created the book, how he “found the novel within himself,” how it came to be published during the Nazi occupation and its later history as “a colonial allegory, an existential prayer book, an indictment of conventional morality, a study in alienation or a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka.”

 On publication The Stranger was taken as the existentialist novel (whatever that means) and then had a huge success in the USA fostered by Sartre, publicising Camus’ as a Resistance hero, and such things as Blanche Knopf having a trench coat made in which Camus was photographed to play up the Humphrey Bogart resemblance.

 After Camus’s death in a car accident at the age of 46 in 1960, Edward Said and others attacked The Stranger as a typical Westerner’s prejudiced view of Africa like, they considered, that of Conrad.  

 However, the philosophy of Camus’s protagonist Meursault was not the viewpoint of the Western blow-in but of a pied noir who knew only Africa. Camus, as a journalist, had criticized Western injustice there. He has been compared to a poor white living in America’s Deep South.

 In 2013 Kamel Daoud, an Algerian novelist, published The Meursault Investigation which tells the story from the viewpoint of a fictional brother of the unnamed Arab who was killed by Meursault.  In some respects, it is a tribute to Camus. 

 To top the book off Kaplan, who is a professor of French literature at the University of Chicago, from contemporary Algerian newspapers discovered the real family of the unnamed Arab who had been killed in The Stranger, and also his later life – that he had tuberculosis treatment in the Alps like Camus and, again like Camus, married a French woman.

 There is a normal amount of ‘there may have come a moment’- type speculation but Kaplan wins the reader’s trust by her rigorous research and analysis in a study which adds interest to Camus’s best-known work.  

 Looking for The Stranger

 Alice Kaplan

 The University of Chicago Press

 $26 in USA. 289 pages