Does a book have a biography? In the pre-online era, a bookseller might speak of a book’s shelf life, meaning the limited time that it is worth having copies that take up space in the store. Or an academic might speak of a dead-sounding process called reception: centuries, perhaps, of continuing interest that keeps a book alive.
Alice Kaplan, taking a cue from Michael Gorra’s recent biography of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, is doing something different. L’Étranger is given a life of its own that begins with a sort of insistent buzz in the brain of the young Albert Camus. From Algerian beginnings, it makes its way out onto manuscript pages that are then fantastically transported through occupied France and published, against all the odds, towards the end of the war. In Kaplan’s book, The Stranger’s gestation, before and after its first words were written, is honed by two contrasting mentors, the belletristic Jean Grenier and the journalist Pascal Pia. Later its published birth comes to pass, not least, via much more prominent backing from André Malraux, as well as the publisher Gallimard.
L’Étranger reached written and published being at almost the same moment as Camus’ equally famous non-fictional work, The Myth of Sisyphus, whose first version, because of the anti-Semitic conditions of Vichy France, lacked its chapter on Franz Kafka. As a combined presentation of a distinctive world view, these two books, for Kaplan, stand at a distance from Sartrean existentialism, more focused on the agency of individuals in a social world than on the dramatic contrast of human capacities with the vast non-human vistas of sky and land in which Camus’ protagonists find themselves.
Kaplan follows her man and her book across the Atlantic to post-war New York, and then back to Paris in the glamorous company of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. She charts the vicissitudes of L’Étranger’s publication in English, whereby, for contingent practical reasons, and despite the same translation being used in both places, it ended up having one name in the US and another in the UK: an uncanny duality of identity that has persisted ever since. Over here, when we don’t read L’Étranger, we read The Outsider; over there, the same thing is The Stranger.
Throughout the book Kaplan refers to her subject novel by the translated name that American readers know; the Outsider of her title then has the effect (for those readers) of defamiliarising an implicitly over-naturalised stranger. It is as if this novel, strange and foreign par excellence, must be got to seem unfamiliar once again: to seem different and unassimilated as it was before the moment of its making, and before its first movements across the world into different cultures and languages. That, perhaps, is one purpose – or one effect – of Kaplan’s new life.
But it also feels strange to me that the French title, L’Étranger, is not used at all – especially given its odd bifurcation in English translation. More generally, too, the book is resolute in its universal translation, with never a trace of the French. Perhaps this is primarily down to the publisher’s policy (in which case that should have been said). Whatever the reason for it, the practice causes an occasional sense of disorientation, as though the French original of a phrase was not just being ignored or replaced, but had never existed in the first place. At one point, for instance, Camus is in Paris and “a highlight of the trip in June was the opening of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies” – as if that was the name displayed above the theatre. Or there is a reference to the painting that appears “on the cover of the Livre de Poche (pocket book) edition of The Stranger”. Again, these are not the words on that book! If the series name, Livre de Poche, can remain in French here, with a parenthetical gloss, then why not the title itself?
More comically, Kaplan occasionally veers into a sort of autopilot mode in which she forgets what a reader may well not know about French culture, or else what an idiom normal in French means in English. So an underground newspaper was edited in “tiny studio apartments and maids’ rooms in Paris” – as if servants were kindly sharing their space. Or a quotation from an article about Camus by Sartre has him saying that Camus’ work may well indicate something about “the French letters of the future”.
Kaplan couldn’t possibly follow every post-publication thread of this hugely influential work and understandably, given where she’s coming from, she concentrates on the book’s US fortunes. L’Étranger is one of very few French novels that are read in literature classes in American colleges and universities. Given its Algerian provenance, it could (and can) brilliantly represent a non-metropolitan 20th-century attitude. And with its spare, uncomplicated prose (partly modelled on American detective fiction), it is also accessible to fairly new readers of French. Also, it isn’t long. (There’s a book to be written about the effects of length on the pedagogical canon in literatures foreign to the country of teaching. Or perhaps there is just a brief sentence: the shorter the better.)
Kaplan elaborates on the hard-boiled features of Camus’ prose and plot, and her own book might seem to be written in conscious emulation of the style and form of her subject. Her summary of his stance – “He liked finding simple truths and the right way to express them” – describes and exemplifies hers as well; and her writing has a luminous clarity that is as precise as Camus’ own. Her pursuit of Camus’ creative progress verges on an identification. She says that after he first arrived in Paris he was working on his novel “every day and part of every night”, and that on the night he finished it (in the first hour of the first of the month) he wrote at the end: “Paris, May 1940”. In her acknowledgements, she tells us that in the final stages of the present book, in the south of France, “I worked day and night on the manuscript”. And following the last words of the main text she writes: “Cassis, December 1, 2014”.
Her own narrative, beautifully put together, works by means of the sort of slow-building atmosphere, with carefully constructed contrasts and contiguities, that she describes as the method of L’Étranger. There is an element of the whodunnit in her culminating reveal of a named historical person whose minor story probably suggested to Camus the novel’s beach murder of an anonymous Arab man. Almost in the mode of a novelistic denouement, Kaplan takes us on her final researcher’s journey to the Algerian city of Oran, where, having found the local press report of the incident, she meets now-ancient siblings of Kaddour Touil, the young man of 1939.
But the sense of existential uncertainty and tension in L’Étranger takes precedence over its plot-driven qualities. And in the same way, Kaplan’s concluding discovery is ultimately less moving than her insight into a different feature of the novel’s post-war potency – “the fact that millions of Americans, whether they had fought in Normandy, in North Africa, or in the Pacific, were living with the memory of killing a nameless enemy”.
Rachel Bowlby is professor of comparative literature and English, University College London. She is author, most recently, of Everyday Stories (2016).
Looking for The Outsider: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic
By Alice Kaplan
University of Chicago Press, 288pp, £18.00
Published 11 October 2016
Alice Kaplan, the John M. Musser professor of French at Yale University, was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Minnesotans are known for their plain speaking and for abusing the one-word answer ‘yup’, which gives them a certain affinity with Meursault.”
As an undergraduate, Kaplan was “very restless. I left high school a year early for Vassar College, then moved to Berkeley, where I went to secretarial school (which helped pay living expenses), then enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. There, inspired by some really good teachers, I discovered politics, literary theory, and intellectual life.”
A year abroad in 1973-74 at the University of Bordeaux came, she says, at “a turning point in the French memory of the Second World War. I read Céline, and I was surprised that no one wanted to talk about collaboration – only resistance. In the next 10 years, that would all change.”
What of Kaplan’s own first encounter with The Outsider? “I first read it at 15, at one of those French educational summer camps where you weren’t allowed to speak a word of English. I read it again in high school, in a French college prep course called ‘advanced placement’, then again in college in a course on Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir – the existentialist trinity. It seemed as though we were either using the book to learn verb tenses, or hanging some pretty big concepts on the story: existentialism, the absurd.
“I don’t remember learning anything about Algeria or what difference it made that the story was set there. I don’t remember talking about racial tensions or about the death penalty. Edward Said’s work on orientalism certainly changed the focus; today it would be impossible to teach the novel without debating what it means that Meursault’s Arab victim has no name. The Outsider is a book about what lives matter,” Kaplan concludes.