Biographies of writers, artists, musicians and the like fill our libraries to the brim. But in recent years, a new kind of bio has emerged: the “life” of a particular work of art. One very fine example of this sub-genre is Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger.
The book gives us a brief (but continuous) bio of Camus, his birth and early years in Algeria, providing the North African as well as Parisian contexts for his literary output before, during and after WWII. She takes us through the process of his writing, beginning with several early missteps and rejections along the way, and then follows him almost chapter by chapter through the completion of his short but seminal novel of the Absurd. Along the way, we’re introduced to key people in the life of the novel, its gestation and the road to its publication in 1942. Perhaps the most important of these are Jean Grenier, Pascal Pia and André Malraux. In an epilogue she all but solves a minor mystery from The Stranger, via legwork likely provoked by a more recent novel, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Daoud’s novel tells the story from a radically different angle and voice: Harun, the brother of Meursault’s victim. In The Stranger, an unnamed Arab is killed by the anti-hero Meursault, and Camus had based parts of this fictional encounter on real-life events. Friends of Camus, Edgar and Raoul Bensoussan, unwittingly provided perhaps the central image for the novel with their knife fight on a beach in Oran. But neither Camus nor his earlier biographers tell us the name of the Arab, fictional or otherwise. In real life, two Arab men had engaged with the Bensoussans on that “European’s only” Algerian beach. Alice Kaplan reveals the human being behind the novel’s cipher.
The epilogue points to deeper ironies and tragedies as well. Most readers likely associate “the stranger” with Meursault, though extending this beyond his orbit isn’t difficult, given the story and Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd. And then there’s the fact of French domination and control of Algeria prior to its independence (1962), the horrors of occupation and civil wars, and the absurdity of the Arab majority’s domination by a colonial power. A minority estranged from the motherland; a majority estranged from self-determination; languages and cultures segregated and estranged from one another and their respective histories. Camus, who bravely championed human rights and non-violent emancipation for the vast majority of his life, had perhaps one fatal (though incredibly ambivalent and complex) blind spot: French rule in Algeria. Did he silence another stranger by leaving the Arab without a name, and why? Was this an indirect comment on the massive injustice of colonialism? Or an unconscious signifier of that injustice? This mystery awaits further investigations.
Kaplan, with her short book, and brief epilogue, trips dozens of wires for readers who care deeply about literature, Camus in particular, and the human condition. Highly readable, accessible and concise, this bio aids in our understanding of one of the most important writers in the Republic of Letters, his world and ours.