Book Review: Looking for the Stranger – Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, by Alice Kaplan

Looking for strangerI’ve long been interested in Camus. I first read his work in translation in my late teens, then, when I was taking French lessons as an adult before moving to France, L’étranger was the first novel I read. One of the reasons is because it is written in the first person, and uses the passé composé and imparfait verb tenses, rather than the more irregular verb forms of the passé simple. For a French student, this makes the book a lot more readable. Since then, I’ve read most of Camus’ works over the year, particularly since I bought the four-volume Pléiade collection of his writings in 2009.

In the same vein as Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, which presents a biography of Henry James’ classic Portrait of a Lady, Alice Kaplan, chair of the French department at Yale University presents this biography of Camus’ great novel. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

In 26 short chapters and an epilogue, Kaplan relates the story of Camus’ youth, the events that led to him becoming a writer, and how he planned and wrote L’étranger (The Stranger). Ms. Kaplan explains how Camus grew up with a deaf mother and uncle, and how his world was filled with silence. She discusses his early work as a journalist, notably covering trials in Algiers, and makes a parallel with one specific trial and the one recounted in the novel. She looks at how, when the novel was finished, Camus got the manuscript to a publisher (Gallimard) during the German occupation of France. And she examines the way the novel was received after publication.

She also discusses the real incident that inspired Camus to write about an “Arab” being killed. She even managed to find the name of that nameless person, and get details about the event, and that man’s life (he wasn’t killed in real life). I would have liked her to discuss the choice of the word “Arab” for the victim in the story. Inhabitants of Algeria are technically Maghrebins, not Arabs, though it is common in French to call them the latter.

My only gripe is one that I encounter often in books where there are quotes and excerpts translated from French. Often these transitions are clunky, even wrong, because they are overly literal. For example, in a letter from Camus to his wife, just after finishing the novel, he says he is “too enervated to think about sleeping.” Not only is enervated not a common word in English, it is incorrect. The French énervé means excited, on edge, anxious; it’s the opposite of calm or relaxed. In English, that word means “drained of energy or vitality.” In French, you would say, “Ne t’enerve pas,” for “Calm down,” or “Don’t get excited.” I expect better from an author with such qualifications in French.

I very much enjoy literary biographies, and the idea of a biography of a novel is tantalizing. Just as with Gorra’s book about Henry James and the Portrait of a Lady, this book about Camus is a page-turner (assuming you’re interested in Camus). It is not a scholarly book in any way, and doesn’t assume that you know much about Camus, though having read the novel certainly helps.

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