Recently, I bought Alice Kaplan’s Looking For the Stranger, which is a “biography” of Camus’ 1942 novel L’Étranger. For those who don’t know, L’Étranger has two translated titles: in the USA it’s published as The Stranger and in the UK it’s published as The Outsider. This time around, I read Sandra Smith’s 2012 translation, published by Penguin UK.
Anyway, when I started to read Kaplan’s book, I realised that I needed to re-read The Outsider first, because it had been a while since the last time, and then I thought that I may as well re-read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Camus credited as being an influence on his writing of The Outsider. Published in 1934, The Postman is a gripping quintessential roman noir novel It was controversial in its day, because two of the characters were considered to be amoral, and although the narrative is tame by today’s standards, back then it was thought to be sizzling hot.
The Postman and The Outsider both employ a similar narration style and tone, and I think it’s fair to say that having read The Postman, Camus found the “voice” he had been trying to find to narrate his story. I don’t want to give away the plot of either novel, just in case anyone reading this hasn’t read the books. Cain writes beautifully and manages to convey a great deal with few words. I like his style of pared-back writing, and admire the way he is able to maintain the tempo and keep the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. The frisson of eroticism that bubbles away beneath the surface is pure genius, and I can imagine that quite a few ladies in the 1930s blushed when they read about Frank and Cora’s ripping good time (pun intended). Cain’s characters are fairly straightforward: a young drifter whose lack of morals and ethics allows him to take whatever it is he wants, and a small-town beauty queen whose dreams of being of a movie star have fallen to earth with a thud. When these two meet, a race to the bottom ensues and you just know that it is not going to end well.
Camus’ protagonist, Meursault, on the other hand, is a rather wonderful enigma who defies summation. I wrote pages and pages of notes as I read, and as I see it, The Outsider is not a novel about a crime, but a philosophical treatise on the arbitrariness and absurdity of life. Through his narrative, Camus shows that we have no control over what happens to us, because the myriad factors that determine our lives are completely outside our influence. For me, The Outsider is a powerful statement about accepting the absurdity of life, accepting fate, accepting what is. We live in the natural world and are subject to the natural world’s laws, so if we consume a good deal of alcohol and walk up and down a beach in the broiling sun with a gun in our pocket, nature will take its course and we’ll find ourselves dehydrated and dazzled by the bright light, and perhaps we’ll act impulsively when someone threatens us with a knife. Perhaps. There has been so much written about The Outsider, and so many attempts to “explain” the novel, but I think that each reader creates it anew with each reading, and the fact that the book means so many different things to so many people is partly the reason for its ongoing appeal.
Clearly, I enjoyed re-reading both books and launched myself, possibly with expectations that were too high, into Searching For the Stranger. Kaplan is a professor of French and chair of the French department at Yale, so she really knows her French literature. Because of this, I think I was expecting her book to be more academic in tone, but it seems to me that it is pitched more at the general reader who already knows a bit about Camus. The book is a comprehensive look at the circumstances surrounding the writing, publication, and afterlife of L’Étranger, and although it is scrupulously referenced and there are many pages of interesting end notes to peruse, I’m not sure that this “biography” of L’Étranger actually works. It is neither a biography of Camus, nor literary criticism, history, nor travel writing. I think it attempts to be a hybrid of all of these genres, and the writing style owes a lot to reportage, all of which doesn’t necessarily result in a smooth reading process. Nevertheless, I think Camus fans will find it interesting, as I did. I enjoyed reading about the intricacies inherent in L’Étranger being published during the Nazi occupation of France, and learning more about how it was received and reviewed. The book has had an enduring afterlife, because as Kaplan notes:
The allure of Camus’s novel means that you can read it again and again and see something different in it each time. The critics have done just that, calling it a colonial allegory, an existential prayer book, and indictment of conventional morality, a study in alienation, or a “Hemingway rewrite of Kafka”. …Anyone who loves to read knows that books have a life. They come to life as you read them, and they stay alive long after you’re turned the last page (p. 2).
I enjoyed Sandra Smith’s translation of L’Étranger. She seems to me to have gotten it about right, with no jarring or glaringly out-of-place words leaping off the page at me. In the preface to the novel, she writes about how she listened to a radio recording of Camus reading his book aloud, and attempted to keep the cadence of his voice and the sentence structure of the original in her translated text. I think it works wonderfully well, and her version is definitely worth reading.