Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Dina Lee, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Alice Kaplan about her book Looking for the Stranger (University of Chicago Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Dina Lee: Camus earned his master’s degree in philosophy and was influenced by great figures including Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard. He also drew inspiration from novels such as The Postman Always Rings Twice by the American author, James M. Cain.
On the one hand, The Stranger is a work of literature; you clearly show how the novelist came to establish the protagonist's distinct voice, the narrative momentum, and the tone. On the other hand, The Stranger is a work of philosophy exploring the Absurd.
Is it fair to say your book sees Camus primarily as a novelist, and that it focuses more on literary influences and interpretations? If so, why?
Alice Kaplan: I didn’t want to interpret The Stranger either as a novel or a philosophical novel —hundreds of critics have done this before me. What interested me was the life of the book, from Camus's first flashes of inspiration to the insanely complex process of publication in a time of enemy occupation. I tried, as much as I could, to put my own interpretations to the side.
That said, part of the life of the book, obviously, is Camus’s education and what he did with it, and you’re right to suggest that The Stranger, for this author, was an exploration of the Absurd. Camus wrote in his work-in-progress notebooks, “We don’t think except by image. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.” You can access powerful ideas in Camus through images: the rock sliding down the hill in Myth of Sisyphus; the man’s head quivering on a board in “Reflections on the Guillotine”; the wooden bow, stretched to its limits, in The Rebel; the river of Perez’s tears in The Stranger.
As a thinker, Camus has a wandering mind and a love of paradox, inspired by Nietzsche. He often pushed against conventional philosophy: He reviewed Sartre’s Nausea in 1938 and said it had too many ideas to be completely successful as a novel. Sartre reviewed The Myth of Sisyphus in 1943 and said that Camus didn’t understand the philosophers he was quoting. I didn't want to let these issues of influence and interpretation bog me down in critical debate; my goal was to keep the reader close to the writer at work.
DL: It was Camus' wish that his philosophical essay, Myth of Sisyphus, was to be read as an accompaniment to The Stranger. Is it necessary to consider both of these works when analyzing either of them?
AK: The Myth of Sisyphus, which Camus worked on while he was writing The Stranger, was the product of a piecemeal process of creation, very different from the six-week burst of energy that produced The Stranger. He wrote to his fiancé in 1939 that his agitation about the coming war was so great, he couldn’t concentrate long enough to sustain an argument, so he was going to put The Myth of Sisyphus aside and turn to his novel instead. The manuscript, housed in Yale’s Beinecke Library, shows traces of work done in fits and starts, of smaller and smaller handwriting as paper shortages increase and pages written on the back of letterhead from his newspapers in Algiers and Lyon.
Camus had great hopes for the essay, published seven months after The Stranger. He was certain that as soon as people read The Myth of Sisyphus, they would understand exactly what he was up to in his novel. In fact the opposite happened: Sartre found The Myth of Sisyphus pretentious and insufficiently philosophical; Henriot loved the essay, but used it to bludgeon The Stranger. The Myth of Sisyphus is fascinating to read today as a product of the same preoccupation with the Absurd as The Stranger. Critics agree that one of its most original chapters is called “Absurd Creation”, in which you can sense that Camus is marveling at the strange way The Stranger seemed to write itself.
DL: Camus was a journalist, a member of the French Resistance fighting against the Nazi regime, and a survivor who lived through recurring bouts of tuberculosis. You note that Camus drew inspiration for many characters and scenes in The Stranger from his personal life experiences. Yet, I have no doubt that much of your research was left on the cutting room floor, as it would be impossible to include all the materials you've gathered. What was the process you used to determine what to keep and what to leave out?
AK: Some readers have reached out to me with ideas for what I might have explored. A reader in Germany sent me advertisements for Kruschen salts (laxatives), since Meursault cuts them out of an old newspaper. It’s one of those odd everyday life details that make the novel so quirky and fascinating. Every reader has their own curiosity, and there are many paths still to follow, and that’s good. However many sources you find, none of them can adequately account for the novel’s magic—and that’s as it should be.
For my own writing, my rule of thumb was this: if a discovery helped me understand Camus’s process in creating The Stranger, it was essential. I also made choices based on time and place: I followed Camus to New York in 1946, when The Stranger was launched in English translation, and that enabled me to tell the story of Stuart Gilbert’s first translation. I was drawn to details like the one I found in a 1946 issue of The New Yorker: the journalist who visited Camus in his hotel found the author staring quizzically at the English edition, because it had so many more quotation marks than the original. Since I was sticking fairly close to Camus’s own travels, I didn’t go around the world and recount all the early translation stories, some of which are really interesting: Franco’s Spain censored the book for blasphemy, so it was published instead in Argentina. It was published in German translation in Dusseldorf in 1948, and I’m just now going through the press file, which the publisher, still in business, was kind enough to send me.
DL: The nameless Arab killed in The Stranger is revisited several times in your book. Critics still wonder why Camus never named such a pivotal character. They look at Camus’ background and his politics in search for answers. This question seems to haunt Camus' legacy.
Do you think this Camus could have anticipated this question? How does this fit into the larger picture of Albert Camus?
AK: There’s a lot in a name, and that goes not only for proper names, but in this case for the names “Algerian” and “Arab.” For a European of Camus’s generation, “Algerian” meant a Frenchman living in Algeria. In 1956, when he traveled to Algiers to speak in favor of a civil truce, he continued to refer to “Arabs”—not realizing, or not admitting, that a new world was coming into being, and “Algerian” now meant the Arabs of Algeria, on the verge of founding a nation. There is so much irony, tragedy even, in Camus’s relationship to Algeria. He had been forced to leave the country in 1939 for his anti-government journalism, which included investigative reports on poverty in Kabylia where he said clearly that France was in danger of losing Algeria because of its criminal neglect of the people. By the mid-1950s he was out of touch with the nationalist movements, and unwilling to support the Front de Libération Nationale because of their violent tactics. He had supported the moderate nationalist parties which, by 1956, had joined the FLN. So he was shunned as a reactionary in a country where he had once been a courageous voice in the critique of colonialism.
DL: I was touched by your epilogue. You traveled to Algeria to walk in Camus’ footsteps, visiting his childhood home, The House Above the World, and many of the restaurants and scenes that he frequented. You also met the family of the man who inspired "the Arab" character in The Stranger.
Experiencing all this first-hand must have been a radically different sort of research compared to reviewing records, letters, and early manuscripts of Camus' works. How did this impact your work? Did the in-person visits take your research in surprising directions?
AK: Spending time in Algeria and visiting the places where Camus lived and wrote opened my eyes to everything I never understood about The Stranger during all the years I studied it as an “existentialist masterpiece”, in a trinity with Sartre and Beauvoir. I’m lucky that travel in Algeria is once again possible, after a decade of civil war. The most recent Camus biographer, Olivier Todd, visited the country on the eve of that “black decade,” and at least one great admirer of Camus he interviewed, the psychiatrist Mahfoud Boucebci, was assassinated several years later. The country I visited is just beginning to open up to foreign scholars.
My sense of Algeria was transformed by the first place I stayed, in 2002. “Les Glycines”, a study center run by the Catholic Diocese in Algiers, has become an informal think tank for scholars around the world working on Algerian topics. A graduate student at the Glycines told me about an independent association in Oran (the Algerian city where Camus finished writing The Stranger) called “Belhorizon” which organizes tours—and Belhorizon connected me to Abdeslem Abdelhak, who knows Camus’s Oran inside out. Thanks to him, and thanks to a newspaper archive in downtown Oran, I eventually found the family of the man who inspired “the Arab” character in The Stranger. With Kays Djilali in Algiers, I climbed the steep path Camus describes in A Happy Death, and went door-to-door, looking for the house where he lived. I couldn’t have done this without Kays’s help. I often followed up my visits with more research, so that textual work and field work combined: I was getting to know Camus’s Algeria, in books and on the ground. Algeria today has no tourist industry to speak of, and people go way out of their way for one another. A lot of knowledge comes through word of mouth.
Alice Kaplan is the author of French Lessons: A Memoir, The Collaborator, The Interpreter, and Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the translator of OK, Joe, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, A Box of Photographs, and Palace of Books. Her books have been twice finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, once for the National Book Award, and she is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She holds the John M. Musser chair in French literature at Yale. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut.
Dina Lee is a second year MFA Creative Writing student in Fiction. She came to The New School with a background in screenwriting and advertising, and is currently working on her first novel.