By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Looking for The Outsider: Albert Camus and the life of a literary classic (Chicago) by Alice Kaplan is a National Book Award finalist in the United States, we learn from its cover (it’s being published in October). A simultaneous edition has already appeared in France from Gallimard (Camus’s own publisher) and was favourably reviewed in Le Monde des livres by the paper’s Camus expert Macha Séry. The TLS’s review of the English edition is forthcoming.
Kaplan’s thoroughly researched book takes the form of the biography of a novel, rather in the manner of the acknowledged Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the making of an American masterpiece. For example, in archives in Oran, Algeria, Kaplan has found newspaper reports in 1939 in the Alger Républicain – the paper on which Camus cut his teeth – about an incident on the beach involving a Frenchman or pied noir and two Algerian youths. L’étranger was published in 1942, and has so far sold in excess of 10 million copies in France. The French specialist Sudhir Hazareesingh, in his book How the French Think (2015), referred to its "somewhat irksome" author – a consequence of being schooled in the French classics in his native Mauritius. Another snippet new to me was the fact that in 1972 a Folio edition of the novel “was offered in exchange for bonus points by Total gas stations throughout France”.
In Oran she secures an interview with the writer Kamel Daoud whose novel Meursault, contre-enquête (2013; The Meursault Investigation) takes the form of a fictional response to L’étranger, giving the nameless Arab of Camus’s novel a name and an identity.
Kaplan’s prose is not without its rhapsodic flights: “Something horsey and asymmetrical about his face, despite his fine features, gave him an expressive force that moved deftly from comic to tragic, from gangster to prince”; “. . . Montherlant, the great Henry de Montherlant”. And Kaplan is nothing if not thorough in her Acknowledgements – six pages of them – including the “suberb” (sic) translator of the French edition Patrick Hersant and the “photographer Kays Djilali” who “accompanied [Kaplan] on photographic treks in Algiers and Oran, taking beautiful pictures of the traces of Camus’s life and work . . .”. But none of these photos appear in the book!
One final point: Kaplan refers to the text throughout as The Stranger, yet her book is called Looking for The Outsider. Surely Outsider is more correct. Stranger just sounds, well, strange.