Alice Kaplan's Looking for 'The Stranger': Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic is a fascinating exploration of Camus and his classic first novel, ranging from the author's influences and inspirations to the book's impossibly rocky path to publication to its enduring legacy. Here, Kaplan outlines the numerous hurdles the novel faced.
Masterpieces are made, not born, and The Stranger’s path from manuscript to classic was an unusually rocky one. The political disasters of a country cut in two by an enemy occupation, a publishing world straining to find paper and appease the enemy, Camus’s own personal dramas—illness, a disparaging mentor, geographic isolation—all threatened the publication of the novel. A small change here or there, a different set of decisions . . . how close we came to living in a world where Meursault never even existed!
Camus finished a first draft of The Stranger in the dreary Hôtel Poirier in Montmartre, a few weeks before the German invasion. He had left his home in Algeria and was working as a lowly layout editor for page four of Paris-Soir, a big circulation daily. Every day he would return to his hotel room and take up the story where he had left off. The work on the novel went so well, Camus had the strange sensation that the words he was writing were already traced within him. Soon after he finished that first draft, with his savings from the newspaper, he moved from Montmartre to a fancier hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Pres, the Madison. There, he could see out his window the thick ribbons of cars, carts, and bicycles heading down the boulevard Saint-Germain towards the Place de l’Odéon before making their way due south to the Porte d’Italie, endless lines of refugees with all they could carry. For Camus and for France, everything was about to change. The country would fall to the Germans later in June, after a disastrous six-week battle.
For the time being Paris-Soir continued to function. “Here the madness continues,” Camus wrote a friend in the army, “I’ve been living for three days between two closed suitcases because Paris-Soir notified me that I had to leave for Nantes where part of the staff has already transferred to produce a newspaper for the provinces. Everyday, I’m supposed to leave the next day. Today, it’s been decided—barring any change of plan!—that I will remain in Paris.” But he didn’t stay in Paris for long. On June 10, after less than a week at the Madison, he was ordered with the reduced staff of Paris-Soir to depart for Clermont-Ferrand and put in charge of driving one of the Paris-Soir cars. Daniel Lenief, another editor at the paper, remembers: “Each of us was supposed to get to Clermont-Ferrand in the car given to him, since the regular drivers had almost all been drafted. We were the first to arrive and I can still picture Camus on the place de Jaude, exiting a car that had run out of gas, oil and water, its engine smoking. He turned pale, ran back to the trunk and took out his treasure, a manuscript he shoved in his pocket.” If that sputtering, smoking car had exploded, Camus would have lost his only copy of The Stranger.
A year later, Camus was back in Oran, Algeria, laid off by Paris-Soir after the draftees of the 1940s returned to work. The manuscript of The Stranger accompanied him everywhere. Now he sent a copy to his academic mentor Jean Grenier, but the response was discouraging. Grenier thought The Stranger was too much like Kafka, that Camus’s simple style was too predictable. He even thought the book had too many “Freudian” breasts! Camus had put a previous manuscript in a drawer after Grenier criticized it. This time, fortunately, something told him to ignore his teacher. The newspaper man Pascal Pia became The Stranger’s greatest champion. He got the manuscript to André Malraux on the Côte d’Azur, and Malraux showed Camus how he could put more heat and sun into the murder scene.
After Gallimard accepted the book, Malraux wrote to Camus to see if he could find a source of paper for the publisher from the Alfa plants that grew on the high plains of Algeria. It’s asking a lot of a writer to supply his own paper. Camus was ready to oblige, with facts and figures about sending the tons of raw material, but the shipment was never pursued. Nonetheless, The Stranger began its long journey from Algeria across the Mediterranean and on to occupied Paris. It crossed the demarcation line, from Cannes, in the free zone, to Nazi-occupied Paris, in one of Gaston Gallimard’s massive “traction avant” automobiles.
Then, at the very last minute, there was a mix-up about which of the circulating manuscripts was the final version—two had turned up in Paris—was the one to send to the printer. Camus wrote to Gallimard in a panic that only the manuscript that Pascal Pia had transmitted to Paulhan was the definitive version—the last chapter of part I consisted of typed pages with different margins than the rest of the manuscript, and the very last chapter of the novel was eighteen pages long rather than sixteen.
The Stranger was ready to go into production, but one more major obstacle remained. Gallimard needed German approval—indeed the cultural branch of the occupying forces determined the fate of every new book by veto, by censor, or by an allocation of paper for a few, or many copies. Books in favor of the Nazi regime or supportive of German culture and works of propaganda got first priority.
Gerhard Heller, head of the German Propaganda-Staffel, wrote many years later that when he received the manuscript of The Stranger from Gaston Gallimard’s secretary, he stayed up all night reading it and endorsed it immediately. There was no need for censorship, he said, since the book was “asocial” and “apolitical.” Who would make that argument today? In Heller’s office, a book had to have a straightforward anti-Nazi, pro-Ally message to be censored, or it had to be by a Jewish author. Reading for subtleties was not on the censors’ agenda, and this was a good thing for The Stranger.
A manuscript threatened with destruction, a dismissive mentor, a mixup over manuscripts, an enemy propaganda bureau: these were not The Stranger’s only problems. In the winter of 1942, Camus was dealing with something worse than anxiety over his manuscript: his tuberculosis returned. It was his worst relapse ever, shattering his hope that the bout in 1941 had been his last. He informed Gallimard on February 12, 1942, that he was in very bad shape and needed to leave the details of the brief biographical sketch to Pascal Pia or Jean Grenier.
Camus was not even strong enough to proofread his pages, and besides, it would have been impossible for the publisher to get them to Oran and back to Paris without delaying publication for months. He had only two requests: could the publishers please get rid of the word “but,” second-to-last line of chapter 6; and could they eliminate the word “the” at the start of the third line of page 54. That was all.
Jean Paulhan, the legendary Gallimard editor, oversaw the correction of the last set of proofs, and Camus was spared the process that so many writers dread—the last-ditch search for mistakes, the very last chance to eliminate an excess word or change a sentence. Or in one case, add a single letter. Was it Paulhan who added the fateful “u” to Meursault’s name? The only surviving manuscript spells the narrator’s name “Mersault”— which is the name of the main character in Camus’s previous, failed novel. “Mersault” sounds Spanish, while “Meursault,” the name of a fine burgundy wine, couldn’t be more French. “Meursault” also contains the verb for death—meur—so central to the novel. Would we be as attached to a story told by a man named Mersault?
The Stranger went to the printer on April 1, 1942, but it would be several months before Camus saw either a copy of the book or his contract, because mail service was so bad. It’s easy to imagine the frustration, anticipation, and worry the young writer experienced as he waited. He had to remind himself that what had happened was practically a miracle. At the worst possible moment in the history of French publishing, The Stranger was finally going to meet its readers.