When Albert Camus’s L’Etranger was published in France in early 1942, no one, least of all its 29-year-old author, could have guessed the impact the book would have, then and in the future. The Outsider / The Stranger (Stuart Gilbert’s English translation, published in 1946, had different titles in different countries) wasn’t exactly a best-seller in its early years. It came to have a life of its own, but oftentimes, there was no separating the book from its writer.

It wasn’t just how the book came to be written, or the fact that Camus wrote it as the Second World War broke out, but because of the aura that surrounded Camus soon after the book’s publication. It coincided with the recognition of Camus as a key figure of the French resistance.

The Stranger continues to have a vivid afterlife. It became synonymous with existentialism, to Camus’s own chagrin, and it won its author fame and notoriety in equal measure. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos of Camus – the most enduring one with Camus in a trench coat, looking sideways at the camera, a cigarette dangling from his lips – were all taken between 1944 and 1945, after the War, and after the book was published (when Camus’s favoured Gauloises were once again available).

Intriguing in its contradictions

The Stranger, that sparest of novels, retains its ambiguity 75 years after its publication. It’s a novel born of its times and yet enduring. It has been analysed at various levels: for its characters and the motives – baffling and intriguing – that drive them. What drives Meursault in his life, and what makes him commit the act that condemns him; the disbelief on the part of the magistrate and the chaplain, their (absurd) entreaties in the name of religion; its unidimensional female characters, not just Marie, but even Meursault’s dead mother; and then, the silent Arab in the novel, whose passivity has, however, in recent times, evoked a reaction, especially a novelistic one.

In her book on The Stranger, Alice Kaplan doesn’t attempt to answer every question. It can, almost like the very book it seeks to unravel, be read in many ways. As a biography of a book, and of its author during the time of its writing. It’s also a primer on what makes a great classic, or what makes a writer, write a great classic. It is also about how a book comes into being. As Kaplan demonstrates, a classic is never created in isolation; it is propped up by its admirers, its supporters and an entire team of adherents. Camus, in this sense was fortunate. It was fortune, hard-earned, and richly deserved.

In mid-1940, when Camus finally completed the manuscript in a lonely hotel room in Paris, it was the book he just had to write. The Stranger “was a book he found in himself, rather than writing a book about himself.” It was fiction that was in him, Kaplan writes, waiting to be discovered.

The Stranger was not a straightforward book by any measure. It came out of Camus’s heartbreak and disappointments, within himself, and his own creative life. Both his lungs had already been affected by tuberculosis, his first marriage to Simone Hie had failed, and he faced a life without the prospect of a steady job. Camus had been published twice already, but he was an Algerian writer and this made him somewhat “provincial”. Paris was the scene of literary activity and recognition, but Paris seemed farther away than ever at that time.

Despair and hope

For all this, in early 1939, Camus set out to write an oeuvre; to fashion a literary legacy for himself. The Stranger would form the first of his writings: part of a trilogy that included the play Caligula and the long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. These emerged out of Camus’s concerns with the philosophy of the absurd – that freedom is meaningless, and doesn’t signify anything for the universe remains essentially indifferent, his interest in writing “negative fiction”, and his own life, growing up in a working-class neighbourhood, Belcourt, in Algiers. Algeria was a French colony till its independence in 1962.

Kaplan maps out the influences on Camus – literal and personal. His childhood was largely “silent”, and spent with his mother and uncle, both deaf, and so language was reduced to a minimum, largely referencing objects, never abstractions. But it was precisely this period of disappointments that gave him reason for hope. A lifelong idol, Andre Malraux, writer, activist, spoke against the growing threats of Fascism while on a visit to Algeria. Camus’s mentors, besides his teacher of philosophy, Jean Grenier, also included Pascal Pia, a radical journalist and editor. Camus went to work for Pia’s leftist newspaper, Alger-Republicain; and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between them.

Camus reported and wrote of the criminal trials he witnessed in court, a couple of which Kaplan details, such as the trial following the murder of a conservative Islamic theologian. The trials and the courtroom scenes gave Camus several insights into ethnic tensions that prevailed in Algeria, and the absurdity of the justice system; French justice only appeared to heighten the injustices of colonialism.

Philosophy and the detective novel

Like his great contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus also read American noir. As Kaplan writes, Sartre read Dashiell Hammett before he wrote Nausea, a philosophical work that reads like a detective novel. Camus preferred James M Cain’s bestselling The Postman Always Rings Twice, translated into French in 1936. Meursault’s narration echoes, Kaplan suggests, Frank’s first-person confession in Cain’s novel. Cain evoked, as Camus himself acknowledged, “sensationalism through understatement.”

The Stranger was completed as Camus worked during the day in a dingy hotel room in Paris, while in the evenings, he worked for a newspaper set up by Pia. It was a time of loneliness and camaraderie. As the war raged on, Camus moved from Paris to Oran in Algeria, a city on the coast, to the west of Algiers. (The outbreak of typhus in Oran would influence Camus’s second novel, The Plague, published in 1947.)

A publishing adventure

The journey toward the completion and publication of the book, in Kaplan’s narration, is an adventure in itself. Camus sent copies of the manuscript (handwritten of course) to Grenier and Pia. The latter raved about it, and then had it sent to Andre Malraux (who suggested some “tweaks”) and the eminent French publisher Gaston Gallimard.

This coincided with the Nazis’ growing stranglehold over all French institutions. Paper production was strictly regulated and censorship was in place. That Camus’s book was published appears nothing short of miraculous. Camus even offered to provide the paper (since Alfa grass grew aplenty in Algeria) for its publication. In the end, the Nazi head of propaganda in France, who had the final say in all publication matters, assented to The Stranger, as it was “asocial and apolitical”.

The first reviews were mixed; but it was Jean Paul Sartre’s “The Stranger Explained” (as the review was titled in its English translation) that placed the book as a classic. Sartre praised Camus’s sentences; for creating “a world of things in themselves, passive, impenetrable, incommunicable, sparkling”. It was the beginning of a friendship between France’s greatest literary stars, one that would have a celebrated falling out toward the end of that decade, owing to their differences over Communism and Algerian independence.

The Stranger reaches the US

Kaplan doesn’t quite detail if there was some rivalry, even then, between the two men. But it was Sartre’s speech at Yale University at the beginning of 1945 that played a role in Camus’s stardom when he reached New York later that year, at the same time as the English translation of The Stranger. The story of how the translation came into being is equally rivetting.

Stuart Gilbert was a British civil servant who had served in Burma, and had already assisted in translating James Joyce’s Ulysses into French. It was he who translated Camus into English. When Camus read Gilbert’s translation later, he was puzzled by many statements that appeared in quotations. Some of Meursault’s indirect speech had been placed in quotes by Gilbert. Despite Camus’s concerns about this, and his continued amusement about being considered an existentialist writer, the book made history in its English translation as well.

The concern about the unnamed silent Arab was aired at that time in a New York Times book review. More recently Kamel Daoud’s novel published in 2014, The Meursault Investigation, is narrated in the voice of Harun, the brother of the slain Arab who is given a name, Musa (Kaplan notes its phonetic similarity with Meursault).

In a fascinating conclusion, Kaplan does her own detective work, drawing on Camus’s own references about The Stranger and looking up archives of a local Algerian paper of the time – that detailed the brawl between the Arabs and the Benssousan brothers. She traced the brother of the Arab, Kaddour Touil, who had been involved in that fight. Kaddour had died but, like Camus, had spent some time at a sanatorium in the Alps, recovering from tuberculosis. It is in such moments that art and real life appear to merge in the strangest, most incandescent of ways.

The Stranger elsewhere

Kaplan packs in prodigious notes and much detail. It is of course more concerned about how The Stranger was received in the western, English-speaking world, as the book, in all its translations, served as a radical influence in the divided Cold War era across Asia and Africa. The Stranger wasn’t just a textbook for American students in their introduction to French post-war literature; its message of alienation and selfhood also resonated among students and youth everywhere.

Camus’s book met with some opposition in France even when it appeared, which is mentioned just in passing. The book’s journey from manuscript, through published form, to a classic, in Kaplan’s telling, appears to be an entirely male endeavour. The women are absent, as they are in The Stranger. There are those who supported Camus: Francine Faure, who became his second wife, and whose family supported Camus in Oran; Christiane Galindo, who typed his manuscripts for him, and Elsa Triolet, the Russian émigré writer, who gushed over Camus without having read The Stranger.

The Stranger’s success story during the 1940s invites a comparison with Irène Némirovsky, the writer of Russian origin who wrote in French and who tried desperately, owing to her Jewishness, to evade capture by the Nazis in occupied France. Her best works were written during this time but remained unpublished till recently, for Némirovsky and her husband perished soon after their capture. As The Stranger mutates into versions, conjoined, yet different from itself, it’s also fitting that Némirovsky’s novels, thanks to her daughter’s efforts, have now earned her a belated literary stardom.

Albert Camus and the Making of a Literary Classic, Alice Kaplan, University of Chicago Press.