August excerpt: Looking for “The Stranger”
Although few Americans had read The Stranger in French—it had been hard enough to find a copy in wartime France—word of the novel had crossed the ocean. Blanche Knopf had founded the US publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., with her husband Alfred in 1945, and she had a special interest in publishing English translations of contemporary European literature. She had been cut off from France for the duration of the war, but by February 1945 she was back in touch with Jenny Bradley, Knopf’s agent in Paris. Sartre had lauded a new Camus novel, still in manuscript, called The Plague, in a lecture he gave at Harvard, and Blanche Knopf cabled Bradley, asking to see the proofs. The Plague, with its link to the suffering and heroism of France during the German occupation, was bound to make a splash, and she understood that Knopf might also have to buy The Stranger in order to get it. Alfred Knopf cabled Bradley in February, eager to acquire The Plague, although Camus hadn’t yet finished it, but he was still hesitating about The Stranger. In March 1945, he made up his mind and offered $350 for it.
Not an ideological or interpretive divide, not even an aesthetic quarrel, but rather a question of timing and marketing explains why L’Étranger and The Outsider were born into the English language as fraternal twins—same text, different typography, covers, and titles. The doubling has continued to this day, even as new translations have replaced Gilbert’s: no matter who is translating, the British edition is called The Outsider, the American edition The Stranger. Books about The Stranger/The Outsider, when they’re published in both the United States and England, have to keep the titles straight for each country or risk disorienting readers. If you ask someone, English or American, which title they prefer, chances are they will answer: “the one I’m used to.”
In England, Jamie Hamilton was certain he had a bestseller on his hands, and he planned a first print run of 10,000 copies—over twice Gallimard’s wartime print run on 4,400. At Knopf, there was much more hesitation. In-house readers’ reports were less than stellar.
Herbert Weinstock, a specialist in nineteenth-century opera and a Knopf advisor, had this to say about the novel: “This extended short story (the translation does not exceed 30,000 words) is a pleasant, unexciting reading. It seems to me neither very important nor very memorable—and it also seems to me to be padded with extraneous detail.” He attributed the piling up of details, the flat tone, and what he called “deliberate artlessness” to a “philosophic theory called existentialism,” of which The Stranger could be considered a demonstration: “My best guess is that it will appeal to very few readers and produce something less than a sensation”
Knopf’s publicists had a formidable task. As The Stranger was about to go on sale in American bookstores, the publisher placed a full-page advertisement in Publishers Weekly (an American trade magazine for publishers, librarians, booksellers, and literary agents). It was signed by Blanche Knopf and entitled “On the New Literature of France.” Jamie Hamilton referred to it as “Blanche’s existentialist ad.” She was going to do everything possible to make The Stranger accessible and exciting.
The advertisement began by sympathizing with the average reader’s dilemma: “There is no use trying to talk about new French literature unless you are willing to tackle ‘existentialism.’ Now this is a frightening word. . . . Everyone likes to show that he can pronounce it, but no one enjoys undertaking to define it. Well, here goes.”
Existentialism, the ad continued, is the notion that a consciousness of the universe’s meaninglessness can make us free. Passing mention was then made of the fact that Camus, whose somber countenance gazed out from the upper right of the page, refused to be classified with the existentialists, because their emphasis on meaninglessness was at odds with his belief in political justice. The author of The Stranger was introduced as a man who had lived a double life during the Occupation—publishing with the approval of the Nazi censor while editing a Resistance newspaper underground. The Stranger was then presented in a few words—a novel as simple and straightforward as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Pitching The Stranger as both a lofty existentialist work and a straightforward populist novel was clever, since reviewers could take up either strand, high or low. Pitching Camus as an existentialist and a champion for social justice was also a good idea—here was an author both intelligent and heroic. After a month of what Blanche Knopf considered “fantastic” press, 2,500 copies of the novel had sold. In 1946, The Stranger was not yet a bestseller. In the long run, the ad accomplished something more important than immediate sales: it introduced Camus to American magazine and newspaper publishers as a leading figure of a school of French literature called “existentialist,” and it established that school as the most important new intellectual current coming out of France.
You would have to read the advertisement in Publishers Weekly more than once to glean that Camus disavowed the existentialist label, and that in fact he detested it. He joked in an interview with a French magazine that he and Sartre decided they ought to put out their own ad “stating that the undersigned have nothing in common and refuse to respond to any debts they might have incurred mutually.” Yet it was Sartre who prepared the way for Camus’s New York welcome.
New York had been a privileged refuge for exiled intellectuals during the Occupation years, and as of 1945, when travel became possible once again on the big liberty and cargo ships, Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir all made the trip. Sartre was first. In spring 1945, he filed stories from New York for both Combat and Le Figaro, and he returned in 1946 to speak to American universities about the literary scene in Paris.
In Vogue magazine, in 1945, Sartre described Camus as the emblematic writer to emerge from the Resistance—the only writer who corresponded to his theory of a “committed literature” essential to France’s renewal. Sartre had read an early version of Camus’s forthcoming novel, The Plague, in manuscript, and he was ready to vouch that the world was about to see a new Camus: the absurdity of the world in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus gave way in this new work to positive revolt and struggle. The Plague, based on Camus’s own commitment to the Resistance, demonstrated that the human spirit could come to rule over “the absurd world.” Sartre described, as he had done in the Cahiers du Sud essay in 1943, Camus’s somberness and his debt to the classical moralists, though now he underlined the potential of those qualities for a literature to come: “It is likely that in the somber, pure work of Camus are discernible the principal traits of the French letters of the future.”
For Sartre, Camus represented most vividly the aspirations of postwar literature at a shining moment when writers and intellectuals felt the world was theirs to remake. No other writer could have fit the bill for Sartre: Malraux was too much of an individualist; Guéhenno and Mauriac, much older men, had refused to publish above ground, and the Communists were indebted to their own masters. Camus had done exactly what needed to be done during the Occupation: he had marked time but he hadn’t accepted the oppression; he had chosen struggle rather than silence. At thirty-two years old in 1945, he had reached the perfect age when youth meets maturity.
In January 1946, speaking to students at Yale about the French view of the American novel, Sartre singled out The Stranger as “the French novel which caused the greatest furor between 1940 and 1945.” He placed his emphasis differently in this American context than he had in his Cahiers du Sud essay of 1943. Gone in his American lecture are references to Voltaire and the eighteenth-century morality tale. His focus now was on Camus’s debt to Hemingway, the short disruptive sentences that in Hemingway were a feature of the writer’s temperament but in Camus were rather a deliberate technique for expressing a philosophy of the absurd. Sartre entertained his audience with stories of the symbolic value of American literature when France was under German Occupation. He described the Café de Flore as the headquarters for a black market in American books. Not only did reading Faulkner and Hemingway novels become a symbol of resistance, he claimed, it was even the case—he couldn’t resist a joke—that secretaries “believed they could demonstrate against the Germans by reading Gone with the Wind in the Metro.” Sartre promised his audience, three months before the English-language publication of The Stranger, that French novels written during the Occupation would start to appear in translation. He was rolling out a thick red carpet for his friend.
*This excerpt has been adapted from Looking for “The Stranger”: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan (2016).
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