How A Manuscript Escaped World War II

Updated on March 9, 2017

Not all books survive for three-quarters of a century. Toss in World War II, add a dash of life-threatening illness, and it seems an unlikely twist of fate that Albert Camus’s classic The Stranger exists at all. Yet on April 1, 2017, we celebrate 75 years of this haunting little novel. What’s the unknown tale behind this well-known work? We begin in Northern Africa in 1940, where a sickly Camus toils right by the heart of Hitler’s rise to power.

Though Camus is known as a French author, he was born in Mondovi, Algeria in 1913. (Making him the first African-born author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.) Recently kicked out of the Communist Party, a 27-year-old Camus was struggling with disappointments. Refused a teaching position due to reoccurring battles with lung conditions, his personal life was no less tumultuous. His wife dabbled with as many drugs as other men, leaving him lonely and depressed. Jobless, loveless, and struggling in a writer’s world that barred expelled-Communists from theater, Camus managed to land employment as an editorial secretary in Paris through a friend.

Albert Camus
Albert Camus

Despite being in The City of Lights, Camus found the people of Paris dismal. His work was uninspiring and -very unlike his unambitious character, Meursault- he found himself riddled with self-doubt. Working off two years’ worth of scribbled notes, Camus wrote The Stranger in the nights after work. As he scrawled away at his chef-d'œuvre, a war raged around him. While he took up his pen, Nazis bombed the city. Inspired to action he attempted to enlist, only to face rejection (again) on medical grounds. Embarrassed by his refusal, Camus fled to Clermont with his manuscript in hand, escaping just days before German soldiers stormed the streets of Paris.

Finalizing his divorce with his first wife, Camus remarried and returned to Algeria. Within a month, he rediscovered the unhappiness that perpetually haunted him. He remained unsatisfied with The Stranger and other works, unfaithful to his new wife, and uncertain of his life’s purpose. During this year, the manuscript that escaped the war is finally finished and sent for approval. Despite some hesitation, Gallimard (still one of the leading French book publishers) accepts the publication.

Albert Camus with second wife, Francine Faure
Albert Camus with second wife, Francine Faure

On the eve of his triumph, Camus fell violently ill with tuberculosis. As his book stirred Parisian minds, his health barred him from traveling to see the success for himself. Despite fame, Camus felt the novel was misunderstood and felt disillusioned with the reviews. Months after the first print, the Allies landed in Northern Africa. Camus remained cut off from his wife and his novel. He would face treatment for his lungs while awaiting the reunion with his wife for over two years.

Cover of his published novel
Cover of his published novel

Decades after this rocky beginning, The Stranger continued to live up to its wild nature. Further immortalized in December of 1978, British indie band The Cure released their widely-disputed single “Killing an Arab.” The lyrics follow the eerie disengagement of the protagonist’s senseless murder. Facing constant public backlash, the musicians changed the lyrics after September 11th to “Kissing an Arab,” “Killing an Ahab,” or “Killing Another.”

To this day, Camus’s novel continues to be taught in many American high schools. A copy of the book appears in recent movies, including Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Talladega Nights (2006), and An Education (2009). Never losing its insight on the absurdity of existence, The Stranger continues to plague modern readers with the choice: to shoot or not to shoot?

“I can turn

And walk away

Or I can fire the gun

Staring at the sky

Staring at the sun

Whichever I choose

It amounts to the same

Absolutely nothing”

— The Cure

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