Albert Camus. Photo: Robert Edwards
The myth is tenacious: an unknown writer on the verge of international fame, not suspecting that the scattered pages on his or her desk will become that miracle, a first published novel and a passport to glory. From March to May 1940, Albert Camus was that man, finishing a draft of the book he was calling The Stranger. The city, eerily calm, overtaken with a sense of dread, was weeks from the German invasion. Paris has changed enormously since 1940, but you can still walk in Camus’s footsteps through places that a few literary specialists have put on the map and come close to a moment of artistic creation.
Camus finished a first draft of his novel alone in a hotel room in Montmartre. The former Hôtel du Poirier on the rue Ravignan sits atop one of Paris’s “buttes” or hills, whose cleaner air might have benefitted the young writer, who struggled with chronic tuberculosis. The site is still about as picturesque a place as Paris has to offer: up a terraced set of steps, on one side of a cobblestone square with its own fountain, the little hotel stood directly across from the Bateau-Lavoir, a beehive of artist studios, spread out like a ship. On this vessel of high modernism, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. The glory days of the Bateau-Lavoir ended after World War I, but in March 1940, when Camus lived in its shadow, the place still exuded its bohemian aura. Crowned by the mammoth Sacré-Cœur cathedral, Montmartre was an acquired taste, with its own diehard citizens—pimps and scoundrels, anarchists and poets. Far from the business districts, Montmartre was still, in 1940, practically a separate village, a neighborhood where an artist or writer could get by on almost nothing.
Camus was unhappy in Montmartre, but it was a productive unhappiness. For the exhausted young man far from home, the long metro ride from his job at the daily paper Paris-Soir on the rue du Louvre in the center of Paris to the Abbesses stop in the north, the cramped elevator rising from the bowels of the metro line to the surface, the walk up the windy hill in slippery March weather, only brought home how alienated he felt. In his first notebook entries he circles around a title for his novel:
What does this sudden awakening mean, in this dark room, with the sounds of a city that has suddenly become strange? And everything is strange to me, everything, without a single person who belongs to me, with no place to heal this wound. What am I doing here, what is the point of these smiles and gestures? I am not from here—not from anywhere else either. And the world has become merely an unknown landscape where my heart can lean on nothing.
Then Camus adds a crucial sentence: “A Stranger, who can know what this word means.”
In French, as in English, a stranger, un étranger, can mean a foreign national, an alienated outsider, or an unfamiliar traveler. In the next entry in his notebooks, he described the reaction to despair that always seemed to enable his best writing, and he began with that powerful, multivalent word: “Strange, admit that everything is strange to me. Now that everything is clear-cut, wait and spare nothing. Work in such a way as to achieve both silence and creation. All the rest, all the rest, no matter what happens, is unimportant.”
He was in that particular frame of mind that seems to enable so many writers, struck with a solitary despair in a new city: “Why is it that knowing how to remain alone in Paris for a year in a miserable room teaches a man more than a hundred literary salons and forty years’ experience of ‘Parisian life’?” He had an empty, dark hotel room, a table to write on, and a job that paid three thousand francs a month for five hours of work a day, all in an unfamiliar setting. His work at Paris-Soir newspaper was uninteresting: he was in charge of laying out page four, organizing a mish-mash of columns and typeface. Whether he worked a day or a night shift, he would come back to the Montmartre and pick up his writing exactly where he’d left off.
From his writing table in the hotel he observed all kinds of lives, ordinary and tragic. There was drama: a woman on the floor above him threw herself out the window, onto the back courtyard. Camus noted her dying word: “Finally.” He wrote about the black trees in the gray sky and the sky-colored pigeons, about seeing Paris from atop Montmartre, “a monstrous fog beneath the rain.” He wrote about Catholicism in France, the way it dominated art and mood. He wrote about the city market, Les Halles, and his view through foggy windowpanes at the vendors and the delivery men having their morning shot of calvados in hot coffee. The rue du Louvre, home to Paris-Soir, formed one border of the market that Zola called “the Belly of Paris.” Crossing Les Halles on the way to work reminded Camus of Belcourt, the working-class neighborhood of Algiers where he grew up.
In his lonely hotel, between March and May 1940, Camus finished an entire first draft of The Stranger: some thirty thousand words. His narrator, Meursault, took his girlfriend to the beach; went to a film by Fernandel; wrote a letter for his neighbor Raymond, a pretty rough character; killed an Arab on the beach; was tried and condemned to death. Writing from prison, waiting for the guillotine, Meursault finally understood “the tender indifference of the world.” In writing Meursault, Camus drew on the beaches and the blinding sun of Algeria, the place he’d left behind—but he also used the benevolent detachment of Paris, a city that felt both crowded and empty, and where, as he put it, “his heart could lean on nothing.”
As soon as he finished the draft, Camus wrote to Francine Faure, his fiancée, in Oran, Algeria. He was amazed that the book had come so easily—his first attempted novel, A Happy Death, had been years in the making before he consigned it to a drawer. This time there had been something magical about the process, as though The Stranger were already traced within him. Like so many writers before and after him, he wasn’t sure exactly what he had created, and he wavered between crazy pride and despair: “I still imagine that the reader of this manuscript will be at least as fatigued as I am,” he told her, “and I don’t know if the continuous tension felt within it will not discourage many souls. But that isn’t the question. I wanted this tension and I worked to transmit it. I know it is there. I don’t know if it is beautiful.”
He was ready for a reward, a reprieve from the continuous tension that had fed his story. On June 4, 1940, with his savings from weeks of work at Paris-Soir, Camus gathered up his manuscript pages with his few belongings and abandoned the dreary Hotel du Poirier for the Madison, more respectable lodgings in the publisher’s district of Paris. The Germans didn’t arrive in the French capital until June 14, but the fact that they would arrive was no longer in doubt, and the population had begun to flee en masse. You have to wonder what the metros were like that day, or even how he was able to make his way from the hill of Montmartre in the eighteenth district of Paris to the Boulevard Saint-Germain on the left bank of the Seine. Once installed in the Madison, he could see out his window the signs of the largest mass displacement in French history, known simply as “the exodus”: thick ribbons of cars, carts, and bicycles heading down the Boulevard Saint-Germain toward the Place de l’Odéon, where they would make their way due south to the Porte d’Italie, one of the traditional gates of the city.
Camus’s own journey through four years of enemy occupation was beginning. He followed Paris-Soir to Clermont-Ferrand and then to Lyon, where he married his fiancé, Francine, and was soon laid off from the paper. He and Francine returned to Algeria, and he busied himself with sending out The Stranger. In the spring of 1942, just as the book was on the verge of publication by Gallimard, Camus suffered a nearly fatal relapse of his adolescent tuberculosis. It was several months before he saw a copy of his first novel. Still ailing through the summer, he finally got permission from the Algerian authorities to travel to mainland France for treatment in the Massif Central. The week the allies invaded North Africa, Camus was alone in a mountain boarding house. Cut off from his wife and family, without even the possibility of sending a letter home to what was now allied territory, he faced what might have been an even greater solitude than in June 1940. But he didn’t stay alone. He joined the underground resistance and relocated to Paris, doing what he did best: writing and making a newspaper with a dedicated, courageous team. By the time Paris was liberated in August 1944, Camus was the editor in chief of Combat, the newspaper born of the resistance, and many French considered him the moral conscience of their newly liberated nation. Combat set up shop in new headquarters at 100 rue Réaumur, in the exact spot where the German daily Pariser Zeitung had been produced only days earlier. Camus wrote daily editorials for Combat—he delivered the first on national radio, declaring that Paris was “liberated from its shame.” Thirty years old in August 1944, on the verge of a career that would lead to a Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus would never again experience anything quite like those lonely, anguished weeks in Montmartre. And although he became one of the most recognized men in Paris, he would always look at the city with a stranger’s eyes.
Places to visit:
A postcard of the patio at Le Hoggar, via www.delacampe.net.
Site of the former Hôtel Poirier, 16 rue Ravignan, Montmartre. Photo courtesy of the author.
100 rue Réaumur during the Nazi Occupation. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 1011 068 2484 12A photo: Nieberle, 1941
Adapted from Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
See also Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935–1942, translated by Philip Thody (Chicago: Ivan Dee Publisher, 2010) (quoted here with minor edits) and, of course, Albert Camus, The Stranger, translated by Matthew Ward (New York: Knopf, 1988).
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