Even if you’ve read Albert Camus’s slim novel The Stranger (L’ Étranger) repeatedly, there are still a few things you may not know about the masterpiece, which has sold more than 6 million copies.
1. Albert Camus published The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in the same year.
In 1942, Camus—who was just 28 years old at the time—kept himself busy with writing. In addition to publishing The Stranger, he also published The Myth of Sisyphus, an essay that examines subjects as lofty as the meaning of life, absurdity, and death by suicide.
2. The Stranger may have been a second draft of an earlier book.
A few years before the The Stranger’s original publication, Camus had completed a strikingly similar story about a man named Mersault (as it was spelled in this story) who callously kills an innocent acquaintance for selfish reasons. The manuscript for his original story was discovered after Camus died in 1960 and published in 1971; an English translation titled A Happy Death was published the following year.
3. Camus carried the manuscript for The Stranger with him as he fled the Nazis.
Camus began his writing career in the 1930s when he was living in his native Algeria (then colonized by the French), and moved to Paris in early 1940 to take a job as a newspaper editor. Just a few months later, Camus was forced to flee Paris when Nazi Germany made moves to invade the city in the summer of 1940. Over the next several years, Camus relocated to Clermont-Ferrand, Bordeaux, and Lyon, and got married before ultimately returning to Algeria, where he worked as a teacher. Throughout the years of travel, he held tight to his The Stranger manuscript.
4. The Stranger was a hit in anti-Nazi circles.
The Stranger was published in France during the Nazi occupation, which meant that publisher Gallimard needed to get the book approved by the regime. It turned out not to be a problem: As Alice Kaplan, author of Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, wrote for Publishers Weekly, “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.’ … Reading for subtleties was not on the censors’ agenda, and this was a good thing for The Stranger.”
The antiestablishment sensibilities of the story may have been subtle enough to sail past the censors, but the subtext read loud and clear to those harboring enmity from an increasingly powerful Germany: The Stranger was immediately popular among anti-Nazi Party activists.
5. The Stranger’s influences were mostly American.
Camus’s style and ideology are often linked to his one-time friend, the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. But his chief literary influences—at least those that shaped the construction of The Stranger—were mostly American novelists. Camus drew inspiration from the works of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, and James M. Cain.
6. Camus didn’t like it when people called the novel “existentialist.”
Not only did Camus resent comparisons to the style and philosophy of Sartre (a man he otherwise respected), the author contested the idea that he or his works might be categorized under the umbrella of existentialism. The writer instead indicated that his works were nearer absurdism.
7. The book has more than one English title.
Certain versions of The Stranger have been translated into English under a second title: The Outsider. Both the earliest English-language incarnation of the book, translated by British scholar Stuart Gilbert in 1946, and a more recent one, by translator Sandra Smith in 2013, bear the latter handle.
Why the difference? Gilbert had chosen The Stranger, but his British publisher went with The Outsider because, as the publisher explained, “we consider this a more striking and appropriate title than The Stranger, and because [rival UK publisher] Hutchinson’s recently called one of their Russian novels The Stranger.” The book had already gone to print in America with The Stranger as its title, however, and it was too late to make any changes.
8. You can listen to Camus read some of The Stranger in its original French.
The passage, recorded on December 13, 1947, begins with the iconic opening line “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” and ends with “J’ai dit 'oui' pour n’avoir plus à parler.” You can listen above.
9. The opening line of The Stranger has never been fully translated.
As a result of the varied translations, readers have seen disparate takes on the aforementioned opening line. In its original French, the first sentence reads, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” In the absence of a literal English variant that would appropriately carry over the sentiment of the statement (the closest technical reproduction might read, “Today, mom is dead,” which betrays the original tense and spirit of Camus’s line), translators have braved a number of different routes, according to a 2012 piece in The New Yorker.
Gilbert’s 1946 translation begins, “Mother died today.” Since the release of this translation, scholars have protested that the formal “mother” conflicts with the emotion suggested by the familiar “maman.” Nevertheless, Joseph Laredo and Kate Griffith’s independent 1982 versions inherited Gilbert’s “mother.”
Six years later, American author Matthew Ward translated The Stranger anew with the opener, “Maman died today,” maintaining the French in lieu of an English substitute. Although Ward’s take on the line is widely accepted as preferable to those of Gilbert, Laredo, and Griffith, scholars continue to debate the ideal translation of the sentence, batting around possibilities of “mommy” and “mom” and questioning the relocation of “today” to the end of the statement from its position at the front of the original.
10. Translators have also wrestled with the final line.
The complexity of The Stranger’s closing lines—including “Comme si cette grande colère m’avait purgé du mal, vidé d’espoir, devant cette nuit chargée de signes et d’étoiles, je m’ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde”—has likewise rendered it a tough nut to crack for English translators. One issue revolves around the word tendre: While a literal translation might suggest using the English word tender, Gilbert opted for “benign,” and Laredo for “gentle.”
Translations of The Stranger have faced criticism for not capturing Camus’s original intentions. Writing in a 1972 issue of Contemporary Literature, translator and editor Helen Sebba argued that Gilbert’s translation, for example, renders the main character with “certain psychological inconsistencies, not present in the original, which stem directly from the translation. Small deviations from the French text … prove on closer examination to blur or destroy vital clues to Meursault’s character and behavior. In trying to maintain the tone of common speech, Gilbert all too often smooths away insights embodied by Camus in seemingly trivial factual details and substitutes purely conventional ideas or responses or reactions for what are in fact indications of a very idiosyncratic mode of being, of the Stranger’s cosmic sense of life.”
11. In 1955, Camus reexamined an early synopsis he provided for The Stranger.
In a foreword to the 1955 edition of The Stranger for American University, Camus took the opportunity to look back on how he had previously spoken about the book. “I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death,’” he wrote. “I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. … A much more accurate idea of the character, or, at least one much closer to the author’s intentions, will emerge if one asks just how Meursault doesn’t play the game. The reply is a simple one; he refuses to lie. … One would therefore not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth. I also happen to say, again paradoxically, that I had tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve.”
12. The murder victim in The Stranger got his own spin-off.
The nameless Arab man killed by Meursault in The Stranger found a somewhat brighter fate 70 years after his original appearance in the text. In 2013, Algerian author Kamel Daoud published a spin-off novel, The Meursault Investigation, fleshing out the identity and backstory of The Stranger’s anonymous murder victim.
13. French readers once voted The Stranger the greatest book of the 20th century.
In 1999, Paris newspaper Le Monde asked its readers to name the best and most resilient pieces of literature published in the 20th century. The Stranger topped the list, beating out runners-up In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, The Trial by Franz Kafka, and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
14. The Stranger inspired a song by The Cure.
The first single released by the English rock band The Cure earns the band backlash to this day thanks to an unsurprising misinterpretation of its title and lyrics. “Killing an Arab” was recorded in 1976 as an homage to Camus’s novel. Songwriter Robert Smith aimed to detail the events and themes of the story in the track’s lyrics, explaining that “Killing an Arab” was meant to be “a short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments” of The Stranger. In light of the public’s reading of the band’s intentions as culturally insensitive, The Cure has occasionally opted to perform the song with revised lyrics.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.