Looking for The Stranger By Alice Kaplan, $26.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 By James Shapiro, $18.
There are two kinds of books: those that stack on my nightstand and those that collect on my living-room coffee table. The bedroom books I consume a few pages each night to suit my bedtime moods, and the living-room books I read more intently, any time of day. Recently, though, I found myself reading two books that transcend room assignments.
The Year of Lear and Looking for The Stranger rise above literary category, too. Both are about famous authors composing classics, but they read like biographies of the works themselves. Unfortunately, books about books tend to be overlooked in the year’s releases. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro’s Year of Lear came out (in trade paperback) in September, as did Alice Kaplan’s look at how Camus’ existentialist novel took shape.
Both books reflect on literary creation in times of political upheaval. The Year of Lear is 1606, and the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605 resonates throughout. Prominent Catholics nearly succeeded in blowing up Parliament and King James I, hoping to re-establish Catholicism in Anglican England. Guy Fawkes was among the lesser plotters, but because he was caught red-handed his name has attached itself to the day. And Camus wrote and published The Stranger as Germany subdued France in the early 1940s.
In Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Shapiro defended Shakespeare from claims that others wrote all or some of his plays, but scant documentary evidence leaves him little choice but to speculate about how the Gunpowder Plot affected the playwright personally. Still, he makes a strong case that King Lear, written as the Gunpowder Plot unraveled, and Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, composed in 1606, bristle with political repercussions from the conspiracy and from James’ efforts to unite England and his native Scotland.
One echo is the word “equivocation,” which denoted priestly advice to Catholics on how to lie to Anglican authorities about their faith, by saying one thing and meaning another. Shakespeare made it the hallmark of his play about murdering a Scottish king. “Equivocation makes following Macbeth’s dialogue a mentally exhausting experience,” Shapiro observes. He also notes that both Duncan and Macbeth die offstage, in deference to the Scottish James.
The politics of occupied France, the Vichy rump state and Vichy-controlled Algeria, in all three of which Camus worked and wrote, matter little in The Stranger, which sailed through German censors when Gallimard published it in Paris in 1941. The absurdist story about a French Algerian who kills an unnamed Arab on a beach was deemed “asocial” and “apolitical,” but Kaplan reports that Camus had to remove a chapter about Kafka from the nonfiction The Myth of Sisyphus because the Czech author was Jewish. Camus was anything but collaborationist, though; he also risked his life to write for a clandestine paper of the Resistance.
Items in the newspaper for which he wrote, the Algers-Républicain, reverberate in The Stranger, including the sensational murder of an Algerian by a French colonial and the spectacular guillotine execution of a murderer in Paris. The novel’s first-person narrator, Meursault, only anticipates his death, but Camus, Kaplan writes, followed news of the Parisian execution and “imagined, as Meursault would imagine, the gathering crowds and their cries of hatred.”
Both Shapiro and Kaplan consider literary works as products of imaginations shaped by the times their authors endured. Shakespeare navigated a period of suspicion and shifting power, and Camus examined the individual’s place in the world while that world was consumed by war. The Year of Lear and Looking for The Stranger make excellent companion pieces in our unsettled times.
Find more by Chuck Twardy at chucktwardy.com.