The Stranger by Albert Camus (L'Étranger, 1942) translated from the French by Matthew Ward (1988) Vintage (1989) 123 pp
I’m way behind on my Camus. The Stranger is the first one I’ve read. Right alongside this ignorance is the fact that I know nothing about Camus, other than the general knowledge that he was an existentialist (thought he disputes this — and whose word are we going to take?) and that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. A quick jaunt to Wikipedia revealed to me that he worked to oppose nihilism. There I also read this interesting quote: “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.” This notion (though I don’t fully understand it), in a sense, introduces some the ideas in The Stranger. Rather than choose this book for its ideas, however, I mainly chose it as my first venture into Camus because it is short and sweet — well, maybe not too sweet, as it turns out.
Translator Matthew Ward offers an interesting introduction as to why he would change some of the most famous lines in literature. For example, he changes the famous first line “Mother died today.” However, I agree with his choice: “Maman died today.” It’s a simple change, but one that I think very much changes the reading. Ward notes that Camus wrote that “the curious feeling the son has for his mother constitutes all his sensibility.” Fitting, then, that the first word in this book would be “maman,” which brings to me a totally different feel than “mother.” Therefore, though I have no credentials, I endorse this translation. It seems Ward has made conscious changes to other English translations and his changes are informed by his studies of Camus’s other writings. It is too bad that Ward died in 1990, just a year after completing this translation. It would be interesting, had he been able to continue translating, to see if his works took on the status of Seamus Heany’s translation of Beowulf, Robert Fagles’s of The Odyssey, and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s of Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. (I hope these thoughts bring up discussions of translations, particularly of French translation, since that is where we are in this post.)
I find it somewhat interesting that I chose to start this review about the translation rather than about the actual story. In many ways, I guess, that was where my interest lay while reading The Stranger. L’étranger is one Mersault, a man so honest about his seeming apathy that he does not fit into society, hence the title and the reason it is sometimes translated as “The Outsider,” since étranger also signifies a foreigner or outsider and not necessarily someone who is unknown.
An example of this seeming apathy is found in the early pages when Mersault attends his mother’s funeral but chooses to smoke and drink coffee by the coffin and doesn’t seem to show much emotion. All of this will come back to haunt him later, though he doesn’t really care even at that point. I say “seeming” apathy because something else is going on here. First, there is the first word in the book — maman — and all it signifies about Mersault’s relationship with his mother. But also Mersault’s actions are not necessarily derived from apathy. Rather, he is simply being honest about how he wants to act. Does he want to look at his dead mother in her coffin? No. And it does not follow that that is because he doesn’t care for her. Does he want to drink coffee and smoke while there? Yes. So he does. All the same, Mersault’s vibe of being unfeeling has a whiff of truth to it.
Which is why I am so interested in the translation. Ward pulls off a translation that is at once touchingly intimate and detached and disinterested. I cannot compare this to other translations, but, as I said earlier, I very much think this one is worth the read. For example, the first few paragraphs:
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.
The old people’s home is at Marengo, about eighty kilometers from Algiers, I’ll take the two o’clock bus and get there in the afternoon. That way I can be there for the vigil and come back tomorrow night. I asked my boss for two days off and there was no way he was going to refuse me with an excuse like that. But he wasn’t too happy about it. I even said, “It’s not my fault.” He didn’t say anything. Then I thought I shouldn’t have anything to apologize for. He’s the one who should have offered his condolences. But he probably will day after tomorrow, when he sees I’m in mourning. For now, it’s almost as if Maman weren’t dead. After the funeral, though, the case will be closed, and everything will have a more official feel to it.
After a series of arbitrary events, Mersault winds up in prison for the murder of an Arab man. Getting to this murder is part of the fun of the novel, so I don’t want to spoil it by connecting the dots. During his prosecution, Mersault is accused of being heartless and uncaring. Much of the evidence against him is derived from his actions at his mother’s funeral. Indeed, it seems he is more on trial for this than for the murder of the Arab.
It’s a fascinating book. But that didn’t make it a great book for me, I’m afraid. I think some of it comes from the tendency of absurdists (and existentialist) books to begin to sound like one another. The ideas in them ring both true and false to me, but they generally toll in the same note. So the pleasures of this book were the poetry, the atmosphere, and the structure of the novel. Another reason, perhaps, why I was almost more interested in talking here about the translator than about the novel itself. Ward definitely succeeded in helping me appreciate what Camus could do with language.
Which brings me to the end of the book. Watch this potential spoiler, but I cannot resist posting the last lines, which I think are amazing:
As if blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.