Albert Camus: The Stranger

I’m way behind on my Camus. The Stranger (L’Étranger, 1942; tr. from the French by Matthew Ward, 1988) 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.

18 thoughts on “Albert Camus: The Stranger

  1. Evie says:

    I adore Camus’s The Plague, how fortunate you are to be able to read it for the first time.

    It’s interesting to note that Camus was inspired to write The Stranger after reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Camus’s use of language in this novel is, to some extent, in homage to that American noir classic, and there are certainly parallels between the unfeeling protagonists of the two novels.

    In the past few months, I have read Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colours and The Black Book translated by Maureen Freely. I can’t speak Turkish, but if these books aren’t excellently translated, then Freely herself deserves a Nobel. Gunter Grass’s Crabwalk also seems to have been well translated.

    I also have Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks waiting to be read. I think I have read somewhere that in German it is approximately twice as long, which makes me wonder how much I’ll be missing. As for French translation, I’m afraid I don’t read enough French literature.

  2. KevinfromCanada says:

    Welcome to Camus. Having started the journey, Trevor, you owe it both to yourself and Camus to continue it. Fortunately, it is not long and the author left a road map. It is definitely worthwhile.

    “I am twenty-five, I have a life ahead of me and I know what I want,” Camus wrote in a notebook at the time (1938). (That would be why I would doubt that The Postman Always Rings Twice was an inspiration for L’Etranger, although Camus may have read the book.)

    He summed his plan up in three phases: The Absurd-Revolt-Love and in his Nobel acceptance speech in 1957 said:

    “I had a precise plan when I began my work. What I wanted to express first was negation. In three ways: in novel form (which produced The Outsider); in theatrical form (which produced Caligula and Cross Purposes); and in essay form (The Myth of Sisyphus). Then I foresaw three more works expressing positive values: in the form of a novel (The Plague); as theatre (State of Siege and Les Justes); and in an essay (Rebellion and Revolt). I also dimly projected a third layer of writing, on the theme of love.”

    So there you have your roadmap (and also why I don’t think Postman should be regarded as an inspiration, although perhaps an influence — I’d say growing up in Algeria had far more impact). I haven’t read or seen the plays but can say it is very important to read the essays as companion pieces to the novels cited. (The quote, incidentally, is included in an excellent introductory essay to the Everyman’s Library edition of The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom and Selected Essays — including Sisyphus — which your library probably has and, if it doesn’t, is a cost effective way for your next step since it covers most of phase two of Camus’ plan).

    You can see from the quote why Camus and the existentialists did not feel as one. Absurd for sure, but existentialists would get antsy with Revolt (why bother?) and downright hostile to Love — that’s absurd, return to square one. Camus generally gets called an “absurdist” since phase one is both the most complete, most accessible and most read of his work.

    Camus died only three years after that speech, where Love was still a “dimly projected” phase. The Fall is regarded as starting to move into phase three, the incomplete The First Man (an excellent book, even if incomplete) a serious work in progress, although you have to put a lot of interpretation into it.

    I read Camus as a youth but didn’t appreciate anything but the “absurd” phase until I reread the whole bunch a couple of years ago (and that essay and quote helped me a lot on that reread). L’Etranger (by whatever English title) is certainly a fine novel but its true brilliance only becomes apparent when put in context with the essays and the rest of the author’s overall (if tragically incomplete) plan. Following it through as far as you can is definitely worthwhile. The books and essays also can be read fairly quickly one after the other — there is an apparent path.

    Sorry I can’t comment on translations, my French just isn’t up to making an evaluation. Translators for that EL edition I mention are Stuart Gilbert (1948) for The Plague, Justin O’Brien (late 1950s) for the rest, so there may well be more recent (and perhaps better) versions.

  3. Kevin, I owe you a great thanks for that comment. Not only is it very valuable information, but it is incredibly encouraging. In a time when I’ve been distracted by other concerns and my reading has been suffering, your comment reminds me of the true joy and worth in all things literary.

  4. Good news for me, then, about The Plague, Evie! And also, thanks for the insights into the context surrounding The Stranger. I’ve never read (and don’t think I’ve even watched) The Postman Always Rings Twice, but my interest is again piqued.

    Speaking about Orhan Pamuk, I nearly read My Name is Red a few years ago and found Erdaq Goknar’s translation very impressive. Somehow I felt like I’d read a one thousand page book after just sixty or so pages (which was a good thing) because of the depth in the sentences and in the atmosphere. I’m thinking of revisiting that book again now that I have a few more years of experience under my belt. Then on to more Pamuk.

  5. adevotedreader says:

    I find The Stranger interesting but underwhelming as well Trevor. In a 1955 afterword Camus explains what he was trying to do:

    “So one wouldn’t be far wrong in seeing The Outsider as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for truth. I also once said, and again paradoxically, that I tried to make my character represent the only Christ that we deserve.”

    (as translated by Joseph Laredo in my 1982 Penguin copy)

    Sadly I don’t think he’s completely successful.

    I’d second the recommendation of The Plague, a much richer read that I enjoy re-visiting every couple of years.

    In regards to Cain’s influence:

    It’s worth noting The Postman Always Rings Twice was published in 1934, The Stranger in 1942.

    Cain noted in his 1978 Paris Review interview:
    “He (Camus) wrote something about me-more or less admitting that he had patterned one of his books on mine, and that he revered me as a great American writer.”

    I’ve not read Camus’s comments.Of course, if you read the Cain, you can make up your own mind.

  6. I’m very fond of the Stranger, which I do see as a work of noir in all honesty though the extent to which it’s inspired by Cain I can’t speak to. It wouldn’t surprise me though, French writers of this period were very conscious of what was happening in American noir and it had a big impact in France, where noir was seen as essentially literary fiction (whereas its perception in the US and Britain was more as a subset of crime).

    I enjoyed it more than you did Trevor, I found it quietly disturbing (disquieting perhaps) and as you note it’s really his apparent lack of feeling he is tried for – not the murder. He is tried for not conforming to our expectations, and for his insistence on an honesty that those around him cannot understand or tolerate.

    Which edition did you read? I’ll see who translated mine, yours sounds like it may be a different translator and it might be interesting if so to see how mine approaches your quoted passages.

  7. Andy says:

    A great book by a great writer.
    And follow this link for a great song by a great group! The link between the two should be obvious. This song came out at the same time that I was reading Camus at uni and the combination of Camus and The Cure – brilliant. Listen at the end – he even says ‘Oh Mersault’
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=ac2MEen9340&feature=related

  8. Thanks for your comments, adevotedreader, Max, and Andy.

    Andy, I haven’t had a chance to listen to the link you provided, but I am glad you put it here. I love that through comments I’m presented with so much more than I could possibly come across on my own!

    Max, I read the Vintage edition with the Ward translation. I think next time I read The Stranger (and I plan on doing it in the sequence Kevin recommended above) I will try another translation, just to see how the Ward translation – which I liked – stacks up.

  9. KevinfromCanada says:

    This debate motivated me to return to The Myth of Sisyphus, which was also published in 1942. I particularly wanted to revisit the section subtitled Drama, where Camus argues that taking part in drama enables an actor to escape from “the absurd”, find another world for two or three hours and then return.

    The revisit provokes a number of observations. I had forgotten how often Camus references Dostoevsky. And I had forgotten his section on Don Juan, so Cervantes if obviously an influence. And the essay includes an appendix on Kafka, so we can add him in. He makes no reference to Cain in the essay but I think Max raises a very good point — the “noir” fiction would have struck a responsive chord and the French did understand it in a different way than Americans did. It is particularly interesting that Postman, a few years after this, became a movie — which would link Camus’ notion of fiction and performance as an important counterpart to a philosophical essay.

    I think the essay shows the importance of looking at L’Etranger as the beginning of a process, which has a number of streams, rather than a work that stands by itself. When you look at the stream of influences that Camus identifies in the essay — coupled with the simultaneous publication of L’Etranger — I don’t think any other conclusion is possible.

  10. Sarah says:

    Found your comments on the translation very interesting. I am not good at recognising quality in translation, but your point about the use of Maman is intriguing.

    A more formal reference to a parent might be expected, such as mother or mere. That Mersault does not make that adjustment for the benefit of his audience is hugely relevant.

    Kevin’s comments are very helpful for the relative newcomer to Camus (that would be me) and thanks to Hungry like the Woolf for sending me here.

  11. Ronak M Soni says:

    I read this book almost a month ago (the same edition as adevotedreader), and I liked it but not much, because it really seemed to me that Camus wasn’t trying hard enough to convince the reader that the stuff in the novel could be happening. Also, I have to congratulate Ward on the ‘maman’ spot. Makes perfect sense.

    @kevinfromcanada: Check this out. It really seems that Camus didn’t know what he was doing.

  12. I checked it out, Ronak. I’m pretty sure Camus knew exactly what he was doing — the comments on this post are from people who don’t know anything at all about what he was doing.

  13. Ronak M Soni says:

    ‘ll take your word for it (don’t mind if I reserve judgment; I’m one of the people who don’t know what he was doing).

  14. Hi Ronak,

    I recall discussing this on your blog, I do think this is a very precise work, one that does exactly what it sets out to do.

    As you probably noticed from yours, I’m actually quite a fan of this, I think it’s a bit of a masterpiece.

    I don’t think though it’s a wholly naturalistic novel, I don’t think it’s necessary that we believe it could happen as depicted, it’s an examination for me more of what it means to live free of illusion – whether that’s even possible.

    Well, it’s that among several other things, it’s a dense work. As I said over at yours, I clearly have to reread it (particularly as I misremembered a detail about the ending, though not ultimately I think a dispositive one).

  15. Hm, when I reread it I’ll need to follow this:

    “I had a precise plan when I began my work. What I wanted to express first was negation. In three ways: in novel form (which produced The Outsider); in theatrical form (which produced Caligula and Cross Purposes); and in essay form (The Myth of Sisyphus). Then I foresaw three more works expressing positive values: in the form of a novel (The Plague); as theatre (State of Siege and Les Justes); and in an essay (Rebellion and Revolt). I also dimly projected a third layer of writing, on the theme of love.”

    Though I hate reading plays, I love seeing them performed but I get no pleasure from reading them. Still, off to thebookdepository to pick up The Myth of Sisyphus.

  16. Ronak M Soni says:

    I kinda agree with you, Max, which is why I love that last chapter so much. It’s just that the trial irked me way more than I was willing to take because of the reasons I’ve already said. (everyone else he’s talking about the comment thread here).

Leave a Reply