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Monday, 13 July 2015

The Stranger (The Outsider) - Albert Camus (translated by Stuart Gilbert)

After a three week holiday it is time to update the blog with the latest reviews and given the nature of some of the works I read during my time away from technology I’m going to dedicate a week to literature of detachment, books of alienation.

Although written in 1942, and a work quite a few people would be familiar with, I recently revisited Nobel Prize Winning Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” (or “The Outsider” depending on the translation you happen to have come across). The first English translation of “L’√Čtranger” was by Stuart Gilbert in 1946, with Joseph Laredo’s version first appearing in 1982. An “American” version was published in 1988 translated by Matthew Ward and a new version was recently released translated by Sandra Smith and published by Penguin in 2013. The version I read was the original as translated by Stuart Gilbert. For more interesting information about the various translations and even the change to the opening line in the most recent version have a look at this article in the New York Review of Books from June last year. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jun/05/camus-new-letranger/

The version I read opens with the line “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday: I can’t be sure.” An opening which reveals our auteur Meursault’s clinical approach to existence.  A novel split into two sections, our first person narrator, Meursault, describing the events leading up to his killing of an Arab, and the subsequent, post murder investigation and plight of our writer.

He then asked if a “change of life,” as he called it, didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well.
At this he looked rather hurt, and told me that I always shilly-shallied, and that I lacked ambition—a grave defect, to his mind, when one was in business.
I returned to my work. I’d have preferred not to vex him, but I saw no reason for “changing my life.” By and large it wasn’t an unpleasant one. As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant. But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realized all that was pretty futile.

Albert Camus was born in Algeria and studied at the University of Algiers, and our work is set in that part of the world. With the early chapters exploring Meursault’s detachment from the events of his mother’s funeral, where he sits coffin side, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee as well as giving us details of others at the funeral himself, without exploring his own feelings. We have a very solid base of a character who is socially unaware of his actions.


It struck me that I’d better see about some dinner. I had been leaning so long on the back of my chair, looking down, that my neck hurt when I straightened myself up. I went down, bought some bread and spaghetti, did my cooking, and ate my meal standing. I’d intended to smoke another cigarette at my window, but the night had turned rather chilly and I decided against it. As I was coming back, after shutting the window, I glanced at the mirror and saw reflected in it a corner of my table with my spirit lamp and some bits of bread beside it. It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.

A chance meeting with an ex-girlfriend the day after the funeral leads to a sexual relationship and the meeting with his neighbour Raymond, who accuses his own girlfriend of being unfaithful leads Meursault to write a letter on Raymond’s behalf to trap the unwilling girlfriend. Domestic violence ensues and when Raymond and Meursault visit the beach they come across the spurned girlfriend’s brother and an unnamed Arab friend. Meursault subsequently, apparently overcome with heat stroke, shoots the Arab five times. Our language is very removed from the emotional with Meursault describing the events in an unattached tone, clinical in the description.


But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

The second section of the book describes Meursault’s arrest, time in prison and subsequent investigations and trial. Again the detachment, playing simple mental games or staring at the sky whilst in his cell, highlight our character’s emotional incapacity. Even his impending execution only shows our writer to be concerned about the workings of the guillotine.


Only one incident stands out; toward the end, while my counsel rambled on, I heard the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street, a small, shrill sound cutting across the flow of words. And then a rush of memories went through my mind—memories of a life which was mine no longer and had once provided me with the surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh. The futility of what was happening here seemed to take me by the throat, I felt like vomiting, and I had only one idea: to get it over, to go back to my cell, and sleep ... and sleep.


Alienation, loneliness, abandonment are all to the fore here, as displayed in the closing lines “For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”

It probably goes without saying, when looking at a universally celebrated work, any analysis of that work will come in for criticism itself. You only need look at the plethora of comments on other reviews criticising the review for mentioning “absurdist” or “existentialism” and you’ll get what I mean. Personally I could not feel for our main character here, his selfish, narcissistic style creating such a bleak mood of detachment I felt some of the “benign indifference of the universe” seeping through the pages. French Algeria until 1962 this work does highlight the detached nature of the French inhabitants to the local Algerians, Simply reducing the locals to “Arabs” is only one example, however our narrator is also removed from his own emotions after hearing of his mother’s death, when making love, when witnessing domestic violence, when contemplating his own demise, so a reading of our narrator being “foreign” here is only a simple layer of the work.


As most readers of translated fiction would possibly know, the unnamed “Arab” who is shot and killed resurfaces in 2015 in another translated work....but that’s for later in the week.


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