Monday, October 20, 2014

Albert Camus: L'Étranger (1942)

Le Livre De Poche edition, jacket design by Lucien Fontanarosa 

[Image source: Alexis Orloff,]

A book that (as The Outsider, in Stuart Gilbert's translation) was on all our male youthful minds and bookshelves in the 1970s. In other words a classic Peng-gie Modern Classic, along with Gormenghast, The Glass Bead Game, etc.

(I think I studied it for French A-Level, along with Racine's Britannicus , Voltaire's Candide and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.)

 L'Étranger being so short and easy to read, is a good study-text for schools; you can still find out all about it in Shmoop and places like that. And it still gets plenty of discussion, though I've a feeling its moment has passed, that the urgency of the issues Camus intended to raise is less clear-cut than it was, and that on the other hand time has only tended to underline the glaring issue of the book's quite primitive attitudes to women and to colonized "natives". In particular our awareness of and contacts with the Arab world have been completely overhauled since 9/11; westerners can no longer regard the Arab world as something separate. But as recently as 1980, when The Cure released an admired single called "Killing an Arab" (based on  L'Étranger), I was probably typical of British 21-year-olds in having only the smallest sense that this could possibly offend someone. I don't necessarily claim that modern sensitivities in the west are all 100% positive or well-directed, but I do think they mostly are and they've certainly changed how we think and feel. In the study, especially. (Meanwhile in the real world, it remains unclear when the number of Arabs being killed by Westerners is going to stop accelerating.)

Camus' L'Étranger (1942) - The Stranger, The Foreigner, The Outsider - tends to be interpreted against the background of other material. As usually happens with much-discussed books, this accumulated material is apt to set the agenda. The material includes Camus' "Essai Sur l'Absurde" (The Myth of Sisyphus), which he wanted published alongside the novel, his 1955 note, Sartre's 1943 essay, Cyril Connolly's Introduction, wider conceptions of the Absurd and Existentialism, and the more glaring contrasts between the book's assumptions and our own (i.e. about colonial Algeria, the Arab world, men and women...) Then there's the fact of L'Étranger having been so influential and so eagerly consumed; some people saw it as an expression of their own philosophy, and an indispensable guide to life. In these circumstances the most important thing may be what L'Étranger meant then; in the heyday of its influence, the 1950s and 1960s. (And no doubt it meant different things in the English-speaking and French-speaking worlds..)

These things are all relevant, but still I want to get back to the text before me. (That innocent notion really means "get back to how I go about reading it".)

My methodology is: Meursault is treated as a real person. My assumptions are: His philosophy, like everyone else's, is of interest principally as a betrayal of the inner psychic tensions that are either personal to himself or more widely symptomatic of his society. Like everyone else he does not know what he is doing or why, or even what he really thinks; these things are more easily seen from outside. Like most people he is a regular self-sabotager. He is a self-conscious outsider, that is, an insider playing a licensed outsider role within his society. His differences resemble the society he differs from. The society in question is a male-dominated colonial society. (The real "stranger", as others have tartly said, is the dead Arab.)

Much, I realize, is missed out by taking this viewpoint. I respect Sartre's insistence that L'Étranger ought to be read against the horizon of Camus' thought; to do otherwise is in a sense a reader's self-indulgence; as if one ignored the intention of a call to revolution and preferred to count its adverbs. But tacitly, the outlined approach does engage a little with Absurdism. (While I usually prefer to argue that an author cannot control the meaning of art, there are clearly instances where the intention of the artefact is signalled with special insistence, as is the case here. The artefact is doubly not an island; both as existing in the world and as being marketed for a specific worldly use.) There are some other interesting things that I don't get on to: for example the undertow of classical mythology noted in David Saint-Amour's essay (see below).


1. "Mother died today."  (Stuart Gilbert's translation - others have pointed out that "Maman" is more intimate and childish in tone - "Mum died today ...")

People have made much of Meursault not knowing when exactly she died, as if this already betrays a striking indifference. Yet the first paragraph is real-time narrative in the present tense. At this moment he cannot know because the telegram has not told him. (At this moment he still isn't sure which bus he's catching.)

By the 4th paragraph, the narration has subtly slipped into past-tense narrative, ("I took the two o'clock bus") and from this point there are no further indications of how much time separates the narrated events from the moment of narration.

The final chapter (Part 2, Ch 5) has the same structure, beginning in real-time ("I have just refused, for the third time, to see the prison chaplain"), but slipping into past-tense narration when the chaplain unexpectedly walks in.

The impression persists that the early chapters are vaguely diary-like, inasmuch as the chapters usually end with Meursault going to bed, and usually begin with a new day. In the second half of the book, of course, days have less individuality.

There is no attempt to account for the narrative we are reading (e.g. as a diary or a piece of writing addressed to an audience). I don't think most people will imagine that Meursault is the writing type. But he suppresses things - from his own thoughts?  Is that because the topics are painful for him to focus on, or because he considers exploring them pointless - or does he only think this because they are painful?

Meursault does not trouble to report if he was later told about what time his mother died. He probably was told, even if he didn't ask. The impression is of a man who is quite incurious, particularly about matters that are usually thought to be of interest. His apparent incuriosity about the man he has killed is one glaring example.

Meursault seems to disdain lying. Talking too much, claiming feelings you don't have. But habitual reserve can be a way of withholding the truth too. When reserve is patently misinterpreted, isn't it best to explain a bit?

Meursault takes refuge (that's my interpretation sneaking in, of course) in being uninterested. He is, I think, conscious of feeling inarticulate.

During the story often notes that he was in a bad state to interact with people. The sun or the heat affect him. Or crowds and noise. He frequently says he is tired or dizzy; at other times he may be bored.  For one reason or another he frequently doesn't take in everything that someone is saying to him.

2. The chaplain, at the start of their talk, suggests to Meursault that, though he thinks he's sure he doesn't believe in God, perhaps he isn't really so sure as he thinks.  "Are you really so sure of that?" he says.

Finding Meursault unwilling to reply, he then generalizes the case: Don't people often feel sure of something, when they're really not?

Meursault replies:

I said that seemed quite possible. But, though I mightn't be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn't interest me. And the question he had raised didn't interest me at all.

This is nearly a very a-propos reply. If Meursault had said: "though I mightn't be so sure about what I believed, I was absolutely sure about what didn't interest me", this would be a reasonable argument requiring some thought to counter. What he says instead, on the other hand, looks like weak bluster. Someone who admits the possibility of not being sure about what interests them can't be absolutely sure about what doesn't interest them. It sounds like Meursault gets ahead of himself, picks up one of his own favourite contrasts (interested/not interested) and deploys it too early in the sentence.

Did Camus really mean to write this? It's an extremely credible confusion. Is it an intentional instance of how Meursault tends to tie himself in knots so his replies are inarticulate?

I think we can see the same inarticulateness in the long diatribe that he finally unleashes when he loses his temper with the priest. It is repetitive, it jumps about, it doesn't hang together, and does the argument about fatalism really carry any weight in the end? Meursault himself seems aware that he may not have put it very well: "[C]ouldn't he grasp what I meant by that dark wind blowing from my future?"

 If Meursault is conscious of being inarticulate, his frequent claims of lack of interest look tactical; they are a way of avoiding communication.

2a. Some might add to this, Meursault not relishing the task of explaining things to the women, after Raymond is wounded. But I suppose this means, not explaining the fight but explaining why the Arabs have got it in for Raymond; the letter written by Meursault, the Arab girl being beaten up, etc. Telling that story to his own girl-friend might well seem problematic.

Meursault's failure to go in to Masson's bungalow is fateful. Perhaps he needed to talk to women a bit more often. It is sometimes said that Marie and he don't have much in common, don't have anything to say to each other. But isn't the truth that Meursault puts up a wall that precludes them having anything serious to say, because it never occurs to him to share his real thoughts or his real life? (For example, the business with Raymond..) And isn't this a very typical macho male wall...

His male pals say, as a matter of course, that Meursault has little in common with his mother. I think we can conclude that he was not a confiding son.

It seems relevant to propose here that Absurdism is a philosophy - more than a philosophy, an excuse - that appeals to men far more than to women. (This Guardian article seems to confirm that it's very much a man's book...)

3. A number of Amazon readers have commented on how much Meursault reminds them of autistic narrators in more recent books.

4. At a late stage in the trial, Meursault does attempt an explanation:

I tried to explain that it was because of the sun, but I spoke too quickly and ran my words into each other. I was only too conscious that it sounded nonsensical, and, in fact, I heard people tittering.

5. The account of events leading up to the killing is ambiguous. It suggests that Meursault isn't thinking clearly. If Meursault is so hot, why doesn't he go inside or bathe his head in the sea? (The water, we are told, comes right up to Masson's bungalow.) Or do anything but walk back, under that pitiless sun, to the exact place where the dangerous Arabs might reasonably be supposed to be? He says he was taken aback by the reappearance of the Arab, so presumably the killing was not premeditated, though Meursault himself supposed that Raymond's earlier walk along the beach did perhaps did have vengeful intention; so what really drives Meursault to return to this same spot? What about that ominous thought, "[O]ne might fire, or not fire.." For the four additional shots he has no explanation, but despair at the ruinous event of the first might be a possible motive.

The appearance of a steamer at the time of the fateful encounter is possibly intended to be echoed by the steamer's siren on the book's final page.

6. Book II Chapter 1 describes - or rather, fails to describe - Meursault's explanations after being arrested.  By the way, we never find out how he was arrested. Did the shots alert a crowd to this lonely spot, or did M. give himself up? At any rate, we can perhaps infer that he made no resistance to arrest.

Regardless of how different the judicial system may have been in Algeria in the 1930s, you can't get arrested for murder without someone saying to you, probably fairly swiftly, "Tell me in your own words the whole story of how it happened."  We find out eventually that this was said repeatedly and that Meursault did give an account, if not several accounts. But by a certain authorial sleight of hand, we never get to hear these accounts which, as readers, we consider so crucial to appraising the subsequent actions of both the lawyers and the accused.

The message, I suppose, is that appraisal is not going to be the most helpful approach to this particular novel.

What we do get to hear is Meursault being obstructive: saying things that are irrelevant and counter-helpful, or commenting without further explanation that some matter seems very simple or of minor importance, or flat-out refusing to answer a direct question (about the four shots).

7. But is Meursault really so inarticulate? There's also a set of contra-indications. For example about the four shots; it was Meursault himself who emphasized that there was a pause between the first shot and the other four. Though the novel doesn't report his other accounts, it's clear that they were as detailed as this.

He communicates well with men, who consider him "a good sort". The examining magistrate, after a distinctly histrionic meltdown about M's lack of religion, subsequently names him "Mr Antichrist", pats him on the shoulder, and seems to have a kind of rapport with him; M enjoys conversations with his lawyer and the magistrate on general matters. Later, the prison-guard notes that M is intelligent and has a way with words, unlike other prisoners.

Above all he's a white Algerian like everyone in the legal establishment and all the people he names or hangs out with. Evidently the colony shares understanding to a certain extent; it couldn't be avoided. A shared understanding, for instance, that shooting an Arab may not be the end of the world. Lots of readers have speculated that Meursault ought to have been able to get off if only he weren't so prone to self-sabotage. Did he even mention that the Arab drew a knife? We don't know, of course, if there was confirming evidence to back up what only he saw; but there should have been. You'd think that a drawn knife on its own would be enough to establish threat; enough evidence of self-defence to escape, at any rate, the guillotine.

This brings us back, again, to the question of intent. Meursault allows himself to be considered a friend by Raymond, but evidently there's a marked disparity between the two men in terms of intelligence and education. When Meursault intervenes about the gun, and is given the gun, he effectively uses that class-superiority to "take charge". He implies then that he is better fitted than Raymond to judge when is the right occasion to shoot. In the event, he turns out to be a poor judge. But to a certain extent he employs at this later juncture the same ground-rule he formerly spelled out to Raymond; you can't shoot someone unless they threaten you, but then you can. The fact that he has the gun, and knows it, and goes back to the stream, suggests that he is still intoxicatedly playing the part of "a man in charge"; the responsible colonial who may have to enforce order by a controlled (well-judged) act of violence. If not, indeed, the self-sacrificial colonial.*

[*See John Kucich, Imperial Masochism:British Fiction, Fantasy and Social Class (Princeton University Press, 2006)]

8. The scene of Marie's prison visit in Bk 2 Ch 2 is one of the most impressive in the book. It's hugely frustrating to read, since Meursault fails to have any but the most unsatisfactory communication with the woman who nevertheless is beginning to be the focus of all his hopes. Instead of talking with her, he wastes the minutes annotating with futile detail who else is talking to whom, and repeating fragments of their conversation. (The language barrier, here as elsewhere in the book, interposes a big gap between colonials and natives; Meursault cannot understand Arabic or Berber and cannot quote it; one practical reason why the Arabic characters aren't named.) M., as usual, is full of excuses to the reader/himself. He is unused to the light, distracted by other prisoners, not in the right mood, always dislikes having to raise his voice, and so on. Here we can see his self-sabotage most clearly (and the complete separation of his mental life from what he communicates to Marie). The scene is apparently important in its consequences. Marie's letter says that she can no longer visit because she isn't married to him (Is it true? How was she able to visit him the first time?); this in turn leads to the period of misery that Meursault dislikes speaking of.

9. The prison visit is one of several episodes in the book that have the air of being set-pieces. Another is the prolonged account of Meursault's solitary Sunday after Marie has departed in Bk 1 Ch 2. I said earlier that there's no attempt to account for the existence of Meursault's narrative. Although the book is in the first person throughout, yet it evinces a great range of styles, put together rather intuitively, and we can't always infer too much about M's own thoughts from it. Take for instance the sentence:

But she hadn't any appetite, and I ate nearly all. (Bk 1, Ch 4).

It's put into Meursault's mouth, but is obviously there to confirm to us that Marie is horrified by the nasty scene in Raymond's room, while Meursault isn't. What about the earlier sentence "He'd beaten her till the blood came"?  Here too the normative implications are clear. Though Meursault himself overlooks the viciousness of Raymond's behaviour, yet Camus is finding ways of telling us how any normal person would feel about it. It's quite a crude technique from a Jamesian perspective, but it makes for a thrilling ride.

The chapter ends with another authorial prompt. M overhears Salamano weeping for his lost dog and "For some reason, I don't know what, I began thinking of Mother." We can guess that he's thinking of the loneliness she suffered when she was first in the care home. Then "as I wasn't feeling hungry", M goes to bed. That might be just because of his eating for two at lunchtime, but it's sufficiently close to the other sentence to suggest that M's thoughts are upsetting.

So M did feel something for his mother.

After considering for a bit he asked me if he could say that on that day I had kept my feelings under control.
'No,' I said. 'That wouldn't be true.'

This is the first interview with the defence lawyer. M has frequently been credited with a principled veracity. But surely the wording the lawyer proposes is, in fact, the truth. M is self-sabotaging.

You could argue that a good deal of what happens in Bk 1 - specifically the involvements with Marie and Raymond - are the direct result of feelings of loss that M himself won't admit to. For him "Really, nothing in my life had changed." But the mere fact that he is watching for a change proves the opposite.


Albert Camus' 1955 note, which has been highly influential on interpreting the novel:

Sartre's 1943 essay on L'Étranger, in English translation, can be found here (p. 26-44):,%20Jean-Paul%20-%20Literary%20and%20Philosophical%20Essays%20(Collier,%201962)_djvu.txt

Interview with David Carroll, author of Albert Camus The Algerian:

Interesting interview defining Camus' changing politics and his plea for non-violent democratic change in Algeria, rejected by both sides.

Claire Messud, "Camus and Algeria: The Moral Question" in the New York Review of Books (November 7th, 2013):

(This excellent piece asserts, on the contrary, Camus' consistent moral viewpoint.)

Guardian review of Sandra Smith's recent translation:

Guardian reading group discussing Camus' attitudes to Algeria and Algerians.

Commentary by Sophie Lioulias:

Amazon review, by jacr100, criticizing the novel:

jacr100's against-the-tide unfavourable review of The Outsider.  One of the most indefatigable reviewers and not someone to ignore - jacr100 has reviewed more modern novels than you've ever read. He's uninterested in modernism and tends to take an emperor's-new-clothes viewpoint; clearly someone who operates outside the academic literary community.

If the narrator is a purely sensual mediterranean sort (a point argued by Connolly, etc), why does he have such a humdrum job and futile semi-demi-friendships and nothing else?

"if being an individual entails such a lack of zest for life, it might be preferable to be a suppressed cog in the wheel."

 "a near total lack of environmental description which removes the tale from any geographical or cultural context"

That's an accusation that would surprise a lot of people, but it does have something in it. Algeria is not exoticised at all; pretty much without Arabic life or "local colour"; this is more difficult to pronounce on since the colonial environment in which Meursault (and Camus) lived has completely disappeared.

Amazon review, by Christopher H, arguing that L'Étranger should be treated as a roman dur:

Detailed chapter-by-chapter commentary by Simon Lea:

L'Étranger as a cartoon book (by Jacques Ferrandez).

David Saint-Amour's 1977 essay "Underground with Meursault: Myth and Archetype in Camus's L'Etranger"  - psychological/mythological analysis - recommended.

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At 1:23 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

Another of your excellent posts on literary themes. Never mind "jacr100's against-the-tide unfavourable review of The Outsider", to hell with tides altogether" say I, to misquote what Canute never said. As a writer, I've come to an instant unreflective conclusion that Camus was a lousy writer & misled by all the fame he achieved, though I assume most of it has been posthumous and could therefore have hardly influenced him. I have a personal grudge against him, along with others on the syllabus of my university course in French Literature, which I had naively signed up to.

I don't grudge the time I've spent producing a new translation of The Myth of Sisyphus, on the basis that its incomprehensibility was due to the absurdly literal translation by Justin O'Brien. The subject being "the absurd" was no excuse. I discovered after countless hours that any attempt to produce a translation in readable English only served to reveal that the original French is pretty hopeless too.

I conclude that Camus is a supremely careless writer, perhaps along with a number of other French intellectuals who arrogantly refuse to explain themselves with generous clarity and noble style, like Pascal or Montesquieu. Georges Bataille is another offender, perhaps worse than Camus on philosophical topics. (I refer to his Theory of Religion. What they have written is essentially notes to themselves. They never bothered to edit it for another reader.

Returning to Camus' novels, have you tried to read "The Plague"? It's dire.

At 4:16 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

I'd love to read your translation! (now I've tracked down O'Brien's).

I wasn't quite sure if you're mentioning Pascal and Montesquieu as models of clarity or of obscurity (and too ignorant of both authors to have a guess).

At 4:25 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

I responded hastily & therefore a bit ambiguously. Models of clarity & elegance, I think. I have published several instalments of the new translation in a series of blog posts. I'll send you the links.

At 4:45 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

Part 4 offers parallel translation: 3 columns comparing the original French, Justin O’Brien’s version, & mine.

After that, I gave up. I was aiming for his birth centenary, but the translation rights are held by Editions Gallimard & I’m not sure if they hold till 70 years after the author’s death which would be 2030. But in any case I can’t be bothered.

Whenever I find myself with idle hands the Devil finds something for them to do. You’d think he’d suggest I translate an atheist tome, but I say, get behind me Satan: tempt me with something more interesting.


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