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L Etranger Critical Analysis Essay

For years, I have thought of myself as one of a small, discriminating group whose members, touched by a common emotional quirk, regarded Albert Camus's L'Etranger (The Outsider) as the most important and influential book they have read. Imagine my distress, on reading last Thursday's Guardian, to discover that a whole swathe of English male media types, academics and students were claiming similar intimacy with the book, and attesting to its significance for them.

Last year, academics Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins conducted a survey, among women only, to find out what "watershed" novel had most sustained and helped them through difficult times. Jane Eyre was, by far, the most frequently cited.

A similar survey of men, the results of which were revealed last week, had The Outsider as the book most often mentioned as having helped them get through life. This surprised and puzzled me. What kind of problems could the interviewees have had that would have been ameliorated by reading The Outsider?

I was, I admit, a little miffed by the patronising tone of Jardine and Watkins's article about the men's list (published here in G2). We men, it seems, are only influenced by books written by other men, the authors suggested.

The evidence for their conclusion? Only one of the men's top 20 novels was written by a woman - Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird - whereas in their 20 the women cited six books written by men. But even that single entry is suspect. The only reason Harper Lee got on to our list, they hinted, is that we assumed she was a man. The authors did not offer an explanation or analysis of why L'Etranger was so seductive to young men. They concluded that "men use fiction almost topographically, as a map" ( I'm not sure I know what that means) while many women used novels "metaphorically".

Well, all right: even accepting that men and women seek and find different things in novels, I'm still wondering why L'Etranger was the book, above all others, that had most sustained men through their times of crisis.

This is not the moment for a full discussion on existentialism, or to dissect the work to establish what the central character Meursault - who killed an Arab in the hot Algerian sun and was facing execution - really represented. In his own afterword to a 1955 edition of the book, Camus wrote: "A long time ago, I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realise is extremely paradoxical. 'In our society, any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death.' I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn't play the game ... He refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn't true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. But Meursault, contrary to appearances, doesn't want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. For example, he is asked to say that he regrets his crime, in time-honoured fashion. He replies that he feels more annoyance about it than true regret. And it is this nuance that condemns him."

Jardine and Watkins discovered that the formative reading of the several hundred men they interviewed was done between the ages of 12 and 20, and especially around 15 and 16. "Fiction was a rite of passage into manhood during painful adolescence," they wrote. So we have to see Camus through the feelings of boys of that age. But the effect of having The Outsider as one's most helpful book at times of personal difficulty could not have lasted very long. Anyone seriously assuming Meursault's philosophy as a guide to adult existence would soon have ended up damaged and incapable of loving or living normally, though as far as I can judge, my admiration for Meursault did not leave me afflicted by any life disadvantages, even if my brief Outsider-inspired vow always to tell the truth and not care about the consequences spoiled my love life for a while. ("What do you think of my new dress?" "Awful. You've got terrible taste.")

But my puzzlement remains. What made these English media and academic chaps interviewed by Jardine and Watkins choose, as their watershed novel, a book written by a French-Algerian communist existentialist in 1942, read in translation, about a pied-noir who kills an Arab and seems indifferent to his fate?

I will shortly be telling you about my great ethical plan for restaurant critics but first, news that a great gastronomic wrong has been righted. Last year, the plush magazine Restaurant announced its top 50 restaurants in the world. Fourteen of them were British, and only 10 French. I laughed a lot at the absurdity of the list. There was a simple explanation; the judges for this exercise were predominantly British.

The embarrassing nonsense should soon have been forgotten, but I kept coming across articles and people using that list to claim, in all pompous seriousness, that British restaurant cuisine was better than French. Anyway, last Monday, this year's Restaurant top 50 came out and sanity was regained (by way of a change in the rules and more non-British judges), with English restaurants restored to more modest positions (six out of the top 50). But the whole affair left me with dented confidence in the judgment and fairness of our critics.

Anyway, on to my new scheme. I read a lot of reviews and go to quite a lot of restaurants, and I've become increasingly aware of the lottery aspect of food criticism. It works both ways. The critics go on a good night, often when the place is newly opened and trying very hard to impress them; by the time the punter gets there, standards have slipped. Or, more seriously because it can destroy the reputation and future of a good restaurant, the critic comes on an off night - the main chef is ill, a waiter hasn't turned up for work, whatever - and writes a scathing review when any other evening the meal would have been excellent.

This is my solution. No food critics of influential newspapers or magazines shall publish their reviews until they have been to the restaurant twice, with a reasonable space between visits.

· This week Marcel read four French weekly magazines: "Because they all had Ségolène Royal - who may be the next president - on the cover, and stories about her inside. I hoped one of them would have something interesting to say about her. No chance." Marcel listened to a play on the World Service: "Terrific, but I remember nothing about it."

The Outsider

by Albert Camus, translated from the French by Sandra Smith

London: Penguin, 128 pp., £7.99 (paper)

One of the most widely read French novels of the twentieth century, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, carries, for American readers, enormous significance in our cultural understanding of midcentury French identity. It is considered—to what would have been Camus’s irritation—the exemplary existentialist novel.

Yet most readers on this continent (and indeed, most of Camus’s readers worldwide) approach him not directly, but in translation. For many years, Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 version was the standard English text. In the 1980s, it was supplanted by two new translations—by Joseph Laredo in the UK and Commonwealth, and by Matthew Ward in the US. Ward’s highly respected version rendered the idiom of the novel more contemporary and more American, and an examination of his choices reveals considerable thoughtfulness and intuition.

Each translation is, perforce, a reenvisioning of the novel: a translator will determine which Meursault we encounter, and in what light we understand him. Sandra Smith—an American scholar and translator at Cambridge University, whose previous work includes the acclaimed translation of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française—published in the UK in 2012 an excellent and, in important ways, new version of L’Étranger.

To begin with, she has changed the book’s English title: no longer The Stranger, Smith’s version is called, rather, The Outsider. She explains in her introduction:

In French, étranger can be translated as “outsider,” “stranger” or “foreigner.” Our protagonist, Meursault, is all three, and the concept of an outsider encapsulates all these possible meanings: Meursault is a stranger to himself, an outsider to society and a foreigner because he is a Frenchman in Algeria.

Then, too, Smith has reconsidered the book’s famous opening. Camus’s original is deceptively simple: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Gilbert influenced generations by offering us “Mother died today”—inscribing in Meursault from the outset a formality that could be construed as heartlessness. But maman, after all, is intimate and affectionate, a child’s name for his mother. Matthew Ward concluded that it was essentially untranslatable (“mom” or “mummy” being not quite apt), and left it in the original French: “Maman died today.” There is a clear logic in this choice; but as Smith has explained, in an interview in The Guardian, maman “didn’t really tell the reader anything about the connotation.” She, instead, has translated the sentence as “My mother died today.”

I chose “My mother” because I thought about how someone would tell another person that his mother had died. Meursault is speaking to the reader directly. “My mother died today” seemed to me the way it would work, and also implied the closeness of “maman” you get in the French.

Elsewhere in the book, she has translated maman as “mama”—again, striving to come as close as possible to an actual, colloquial word that will carry the same connotations as maman does in French.

Smith has made a similarly considered choice when confronted, later in the novel, with the ever-ticklish French contrast between vous and tu. Central to the novel’s plot is Meursault’s burgeoning friendship with his unsavory neighbor, Raymond Sintès, a friendship that develops as a result of Sintès’s interest rather than Meursault’s. In the course of a long conversation, Meursault recalls:

Je ne me suis pas aperçu d’abord qu’il me tutoyait. C’est seulement quand il m’a declaré, “Maintenant, tu es un vrai copain,” que cela m’a frappé…. Cela m’était égal d’être son copain et il avait vraiment l’air d’en avoir envie.

Ward’s translation is as follows:

I didn’t notice at first, but he had stopped calling me “monsieur.” It was only when he announced “Now you’re a pal, Meursault” and said it again that it struck me…. I didn’t mind being his pal, and he seemed set on it.

This is a rather curious choice: to replace the tu/vous distinction with, in English, a reference to the address monsieur—which appears in French in the English. It suggests that an Anglophone reader will understand that, while saying “Mister” or “Sir” in English isn’t quite comparable to the formalities of the French, we can infer, from the supposedly retained (but actually inserted) French, the nature of Sintès’s forwardness. In other words, Ward is presuming upon an English reader’s cultural fantasy of Frenchness.

Smith’s translation is much more straightforward:

At first I didn’t realize he’d started addressing me in a very personal way. It only struck me when he said: “Now, we’re really pals.” …It didn’t matter to me one way or the other whether we were friends or not, but it really seemed to matter to him.

When I read this, I understood at once that Smith was referring to the tu/vous difference—as would any reader with even a minimal knowledge of French—but even without that knowledge, the passage makes perfect sense.

Again, with the last sentence of this quotation, Smith’s translation differs tellingly from Ward’s. I myself would have been tempted to translate it in yet a different way: “It was all the same to me to be his friend, and he really seemed to want it.” Smith’s translation is unquestionably more elegant than mine; but it also comes closer to the French than Ward’s does. This amounts to a matter of characterization, both of Meursault and of Sintès: in Camus’s formulation, we understand that Meursault’s attitude is chiefly complaisant. Sintès has a strong desire for friendship; Meursault, far from being cold, senses that strong desire and, having no contrary desire of his own, is willing to go along.

Ward’s translation implies something more like obdurate determination on Sintès’s part—“he seemed set on it”; whereas the French envie, meaning “desire,” suggests an almost importunate element. It certainly implies something close to compassion on Meursault’s part. Smith’s translation, while somewhat more oblique than “he really seemed to want it,” nevertheless crucially conveys the extent of Meursault’s accommodating nature: having truly no opinion, he will not pretend to one; and may as well, at that point, accede to Sintès.

Smith is throughout attuned to such subtleties. She has a precise literary understanding of Camus’s creations, and her Meursault emerges, in the crisp clarity of her prose, emphatically not as a monster, but as a man who will not embellish or elaborate. His insufficient demonstration of emotion at his mother’s funeral and the fact that he does not believe in God will count for much in his condemnation to death by the court; but we are not to understand thereby that Meursault is unfeeling or heartless. He is, rather, painfully without pretense.

Consider the moment when Marie, Meursault’s girlfriend, asks him if he loves her: “I told her that didn’t mean anything, but I didn’t think so.” This unsettling frankness is not willfully hurtful; it is simply the truth. “She looked sad then. But while we were making lunch, she laughed again, for no apparent reason, and the way she laughed made me kiss her.”

The emotions of this exchange are repeated a thousand times a day in domestic relationships, but they are not usually this openly expressed. The telling difference, in Meursault, is that he eschews pretense, and proves almost idiotic—or perversely noble—in his transparency. Smith’s translation portrays him thus, granting him kinship with the likes of Prince Myshkin—albeit as the black sheep of the family.

Camus famously said that “Meursault is the only Christ that we deserve”—a complicated statement for an avowed atheist. But Camus, of course, was more complex in his atheism than we might commonly expect: he was an atheist in reaction to, and in the shadow of, a Catholicism osmotically imbued in the culture (of the French certainly, but of the pieds noirs in particular). The inescapable result is that his atheism is in constant dialogue with religion; in L’Étranger no less than in, say, La Peste.

Sandra Smith has, in her admirable translation, plucked carefully upon this thread in the novel, so that Anglophone readers might better grasp Camus’s allusions. Here is but one key example: the novel’s last line, in French, begins “Pour que tout soit consommé,...” which Ward translates, literally, as “For everything to be consummated.” But as Smith points out, the French carries “an echo of the last words of Jesus on the Cross: ‘Tout est consommé.’” Her chosen rendition, then, is “So that it might be finished,” a formulation that echoes Christ’s last words in the King James translation of the Bible.

Translation is inevitably to a degree subjective. The quality of a translator will depend, then, not merely on her understanding of the mechanics of a language, or on her facility as a writer of prose, but also on her capacities as a reader of texts, her sense of subtext, of connotation, of allusion—of the invisible textures that give a narrative its density and, ultimately, shape its significance. Sandra Smith is a very fine translator indeed.