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The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus

February 6, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) Original French title: L’Etranger.

Preamble: I know that L’Etranger by Albert Camus has been translated into The Outsider or The Stranger. I’ll stick to the French title to keep everyone happy even if I think that The Outsider is a better title.

Like a lot of French teenagers, I studied L’Etranger in school. I was fourteen when I read it and I remember that I enjoyed it despite studying it in class. Now it’s my daughter’s turn to read it and I decided to read it along with her.

For those who haven’t read this stunning novella by Albert Camus, it opens with some of the most famous sentences of French literature.

Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.

Translation by Matthew Ward.

Meursault is a young bachelor living in Algiers during the French colonization. His mother was in an old home when she died, and the first chapters describe his going to the home and attending the funeral. The heat is blinding and staggering.

Back in Algiers, Meursault resumes his everyday life. He works in an office in a shipping company. He’s reliable enough and his boss is thinking about sending him to the new office in Paris. He has a liaison with Marie, goes to the beach with her and gets to know his neighbor Raymond. Meursault’s life changes for the worst when he kills an Arab on the beach on a hot Sunday. The first part of the book is about Meursault’s life before his crime and the second part is about his imprisonment and his trial.

Meursault is a strange character. He glides through life, letting people around him leading the way. He’s not involved in his life. He enjoys his quotidian but wouldn’t fight for it. He’s not in love with Marie, he likes her well enough but he wouldn’t be affected by her leaving him. He spends time with his neighbor who openly asks him to be his buddy, he acquiesces without conviction. He’s adrift, nothing makes sense and is worth fighting for. He’s an outsider because he refuses to obey to society’s rules. He also refuses to lie and express feelings or opinions that he doesn’t feel or think.

I’m not going to analyze L’Etranger. I’m not qualified for that and honestly, what could I bring to what academics have already written about it? I’d rather discuss my response to it.

When I first read L’Etranger, it stayed with me for the story, its absurd ending and the unfairness of it. I remember I wanted to shake Meursault up, to yell at him and push him to react, to force him to take action and do something to save himself. Teenagers are always hit hard by unfairness. I was also irritated by his passivity.

My second reading is more educated, I suppose. I still want to shake him because I tend to act and not stay put when something happens. However, I’m more tolerant to his reaction now, not as irritated as I was as a teenager.

I’m also more aware of the context, of the description of life in Algiers under the French colonization. Algeria was a French department, a special status that meant that this territory was ruled the same way as departments on mainland France. I was shocked to see the investigation judge pulling out a crucifix from his drawer and starting to ask Meursault whether he believed in God. This has been so forbidden in France since 1905. The trial seems to be happening a political or religious court: the verdict is known before the hearing starts and beliefs are more important than facts. There’s no appeal for trials at the court of assizes at the time and the guillotine was still working.

But after years of reading literature, I was bowled over by Camus’s flawless style. I didn’t realize how good he was the first time I read it. I loved the descriptions of the landscape, the sun, the seaside and life in Algiers. I could imagine the beaches, the hot sand and the stifling heat. I have two quotes to share, I couldn’t find any translation, so I played translator. *cringe* Please forgive their clumsiness.

Aujourd’hui, le soleil débordant qui faisait tressaillir le paysage le rendait inhumain et déprimant. Today, the overflowing sun that made the landscape quiver rendered it inhuman and depressing.


C’était le même éclatement rouge. Sur le sable, la mer haletait de toute la respiration rapide et étouffée de ses petites vagues. Je marchais lentement vers les rochers et je sentais mon front se gonfler sous le soleil. Toute cette chaleur s’appuyait sur moi et s’opposait à mon avance. Et chaque fois que je sentais son grand souffle chaud sur mon visage, je serrais les dents, je fermais les poings dans les poches de mon pantalon, je me tendais tout entier pour triompher du soleil et de cette ivresse opaque qu’il me déversait. A chaque épée de lumière jaillie du sable, d’un coquillage blanchi ou d’un débris de verre, mes mâchoires se crispaient. J’ai marché longtemps. It was the same red eruption. On the sand, the sea was panting from the quick and shallow breathing of her little waves. I was walking slowly towards the rocks and I felt my forehead swell under the sun. All this heat was weighing me down and pushing against my progression. And each time that I felt its deep hot breath on my face I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trousers’ pockets, I coiled my all self to win against the sun and the opaque intoxication he poured on me. For each sword of light spurting out of the sand from a whitened shell or a piece of glass, my jaw tensed up. I walked for a long time.

Aren’t we with Meursault on this hot beach under the biting sun? I love the images, the way the elements seem to assault Meursault’s senses. His narrative is also concise and precise. It’s straight to the point and extremely efficient. Mind-blowing.

I’ll end this billet by mentioning the BD version of L’Etranger by Jacques Fernandez. It’s faithful to the novel. The characters jump out of the pages; the landscapes and the city of Algiers seem real. It’s available in English and it’s a good companion to the novel.

Now I’m going to read The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud.

  1. February 6, 2018 at 10:38 am

    I felt the same way the first time I read this too: I also wanted to shake Meursault and make him see the fate that he was drifting into.


    • February 6, 2018 at 9:13 pm

      It’s hard to understand why he’s so passive.


  2. February 6, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    Superb commentary on this book Emma. I also love this work. It also had an great impression on me at an early age. It is time that I gave this another read.


    • February 6, 2018 at 9:14 pm

      Thanks Brian. I hope you’ll read it again, I’d be interested to read your thoughts about it. (it’s only 120 pages)

      It made me want to reread all of his books.


  3. davidsimmons6
    February 6, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    I suggest you give “The Meursault Investigation” by Kamel Daoud a try. It’s the story as seen through the eyes of an Arab. It opens this way: “Mama’s still alive today.”


    • February 6, 2018 at 9:15 pm

      I have it on the TBR. That was the plan.


  4. February 6, 2018 at 3:00 pm

    I read a lot of Camus and Sartre when I was in my twenties (a long time ago!). It’s still there on an upper shelf, I must start reading it again. And yes you’re so right about our instinctive dislike of unfairness when we’re young. I still feel it I think, but also understand its futility which is a bit sad.


    • February 6, 2018 at 9:17 pm

      I prefer Camus to Sartre. He’s more approachable. I have awful memories of forcefeeding myself ad nauseam with La Nausée. *shudder*
      It’s such a shame that Camus died so young.

      PS: From what I’ve heard, he and Romain Gary were friends and admired each other’s work.


  5. February 6, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    When I re-read this it was the landscape and environment that struck me most strongly. I think we definitely read and experience books so differently at different ages.


    • February 6, 2018 at 9:19 pm

      We do. I don’t have time to re-read a lot of books but I should definitely re-read the classics I read when I was a teenager.
      Re-reading Madame Bovary a few years ago was an experience, it was as if years had removed some blinders.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. February 6, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    I read this a long time ago, Emma. In my teens like you. I know that you rarely reread so it’s interesting to note your reaction. I reread Jane Eyre every few years and I always have a different response. But I then wonder if for one of the rereadings, my response will stick.
    The book doesn’t change, we’ve changed.


    • February 6, 2018 at 9:24 pm

      We don’t focus on the same things, that’s all.

      I don’t have time to re-read a lot of books but I noticed that my gut reaction remains the same.
      Hated Wuthering Heights as a teenager, stil hated it as an adult. I didn’t enjoy Le rouge et le noir better as an adult either.

      The main difference is that I’m better read, so I’m more sensitive to style and more capable of assessing the writer’s talent. I also have a better historical knowledge which helps with the classics. I understand better why Emma Bovary was scandalous than I did when I was a teenager. I know more about the mores and the politics of the time.


  7. February 7, 2018 at 12:03 am

    I was a complete Camus nut in my teens – and found Sartre interesting but harder going. Daoud’s book certainly made me see this one in a different light, though. Am curious to hear how you respond to that one so soon after reading this one.


    • February 7, 2018 at 10:36 pm

      I’m curious about it but will have to wait for the weekend to read it.


  8. February 7, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    I also reread L’Étranger before reading Daoud’s book. I also recommend the lecture he gave at Yale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oF5kWeLGRv8&list=PLgWEzFF8sfECRhjdaL0UkrO5UhW17itk2


    • February 7, 2018 at 10:37 pm

      Thanks for the link. I’ll check it when I’ve read the book.


  9. March 14, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    Interesting that translation keeps maman. There’s some controversy about how to translate that one word and it has huge impact.

    The version I read years ago (and later reread) reads:

    “Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”

    Mother there is very formal, distant. Both times I read it it seemed to me to suggest he was indifferent rather than (for example) that he was stunned by the loss. I saw it suggested that an alternative could be:

    “Mum died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”

    That is very, very different. There it sounds like the speaker is confused, horrified, but not at all indifferent. One word, the first word, but it sets the tone for all that follows.

    Anyway, nice review and I absolutely agree with you about the prose. It’s extraordinary.

    What’s the Fernandez exactly?


    • March 14, 2018 at 10:22 pm

      In French, it’s definitely “Mum died today” and the “maman” is very important. He could have written “ma mère est morte hier”, it’s a common sentence.
      The use of “maman” suggests that he loved her and that he wasn’t indifferent at all.

      The Fernandez is a graphic novel version of L’Etranger and the drawings are excellent.


  10. davidsimmons6
    March 14, 2018 at 11:06 pm

    Hear! hear, Emma. As an American Francophile, it kills me to read “Mother” as the translation. I vacillate between “Mom” and “Mommy.”


    • March 14, 2018 at 11:08 pm

      I think Mom is better than Mommy for an adult, no?


      • davidsimmons6
        March 14, 2018 at 11:13 pm

        Good point! I reject “Mama” for a similar reason although I know a 90 year old lady from the deep South who has four sons, on one side or the other of 60, and they all call her: “Mama.” It expresses their love, I believe.


  11. James Davie
    August 19, 2018 at 11:53 am

    Reblogged this on James Davie.


  1. February 25, 2018 at 11:48 am

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