By Albert Camus
UK Title: The Outsider
Original French Title: L’Étranger
Originally Published in French in 1942
Translated by Stuart Gilbert in 1946
Translated by Matthew Ward in 1988
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Classic, Literature, Philosophy
The Stranger by Albert Camus is a very short novel that can easily be read in an afternoon. However, digesting the content will certainly take much longer as this little novel raises serious questions about morality, society, justice, religion, and individuality.
The Stranger is recounted in first person is a very direct, no nonsense style. The narrator is named Meursault and the story opens with him reading a telegram informing him of his mother’s death. Meusault is not overly shocked as his mother is old and has been living in a home for the elderly. Outwardly, he doesn’t become overcome with grief. At the funeral he doesn’t cry as he is actually more overcome with heat due to the hot Algerian summer than with grief. The funeral is followed by more everyday events and an ill-fated growing friendship with a local pimp. Somehow the forces of nature and man conspire to work on Meursault in a manner that causes a sudden outburst of violence that shatters his world.
I can’t cover much of anything further without spoilers so if you want to avoid the spoilers, go directly to finding your nearest bookstore or library and pick up a copy of The Stranger, preferably translated by Matthew Ward.
The second half of The Stranger follows Meursault as he experiences the legal system for the first time. He finds that it’s not nearly as cut and dried as he might have imagined. Not only are the facts of the case brought out, but what seem like completely unrelated events including his mother’s funeral are brought up to “prove” points about moral character. Meursault soon finds himself trapped in a web of chance events magnified by his own failure to behave as expected by society.
Meursalt comes across as being distanced or “alienated” from general society and this is exactly why the novel was titled, The Stranger. He is a “stranger” in more ways than one. First, he is a French colonist in Algeria. Second, and even more important, he seems cut off from normal feelings, mostly due to his desire to live honestly without pretense. He doesn’t want to display false emotions just because they are expected even though, in hindsight, he realizes this is precisely what condemns him the most.
Meursalt’s encounter with the prison chaplain provides another powerful scene. He doesn’t find a need to believe in God but can’t convince the chaplain. As the chaplain works to convince Meursalt of the need to find God and forgiveness, Meursalt becomes more and more irritated until he can’t take it anymore.
There are three English translations of The Stranger. The original translation by Stuart Gilbert was the classic translation for over 30 years. More recently, in 1982, a new English translation appeared by Joseph Laredo which was titled The Outsider. Then in 1988 a new “American” translation by Matthew Ward was published and it was again titled The Stranger. This latest translation has been praised for modernizing the language while being very true to the original and I fully agree with this assessment.
I’ve read the classic Stuart Gilbert translation and the most recent translation by Matthew Ward. I also struggled through the original French version when I took French in college. For American readers, I definitely recommend the Matthew Ward translation which replaces some outdated vocabulary with modern words and uses American vocabulary rather than British. A good example can be found at the beginning of Part 2. In the original French, Camus writes, “Le jour où j’avais enterré maman, j’étais très fatiguéet j’avais sommeil. De sorte que je ne me suis pas rendu compte de ce qui se passait.” Gilbert translated this as, “For instance, on the day that I attended Mother’s funeral, I was fagged out and only half awake. So, really, I hardly took stock of what was happening. ” The Ward translation reads, “The day I buried Maman, I was very tired and sleepy, so much so that I wasn’t really aware of what was going on.” The Ward translation reads much better for Americans and is also a much more literal translation. Ward also used the more endearing term “Maman” instead of the formal “Mother” used by Gilbert. I might have used “Mom” instead of “Maman” but either is much preferred to the formal air lent by the Gilbert translation.
For UK readers, I would guess that the Joseph Laredo translation titled The Outsider would be recommended but I don’t really know since I haven’t read it. Even if you only have the original English translation by Stuart Gilbert, you’ll still be in for a great read despite the language being a bit dated.
Everyone should read The Stranger from older teens on up. The time investment required to read it is minimal and it’s guaranteed to stimulate lots of thoughts and conversations. Look no further for a short but powerful novel that explores the absurdities of life.