Camus's Minimalist Antihero in Fresh Translation
THE STRANGER by Albert Camus, translated by Matthew Ward,Skip to next paragraph
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New York: Vintage International, 123 pp., $5.95 paper
FIRST published in French in 1942, then in an English translation by Stuart Gilbert in 1946, Albert Camus's short novel ``L''etranger'' soon attained the status of a classic: indispensable reading for anyone claiming more than a passing acquaintance with existentialism, antiheroes, alienation, and absurdity.
The paperback edition published in 1954 - three years before Camus won the Nobel Prize - became an all-time best seller for Vintage Books. Not surprisingly, the editors of the new Vintage International series are launching their imprint with a fresh translation, distinguished by its closer fidelity to the letter of the original. It's a chance for a new generation of readers to encounter the work, and a chance for those who've read it before to reread and reconsider.
One wonders what proportion of its many readers have read ``The Stranger'' more than once. Most, one suspects, read it as a rite of passage: a book more often referred to than returned to.
The story is set in Camus's birthplace, Alg'erie fran,caise, and narrated by Meursault, a young Frenchman. Having attended his mother's funeral, where he fails to show the emotions expected of a bereaved son, he takes a girl to the movies that same day. Shortly thereafter, he is taken up by one Raymond, who claims to be a warehouse guard, but is generally known to be a pimp.
Raymond has an Arab mistress, who ran out after he accused her of being unfaithful. Meursault agrees to write a letter luring her back to Raymond, who beats her up, thus incurring the enmity of her brother. At the beach, Raymond, Meursault, and a third friend run into the aggrieved Arab and his friends. In the course of a scuffle, Meursault takes Raymond's gun to avert worse trouble.
Later, still carrying the gun, Meursault returns to the beach, where he runs into the knife-bearing Arab. Meursault, as he recounts it, is somehow dazzled by the overpowering heat and sunlight into firing the gun and killing the Arab.
After his arrest, Meursault shows no remorse. Witnesses at his trial testify about his failure to cry at his mother's funeral. Throughout his ordeal, he resists all attempts by lawyer, magistrate, and chaplain to discuss sin, redemption, God, or afterlife. He is sentenced to death.
The strangeness of Meursault's sensibility, evident both in his disaffected behavior and in the laconic, disjointed style in which he narrates his own story, may well have prompted Stuart Gilbert, the first translator, to soften the edges, not so much to glamorize Meursault, as simply to make his mental processes seem a little more logical to the reader.
Gilbert, for instance, translates: ``I must have had a longish sleep, for, when I woke, the stars were shining down on my face.'' Ward gives us: ``I must have fallen asleep, because I woke up with the stars in my face.'' Camus wrote: ``Je crois que j'ai dormi parce que je me suis r'eveill'e avec des 'etoiles sur le visage.''