Camus's Minimalist Antihero in Fresh Translation

THE STRANGER by Albert Camus, translated by Matthew Ward,

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.''

Meursault, most interpreters agree, is a man condemned to death not so much for a criminal act as for his attitude. In his recent book ``Law and Literature,'' Richard Posner points out Camus's problem. He wants to show an ``outsider'' condemned for not feeling the emotions society expects, but the dictates of realism oblige him to invent a credible cause for the trial.

The killing, however, must be minimalized, so as to preserve Meursault's ``essential innocence.'' Hence, the Arab victim is faceless, voiceless, dehumanized, while the listless Meursault, by virtue of being the narrator and focus of all attention, becomes - faute de mieux - the novel's most fully realized character.

The threatened extinction of his consciousness - the only one portrayed - may thus be distressing to the reader. Unless the reader resents being thus manipulated!

Rereading the book, I wondered if my own irritation was a sign of getting older or a sign of changing times. The latter seemed more likely: Camus's prestige did not rest on his appeal to teen-agers, but on the impression he made on minds that had reached maturity in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Somehow, one suspects the novel's discordances were less conspicuous in the days of Norman Mailer's debut.

Nowadays, advocates of law-and-order may well point out that blaming the sun for making you kill a man is a lame excuse, on a par with the ``Twinkie'' defense. And it's hard to imagine a liberal who sympathizes with victims in general or victims of colonialism in particular approving of the way the novel dehumanizes the Arab.

Feminists may remind us of Meursault's complicity in the assault on Raymond's girlfriend. And how could any of us who read the book 10, 20, or 30 years ago have failed to make the connection between Meursault's stunning lack of imagination, his lack of concern for anyone but himself, and his eventual involvement in a crime against another human life?

Yet Meursault, to borrow a phrase from his lawyer, still has power to ``interest'' us. He's not a romantic hero like Byron, Wilde, or Baudelaire, who defied hollow conventions to pursue deeper values. Meursault is a minimalist - by nature, not design. As far as he can tell, he has no beliefs whatever. He's closer to the modern antihero, who rejects the very idea of values. But, far from questioning the world around him, Meursault accepts it, thoughtlessly, even apathetically. ``My physical needs often get in the way of my feelings,'' he remarks. His greatest virtue is simply his honesty. If, by the end of this strongly written, relentlessly ascetic novel we come to feel for him, it's not because we think he was wronged by the ``system,'' but because we have come to feel a basic empathy with life itself, even a life as bare as Meursault's.

For the first time in a long time I thought about Maman. I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life ... she had played at beginning again. ... So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if the blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.

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