The Stranger is a short novel published in 1942 by famous French author Albert Camus. Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 and became a philosopher, author, and journalist. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.
The Stranger was Camus’ first novel and Claire Messud writes in A New ‘L’Étranger’ that it is “one of the most widely read French novels of the twentieth century…”
This is my first Camus novel which I chose because many speak so highly of it. I enjoyed the story and I found the character Meursault to be interestingly different.
This book was originally written in French and I happened to read Stuart Gilbert’s translation. There were parts of the story where the English didn’t feel right to me and I became conscious that it was a translation which I don’t think should happen. This version left me feeling that I might have been better off reading Matthew Ward or Sandra Smith’s translation. It doesn’t always happen this way but with this particular novel the translation version you read will definitely affect how you perceive this story and ultimately that is the key to The Stranger.
When you read what others have written about this book you will undoubtedly come across descriptions like wikipedia’s: “Its theme and outlook are often cited as examples of Camus’s philosophy of the absurd and existentialism, though Camus personally rejected the latter label”. I am not going to pretend to know anything about any of that.
What I can tell you is that the main character, Meursault, comes across as a bit strange. Throughout the story you get the distinct impression that he does not conform. He does not follow the norms set out by society about how we should be. He didn’t seem to me as a bad guy but he didn’t seem to have a moral compass and passed absolutely no judgement on what the rest of society might well deem worthy of judgement. What I found incredibly interesting about this is the way Camus wrote him. While he does not subscribe to society’s moral code he did not come across as a bad person but rather a different person. How society, and you the reader, would deal with a person like this seems to me to be the crux of this story. And indeed, according to David Carroll in his book Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice, Camus himself wrote in January 1955:
“I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”
The title of the book points to this also. Unfortunately, in English the title doesn’t carry across all the meanings as it does in the French L’Étranger. I don’t speak French but as a foreigner in a Portuguese speaking country I learned early on that ‘estrangeiro’ (and the French ‘Étranger’) means a foreigner, a stranger, and an outsider. The context determines which meaning is implied. The story reminded me of this throughout because Meursault is all three; a foreigner in Algeria, an outsider to society, and a bit of a stranger to those around him.
My sentiments are echoed in Sandra Smith’s introduction to her new translation of The Stranger the title of which she has altered to The Outsider:
“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.”
This quote was taken from Claire Messud’s article A New ‘L’Étranger’ which is well worth reading after you read the book. Another article that I enjoyed is Lost in Translation by Ryan Bloom which shows how important a good translation is to fully appreciating these seemingly ‘simple’ novels of the past.
I enjoyed reading this short book but choose your translation wisely.