Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
This novel is a very famous one you’ve probably encountered before or at least heard of: Camus’s amazing novel L’Etranger was first published in French in 1942 and was first released in English as The Stranger (Stuart Gilbert) in 1946 before being re-translated as The Outsider by Joseph Laredo and, more recently, by Sandra Smith (2012).
I don’t think I need to explain the plot, firstly because many of you will know it, and secondly because it’s not so much about the plot. I’d argue that The Outsider is an amazing thesis about existentialism, the absurd (Camus didn’t identify as an existentialist but these concerns are very present in the novel), the self and what is means to live in society. As Camus wrote, Meursault needs to “play the game” — in other words, we need to accept the rules of life in order to be accepted in this world.
“I had only a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.”
The novel starts with the iconic incipit “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas”. This famous opening caused debates among the different translators and the most recent one is: “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know”. In the first paragraph, we learn that Meursault’s mother died and that he has to go to her funerals. The narration is very striking due to the short, direct and emotionless sentences. Meursault is even conscious of it which sends shivers down your spine at time. This is the strength of this novel: we are presented with a protagonist who defies social and human(e) conventions; he resists all expectations and shocks us with his honesty. His mother’s death does not seem to affect him and the first part of the novel follows him on his journey to the old people’s home, the funerals and his return to his daily routine. The Outsider reaches its climax in the middle, when Meursault kills an unnamed and voiceless “Arab” for unclear reasons on the beach (he blames the sun) — a significant act since Meursault is a pied-noir (literally “black foot” — a French Algerian, when Algeria was still a colony). The original title “L’Etranger” means a lot and is because one of the possible meanings is “the foreigner”. This ambiguity is unfortunately lost in translation.
“There is not love of life without despair about life.”
The second part of the novel is very Kafkaesque and reminded me of Kafka’s The Trial, a novel I studied last semester for Modernism. This part exclusively focuses on Meursault’s trial, reflections on existentialism and the absurdity of life. In other words, it gets deep! What’s really Kafkaesque about it is that Meursault does not even seem to be on trial for the murder he committed: like K. in The Trial, Meursault doesn’t really know what he’s accused of. They reproach his lack of empathy and the fact that he did not cry at his mother’s funerals. The man, rather than the crime, is therefore judged. Meursault embodies our fears of inhumanity and is, in this sense, an outsider. While the first part of the novel focuses very much on the present moment, Meursault is forced to explore the past and the meaning of his actions during his trial. He quickly accepts the inevitable consequences of the murder and is condemned to death, a fate he quickly accepts.
“Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”
“Maman used to say that you can always find something to be happy about. In my prison, when the sky turned red and a new day slipped into my cell, I found out that she was right.”
He’s an outsider, a pariah, a stranger to himself and to the others but not a conventional one because he has friends and is liked by his boss, his girlfriend and his friends. The Outsider follows a parallel structure, with death at the start, middle and end (although the ending remains open). It is an incredible novel that I think everybody should read.
I was really happy to see The Outsider on the syllabus for European Literature and was very excited to study it again! I first read it in college and, at the time, I thought it was amazing. It is, in fact, one of the very first novels I loved and that made me want to study literature. Last year, I did a presentation and an essay (that I was very proud of) on the translations of L’Etranger for the module Reading Translations, which made me love this novel even more. For the purpose of this module, we were strongly advised to get the latest Sandra Smith version which I also highly recommended. It’s seen as the closest translation and the introduction Smith wrote is very interesting! She listened to recordings of Camus reading his piece to get closer to the intonation of his voice and its rhythm. Moreover, she explains her desire to convey the Biblical references made my Camus. I would avoid the first one by Stuart Gilbert because it is totally outdated now and did not respect Camus’s style at all (Gilbert felt the need to made much longer sentences which doesn’t correspond to Meursault’s personality at all).
“I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”