Monday, July 19, 2004

The Stranger

Albert Camus, The Stranger
Who's more American--Johnny Cash or Albert Camus?

Read The Stranger not to be moved, or to be unmoved, but because you can. Be gripped by its sparing, simple prose (see below). Or, let the waves of anticlimax wash over you; merely bob on the surface, floating in "gentle indifference." The choice is yours.

I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done this thing but I had done another. And so?

Matthew Ward, in the prefatory note, justifies the Hemingwayesque, crime-novel style of the translation:

Camus acknowledged employing an "American method" in writing The Stranger, in the first half of the book in particular: the short, precise sentences; the depcition of a character ostensibly without consciousness; and, in places, the "tough guy" tone.... In addition to giving the text a more "American" quality, I have also attempted to venture farther into the letter of Camus's novel, to capture what he said and how he said it, not what he meant. In theory, the latter should take care of itself.

The simplicity, though, masks a complex moral anti-drama; for Meursault, the protagonist, events merge seamlessly into each other. He is an observer, objective, detached from his own existence--even killing a complete stranger without reason or remorse--but only when condemned does he realize his beliefs about death and life are illusions.

... everything was very simple: the guillotine is on the same level as the man approaching it. He walks up to it the way you walk up to another person. That bothered me too. Mounting the scaffold, going right up into the sky, was something the imagination could hold on to. Whereas, once again, the machine destroyed everything: you were killed discreetly, with a little shame and with great precision....

Then, in the dark hour before dawn, sirens blasted. They were announcing departures for a world that now and forever meant nothing to me... For everything to be comsummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

The allusion is obvious, violently and ironically inverting the crucifixion. So much for the promise of future glory, so much for the hope of suffering through a world that is not "home."

I find it instructive to read the one-star reviews on Amazon. They give you the true sense of the book--its capacity to shock, to infuriate, to baffle, even years after The Stranger has become a near-cliche.

Don't Even Waste Your Time, January 12, 2004
Reviewer: A reader from Cincinnati, OH USA
If you are looking for a book to put you to sleep, look no further. Here it is. This is the most pathetic book I have ever read. And not only was the book boring, the main character, Meursault, was an emotionless, hopless, and disgusting human being. His views on women and relationships are no less than vile. He does not even remorse over the death of his mother. He then says that he no emotional attachment to Marie, the lady that he is sexually active with. Thankfully, he commits a cold blooded murder and is put to death. And at his execution, he says that he wishes there be "howls of execration." It is amazing to me that an individual can want there to be people cursing him on the day of his death. Bottom line, this is not woth the time for you to sit down and read it. [this refers to the original British translation]

Disappointing, June 24, 2002
Reviewer: A reader from Boston, MA United States
I'll keep this short. The book was an awful read save the last ten pages. Everything before that is terribly uninteresting. It is only once he has been sentenced and awaits his end that it becomes something worth flipping through. I have the utmost respect for Albert Camus, but this is dribble.

A horrible translation, March 29, 2002
Reviewer: Meg from Boston, MA
I have read a previous translation of The Stranger, and was deeply moved. My entire life was changed. The previous translator did Camus justice. Matthew Ward, with this translation of The Stranger, ruined the novel. Ward includes awful cliche and unintelligent description. Unfortunately this is the only translation currently in print in the US. If you are able to, please order from a forgein printer (sometimes printed under the title The Outsider) or consider searching for an out of print copy not translated by Matthew Ward.

So much for being faithful to the original, in all its paradoxical simplicity. Non-flowery prose just isn't as moving.

[originally posted on July 12, 2004]


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