More honored than read? Albert Camus’s The Stranger reconsidered

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FRANCE. Paris. French writer Albert CAMUS. 1944.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic 1944 photo in Paris. (Courtesy Magnum/Cartier-Bresson)

 

I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is drenched in the North African sun, but heat and light take an ominous turn. The Nobel Prize-winning author’s tale of a senseless murder on the hot Mediterranean beach has been a staple of high-school classes for decades, ever since it was published by the up-and-coming writer in 1942. But does it carry a new meaning for our time?

Acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff has chosen The Stranger for the Another Look book club event at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 1 at the Stanford Humanities Center.  With Tobias Wolff’s retirement at the end of this academic year, the spring event on Camus’ The Stranger will be the last in the popular three-year series.

Gary Ward

Translator Matthew Ward (Courtesy Ward family)

Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look, will moderate the final event. He will be joined by cultural and intellectual historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center; and Stanford lecturer Marie-Pierre Ulloa, a scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria who has received France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the nation’s highest cultural honors. The event is free and open to the public.

According to Wolff, “The Stranger is not an overlooked book. But I believe that among adult readers it is more honored than read. We usually encounter it in our student days, and I doubt that many of us read it again later on.

“Yet it’s very much worth our renewed attention in this moment for the questions it raises about our attempts to find meaning in our lives, about the often violent encounters of different cultures, about the way we create consoling, even heroic, narratives to explain and absolve ourselves while remaining willfully blind to the personal and social forces that actually drive us, about the question of free will – do we have it? –  and about the problematic nature of institutional justice and punishment, indeed of all human judgment.

The event will spotlight the translation of Matthew Ward, who learned French at Stanford. He died of AIDS in 1990, two years after his translation was published, and a year after it received a PEN award. In a New York Times article, Ward said he used an “American method” to translate Camus.

“He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences,” said Ward, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford in 1973. “My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.”

According to the New York Review of Books, Ward’s highly respected version rendered the idiom of the novel more contemporary and more American, and an examination of his choices reveals considerable thoughtfulness and intuition.”

Camus was born in 1913. His father died less than a year later in the Battle of the Marne. His illiterate mother moved with her two sons into a cramped family apartment without electricity or running water. Camus wrote that poverty “was never a misfortune for me: it was always counterbalanced by the richness of light. And, because it was free from bitterness, I found mainly reasons for love and compassion in it. Even my rebellions at the time were illuminated by this light. They were essentially – and I think I can say it without misrepresentation – rebellions in favor of others. It is not certain that my heart was inclined to this kind of love.”

strangerWith the publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in the same year, Camus became a public figure and an existential legend, though he eschewed the link with Jean-Paul Sartre‘s philosophy. Within a few years, he would also become a hero of the Résistance in occupied France. During the war years, he formed an important friendship with Sartre, and also a rivalry with the man who called him “the street urchin from Algiers.” Their break, over Camus’ refusal to justify or excuse the atrocities of Stalin as they became known, would be as famous as their camaraderie.

The 1957 Nobel Committee hailed Camus “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Camus was killed in a car accident in 1960 – some claimed it was a Soviet secret police job, although proof has been elusive.

He left behind a range of novels, plays, essays and short stories, but perhaps none as enduring and popular as The Stranger, with its anti-hero Meursault, who is condemned, not so much for murder, as for “not weeping at his mother’s funeral,” according to the author. Camus, an avowed atheist, said enigmatically, “Meursault is the only Christ that we deserve.”

The books will be available at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Stanford Bookstore on campus and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

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The Another Look book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.


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