Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2019

Talking about L’étranger (The Outsider) by Albert Camus, with my French bookgroup

I took the plunge this month, and joined the bookgroup organised by A French Journey in Hampton, where I have French lessons every week. As anyone who’s ever tried to learn a language knows, it is essential to have authentic opportunities for speaking and listening, so AFJ learners can attend cultural occasions, lunches, meditation sessions, film nights, cooking classes and immersion trips to France and New Caledonia.  But when they introduced a French book club this year I thought it would be too advanced for me, and it wasn’t until the book of the month turned out to be L’étranger (The Outsider) by Albert Camus that found I could not resist the opportunity to join in.  We had a month to read the book… it couldn’t be that hard if French students read it at school, right?

(And I’d read it twice before, so I already knew what happened).

There are thousands of thoughtful reviews of L’étranger already, so I thought instead that I would share the discussion points we explored (me in my limping French).  The consensus among our group was that it was a difficult book, not because of the French, but because of the philosophical issues raised and the absurdism of the text.  We discussed the way Meursault is shown to be an outsider disconnected from his society, observing life but not really participating in it.  Most of the time he shows no emotion at all, even on occasions when almost anyone would.  (Someone brought up the idea that he was perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum, but I think that’s a contemporary preoccupation, and interpreting the characterisation like that misses Camus’s point.)

We also talked about Meursault’s alienation from the Algerian society he lives in.  In this respect, our teacher explained that Camus was presenting a critique of the way French colonial society was not integrated into the country.  Meursault exoticises the sounds and smells of the city, and he is always bothered by the weather, especially outside when he seems to suffer from heatstroke which affects his ability to think or concentrate or make sensible decisions.  He is the narrator of this story, and the reader notices that while he names all the characters, even quite minor ones, the ‘Arabes’ are never named, and they are presented as people who do not belong.  In this respect you can have an interesting discussion about who Camus is representing as the stranger/outsider of the title, Meursault or the Algerian man that he kills, and in what ways the title is ironic.

One aspect that I hadn’t noticed (because my grasp of French tenses is feeble, to say the least) is that there is a stylistic difference between Parts I and II.  The first part (when Meursault has some agency though he chooses not to exercise it) is narrated in the active voice, while the second part is in the passive voice, when he has lost control of what will happen in his life.  This bifurcation is signalled at the end of Part 1 when the Arab draws his knife and Meursault fires the first shot, the precise moment in the present tense:

 Tout mon être s’est tendu et j’ai crispé ma main sur le revolver. La gâchette a cédé, j’ai touché le ventre poli de la crosse et c’est là, dans le bruit à la fois sec et assourdissant, que tout a commencé. J’ai secoué la sueur et le soleil. J’ai compris que j’avais détruit l’équilibre du jour, le silence exceptionnel d’une plage où j’avais été heureux. Alors, j’ai tiré encore quatre fois sur un corps inerte où les balles s’enfonçaient sans qu’il y parût. Et c’était comme quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur.

My entire being tensed and I clutched the revolver. The trigger gave way, I touched the smooth belly of the butt and it is there, in the noise both brittle and deafening, that it all started. I shook off the sweat and the sun. I realized that I had destroyed the equilibrium of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I had been happy. Then I fired four more times at an inert body where the bullets sank in without a trace. And it was like four short blows that I knocked on the door of misfortune.

Since Meursault’s only defence is that the first shot was an accident, a shot fired in panic at the sight of the knife, his decision to fire four more shots is crucial.  IMO he fires those four shots into the body because he may as well.  He has already ruined the day, and his entire life.  (Not to mention the Arab’s of course, but IMO that first shot was self defence, and he wouldn’t have had that gun if he hadn’t tried to prevent violence by taking it away from Raymond in the first place).  The question as to whether he ever comes to rue his action, is also crucial to the penalty he receives…

Though it came up late in the conversation, I want to share how we talked about the famous opening lines narrated by the doomed central character Meursault: Aujourd’hui, maman est morte, which translates as Today, mother died.  However, the way that the simple word maman is translated can, depending on your own cultural background, set the tone of the entire book in a direction perhaps not intended by the author.  Camus could have chosen the word mama, but he didn’t.   In this article at the NYT Ryan Bloom argues that for the modern American reader the translation of ‘maman’ to ‘Mother’ instead of ‘mom’ implies an impersonal, formal relationship, not one of affection.  Since the ensuing prosecution for murder makes much of Meursault’s callousness towards his mother, ‘Mother’ has the power to change the way we read everything that follows.   Well, I beg to differ. In British/Irish culture or class, far from being a cold and unfeeling term analogous to ‘dog’ or ‘husband’, ‘Mother’ is what I called my mother, with affection, as she, coming from an Anglo-Irish family also addressed her mother. Amongst the Brits, using ‘mum’ rather than ‘mummy’ is a marker of class. Gilbert (the translator of the edition under discussion, who was an Oxford scholar) was simply trying to avoid such class distinctions because he would have considered France to be a classless society.

We also briefly discussed the strange inclusion of a story about a Czech that seems to have nothing to do with anything.  Meursault finds under the bed in his cell, a scrap of newspaper about a crime which seems meaningless. We came up with no satisfactory explanation for why Camus included this, but did better with the strange reappearance of ‘the woman in the restaurant.’ Meursault sees this woman and notes her odd behaviour, and she turns up as a witness at his trial but is not called to the stand.  This can be explained, perhaps, if she had read about his case in the papers which were featuring it because it was a dry spell for news, and she came forward, but there is no explanation for why the prosecution would want her testimony except that her presence reinforces the absurdity of the trial proceedings.  I ma happy to be enlightened about these minor points by anyone who’s read the book too.

I enjoyed two concluding exercises… we had to choose which of these applied to Meursault

ça m’était égal

je me suis ennuyé

c’est ne pas de ma faute

j’avais tout le ciel dans les yeux et il était bleu et doré

It was all the same to me

I was bored

It’s not my fault

I was blinded by the sunlight

and then which of these applied best as a summary of the book:

Cela ne veut rien dire.

(Pour moi) c’est un malheur.

C’est alors que tout a vacillé.

It n’y avait rien de change.

(J’ai répondu qu’)on ne changeait jamais de vie, qu’en tout cas toutes se valaient.

Il n’y a pas d’issue.

It does not mean anything. 

(For me) it’s a misfortune.

It was then that everything altered.

Nothing had changed.

You can’t change your life and whatever you do it’s all the same

There is no way out.

If you’ve read L’étranger, which ones would you choose?

Author: Albert Camus
Title: L’étranger
Publisher: Folio, Gallimard, 1992, 184 pages
ISBN: 9782070360024
Source: purchased from AFJ.

 


Responses

  1. How brave you are to push beyond your comfort zone and join the conversation!

    Like

    • LOL Anna, I did more listening than talking!

      Like

  2. I loved reading about your analysis of the book after reading it in the original language. Thank you for sharing it! It would be good doing it at the end of the book too. In my Spanish (online) book club we proceed chapter by chapter, which tends to focus attention rather too much on plot rather than language choices.

    Like

    • Your way sounds better for ensuring that everyone understands what’s going on – and for providing support when something isn’t clear, but in general, I get frustrated by a chapter-by-chapter approach, no matter what language I’m reading in.
      But our teacher was really, really good at leading the group when two of them were in the advanced class and we were not as confident or fluent.

      Like

  3. I was one of those who read L’étranger in French at school, and I wold agree that the difficulty was not the language but the philosophical meaning/understanding what Camus was about. I made no claim to fully understanding it at the time, but loved it because I do love strange tones. I won’t answer your questions because even though I have read it since, in English, it’s been a while. I read every Camus book at university (though the rest I read in English).

    (I read a few books in French at school, including Gide’s La symphony pastorale, and Anouilh’s Antigone. But I didn’t carry on with French after, mainly because I’m a really unconfident speaker.)

    I’m fascinated though by your discussion of “mother” and British/Irish usage. I have always been of the opinion of that commentator, that is, that “mother” is colder and more formal. I’ll never forget my mum (!) telling me how her mother wanted her to call her “mother” but mum wouldn’t do it, feeling it was not warm or loving. My Nan was a loving person. She was born in Australia but of English ancestry. Maybe she called her mother, “mother”? You have made me think again about this issue. Ain’t culture wonderful!

    Like

    • Isn’t that interesting about your mother and hers! My mother wouldn’t have tolerated her children deciding how to address her, she was adamant that she would decide that and not anybody else. I remember when the issue of how her grandchildren should address her came up: she loathed the Australian ‘Nana’ and insisted on being called Grandma.
      Perhaps our anecdotes illustrate something about younger generations adapting to a new culture. Your Anglo-Australian grandmother yearned to have her child use the language she was comfortable with, and your Australian mother was Aussie and that language had connotations that she wasn’t comfortable with and your grandmother had to accept that. My mother OTOH wasn’t willing to adapt in that way.

      Like

      • Yes, I was thinking about that too, Lisa, the adaptation (or not) issue I mean. I think both my grandmothers were wonderfully adapting. That one was Nan, BTW, and my other one, born to immigrant Welsh parents, was Gran. Not a Nana or Grandma among them. I didn’t know Nana was Australian. You are teaching me a lot about our Aussie relationship nomenclature! Of course in my generation of grandparents names are hugely diverse, partly I think because people love being grandparents but don’t want to admit they’re aging!

        Like

        • LOL Maybe Nana wasn’t Australian! But it’s the word that The Ex used one day for the first time in front of my mother and she very promptly, in that briskly much-too polite British way that masks fury, put him straight!

          Like

          • Ah, that explains it!

            I discussed this with my mum (!) at lunch today and she confirmed that “mother” story, so I did remember that correctly. And she said that her mother did call her mother, mother, as we suspected! She didn’t see Nana as particularly Australian, but we are not the be-all of Australian vernacular I must say. However, my guess is that Australians have always been a bit flexible and have used many permutations of Grandma, Gran, Nan, Nana, and more derivatives.

            Like

            • Especially nowadays… this Nana/Grandma issue was in the 1970s, when most of our migrants (in Melbourne) were from Italy and Greece… I bet there’s all sorts of names now, from China and the Middle East and so on!

              Like

  4. This sounds like a fantastic book club, so glad you had this experience. May I make a suggestion? Now you or your book club need to read Meursault, contre-enquête, by Kamel Daoud. It’s on the victim in l’Étranger, about whom we know nothing. Short and so well written, see here: https://wordsandpeace.com/2016/10/04/review-meursault-contre-enquete-i-love-france-202/, my bilingual review.
    Did you know I give French classes through skype? And I adjust my classes to whatever you need. Let me know if you would be interested

    Like

    • *chuckle* You will be pleased to hear that I was ahead of you…
      When we were talking about the representation of the ‘Arabes’ I remembered hearing about that book (it won the Prix Goncourt, I think). I told them about it but I couldn’t remember its name so when I got home I Googled it, and then I sent the information about it to the group by email. It’s been on my wishlist for a while, but I didn’t think of reading it in French. If you have a copy, do you think you could have a look at it to see if it’s manageable for learners like me?

      Like

  5. How wonderful, Lisa, that you’ve joined in the French book club. I hope you will do so again! I was glad to see from your French quotes that I can still haltingly read French. Wish my Italian was advanced enough to read a book in that language since there happens to be an Italian book club near me. But so far, it’s proved too difficult… Will have to do some more study. With regard to Camus’ use of ‘maman’, in the time when he wrote, the French were very formal and so that formulation was simply used – by the middle and upper classes at least – to denote that formality, and whether the respective child also feels affection or coldness only becomes apparent in other ways of dealing with one another. Thanks for this post, and it has given me the impetus to read L’Etranger – in English – once more.

    Like

    • I love the fact that I can share my tentative steps here on this blog, I really only started learning French properly (i.e. in a structured way with a qualified teacher) at the beginning of last year so I like to think that other people might be encouraged to take up another language when they see how much fun I’m having:)

      Like

  6. Well done Lisa! There is never a moment when a new language cannot bring you a new perspective. I have read the book in English and in Italian but not in French. I am presently re-reading Alberto Moravia’s books as part of an Italian course. He was one of the earliest of the Italian Existentialists and and most of his characters have much in common with Mersault. He and Camus were writing at the same time. so much in common and yet so very different.
    I took Italian when I was in uni because I thought it might be a bit of an easy ride. That was over forty years ago and as you know, it ended up ruling my life. Language learning is addictive!
    bonne chance. Jan

    Like

    • I did six months Italian for Travellers before I visited Italy, and despite its superficial similarities to French, I think it’s more difficult though not as difficult as Spanish.
      But I would love to be able to read in other languages as well. Imagine being able to read Tolstoy in Russian, that would be so wonderful.
      I’ve only read Two Adolescents by Moravia but I have two others on the TBR. He’s such an interesting writer, writing in such a difficult era…

      Like

  7. I’m so impressed Lisa. I have unfulfilled plans to join a German conversation group (I just don’t have enough time at present) but a book club in another language is next-level-impressive.

    Like

    • Actually, Kate, what it’s shown me is that you don’t have to have a high level of ability in the language – so it’s not impressive at all! I’ve ‘read’ six books in French now, and I don’t pretend to have understood them fully or grasped every word, but I’ve found I can get by and more importantly enjoy them even though it’s a different experience entirely to reading in English.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Congrats on reading it in French!

    I’ll second Emma’s recommandation: read Meursault, Contre-enquête but pick the English translation. It’s complicated in French and you’ll have useful translator notes about the context.
    I think that it’s a must read after reading L’Etranger, now.

    (There are billets about both books on my blog)

    My Algerian friend says that for her, L’Etranger is terribly racist. That’s how she feels when she reads it. She doesn’t say that it was Camus’s intention but that’s her reaction to it.

    About the mother/mum/mom debate. I’m not a professional translator but would never translate “maman” by “mother” in this context. If it’s a marker of social class, then mom/mum is appropriate: Meursault is working class.
    And at the same time, as I write this, I have Send a Picture of Mother by Johnny Cash playing in my head and I think that maybe “mother” is the right way.
    For sure, if you ever see “Mère” to address a mother in a French book, it’s extremely cold and aristocratic. Nobody calls their mom “Mère”

    Now that I think of it, Meursault is intoxicated by the sun and has the name of a very famous wine. And as far as I know, Meursault is not a first name.

    To answer your quizz, I’d say “Ça m’était égal” and “Il n’y a pas d’issue.”

    Like

  9. Hi Emma, re your query (on another post) about this comment—I read this, and I replied to it, and now I’m wondering what on earth happened to my reply. (Because I pride myself on answering every comment as best I can: I think that if someone takes the trouble to comment, they deserve an answer!) The only thing I can think of is that I perhaps was interrupted before pressing ‘submit’ and then later closed down the computer without finalising my reply.
    So, with sincere apologies, I will now try to retrieve my thoughts!
    I’m definitely going to read the Daoud book: I already had it on my wishlist — probably from when I read your review about it.
    I think I can understand why your friend feels that way: Algerians are presented negatively, but then, so is everyone else in the novel. My French teacher said that Camus loved Algeria, but I can see that it doesn’t necessarily follow that he respected it.
    FWIW I reckon that Maman should be left as it is. If a reader can’t work out for herself that it means Mother/Ma/Mum or whatever, then they are not smart enough to be reading Camus anyway.
    And while I agree with your first choice in the quiz, I lean towards Cela ne veut rien dire for the second!

    Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: