Hear Albert Camus Read the Famous Opening Passage of The Stranger (1947)

It is clos­ing-time in the gar­dens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the res­o­nance of his soli­tude or the qual­i­ty of his despair –Cyril Con­nol­ly

My mind has been drawn to late­ly Albert Camus’ The Stranger, in which an alien­at­ed French-Alger­ian man, sim­ply called Meur­sault, shoots a name­less “Arab,” for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son that he can divine. He thinks, per­haps, it may have been the sun in his eyes. Meur­sault is not a police offi­cer, he has not been called to a scene. He ambles into a scene, sees a stranger com­ing toward him, and fires five shots, commenting—in lan­guage that recalls the imper­son­al cop­s­peak of a “dis­charged weapon”—that “the trig­ger gave.”

The import of Camus’ 1942 novel—translated as The Out­sider in the first British edi­tion, with its intro­duc­tion by despair­ing lit­er­ary crit­ic Cyril Connolly—became such a hob­by horse for crit­ics that Louis Hudon wrote in 1960, “L’Etranger no longer exists…. Almost every­one has approached Camus and L’Etranger bound by his own tra­di­tion, prej­u­dices, or crit­i­cal appa­ra­tus.” But maybe we can­not do oth­er­wise. Maybe there is nev­er the “mag­nif­i­cent­ly naked puri­ty of the text” Hudon eulo­gizes.

Part of the dif­fi­cul­ty, Hudon alleged, was down to Camus him­self, who made avail­able his jour­nals and man­u­scripts, thus encour­ag­ing over-inter­pre­ta­tion. In 1955, Camus remarked, “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.’” The book has been read and taught in light of this gen­er­al state­ment ever since.

Recent com­men­tary on The Stranger in Eng­lish has turned, almost obses­sive­ly, on the trans­la­tion of the novel’s first sen­tence: Aujour­d’hui, maman est morte. Typ­i­cal­ly, as in that first British edi­tion, the line has been ren­dered “Moth­er died today”—using a “sta­t­ic, arche­typ­al term… like call­ing the fam­i­ly dog ‘Dog’ or a hus­band ‘Hus­band,’” writes Ryan Bloom in The New York­er. For decades, Anglo­phone read­ers have come to know Meur­sault “through the detached for­mal­i­ty of his state­ment.”

Per­haps if trans­la­tors were to leave the word in its orig­i­nal French—maman—which con­notes some­thing between the for­mal “Moth­er” and child­ish “Mommy”—we would see Meur­sault dif­fer­ent­ly. (French-speak­ing read­ers, of course, are not faced with this par­tic­u­lar inter­pre­tive chal­lenge.) But whether or not it makes a dif­fer­ence, and no mat­ter how we have imag­ined Meursault’s inter­nal voice, we can hear it the way Camus heard it, in the audio above from 1947, in which the author reads the open­ing sec­tion of the nov­el in French. (See the French pas­sage and Eng­lish trans­la­tion at the bot­tom of the post.)

Does it mat­ter whether we trans­late maman as “Moth­er” or leave it be? “Mom­my” may be inap­pro­pri­ate, and while “mom” might “seem the clos­est fit… there’s still some­thing off-putting and abrupt about the sin­gle-syl­la­ble word.” (Some trans­la­tions have opt­ed for the equal­ly jar­ring, one-syl­la­ble “Ma.”) If the debate seems ago­niz­ing­ly scholas­tic, keep in mind that Meursault’s fate, his very life, as Camus remarked, turns on whether a jury views him as a sym­pa­thet­ic fel­low human or a psy­chopath, based on exact­ly this kind of scruti­ny.

But what of the mur­der? The mur­der vic­tim? A man who is giv­en no name, no his­to­ry, no fam­i­ly, and no funer­al that we see. Leav­ing maman in French, writes Bloom, serves anoth­er purpose—reminding read­ers “that they are in fact enter­ing a world dif­fer­ent from their own”—that of Camus’ native colo­nial French Alge­ria. (Though in some ways not so dif­fer­ent.) Here, “the like­li­hood of a French­man in colo­nial Alge­ria get­ting the death penal­ty for killing an armed Arab was slim to nonex­is­tent.” This his­tor­i­cal con­text is often elid­ed.

Many of us were taught that the mur­der is all of a piece with Meursault’s cal­lous detach­ment from the world. But that inter­pre­ta­tion itself betrays a pro­found cal­lous­ness, one that takes for grant­ed Meursault’s objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the face­less “Arab.” Absent in such a read­ing is the fact that Meur­sault is “a cit­i­zen of France domi­ciled in North Africa,” as Con­nol­ly writes, “an homme du midi yet one who hard­ly par­takes of the tra­di­tion­al Mediter­ranean cul­ture” …a colonist, who, because of his race and nation­al­i­ty, has like­ly been taught to view the Alger­ian “Arabs” as sub-human, oth­er, out­side, strange, undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed, an ene­my….

The shoot­ing is a reflex born of that train­ing. Why does he do it? He doesn’t know.

The fresh­est response to Camus’ nov­el hap­pens to be a nov­el itself, Alger­ian writer Kamel Daoud’s 2013 The Meur­sault Inves­ti­ga­tion, nar­rat­ed by “the Arab”’s younger broth­er, Harun, who notes that in Camus’ book “the world ‘Arab’ appears twen­ty-five times, but not a sin­gle name, not once.” Here, writes Claire Mes­sud in her review, “Harun wants his lis­ten­er to under­stand that the dead man had a name [“Musa”] and a fam­i­ly.” In his metafic­tion­al com­men­tary, Harun rumi­nates: “Just think, we’re talk­ing about one of the most read books in the world. My broth­er might have been famous if your author had mere­ly deigned to give him a name.”

Daoud’s nov­el does not exist to upbraid Camus or sup­plant The Stranger but to human­ize the fig­ure of “the Arab,” tell the com­pli­cat­ed sto­ries of Alger­ian iden­ti­ty, and ask some very Camus-inspired ques­tions about the moral­i­ty of killing. Per­haps, as the con­sid­er­a­tion of maman sug­gests to us Eng­lish read­ers, Meur­sault is not a sociopath, or an emo­tion­al vac­u­um, or a sym­bol of the amoral absurd, but a per­son who had a cer­tain vague fond­ness for his moth­er, just not in the false­ly sen­ti­men­tal way his judges would like. This is what we often take away from the novel—Meursault’s con­dem­na­tion of a social order that insists on an inau­then­tic per­for­mance of human­i­ty. Per­haps also Meur­sault’s seem­ing­ly sense­less, casu­al mur­der of “the Arab” is not an out­come of his exis­ten­tial empti­ness but a reflex­ive­ly ordi­nary act that makes him more like his peers than we would like to admit.

Here’s the full text, in French and Eng­lish, that Camus reads:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télé­gramme de l’asile : « Mère décédée. Enter­re­ment demain. Sen­ti­ments dis­tin­gués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier. (See full text below)

L’asile de vieil­lards est à Maren­go, à qua­tre-vingts kilo­mètres d’Alger. Je prendrai l’autobus à deux heures et j’arriverai dans l’après-midi. Ain­si, je pour­rai veiller et je ren­tr­erai demain soir. J’ai demandé deux jours de con­gé à mon patron et il ne pou­vait pas me les refuser avec une excuse pareille. Mais il n’avait pas l’air con­tent. Je lui ai même dit : « Ce n’est pas de ma faute. » Il n’a pas répon­du. J’ai pen­sé alors que je n’aurais pas dû lui dire cela. En somme, je n’avais pas à m’excuser. C’était plutôt à lui de me présen­ter ses con­doléances. Mais il le fera sans doute après-demain, quand il me ver­ra en deuil. Pour le moment, c’est un peu comme si maman n’était pas morte. Après l’enterrement, au con­traire, ce sera une affaire classée et tout aura revê­tu une allure plus offi­cielle.

J’ai pris l’autobus à deux heures. Il fai­sait très chaud. J’ai mangé au restau­rant, chez Céleste, comme d’habitude. Ils avaient tous beau­coup de peine pour moi et Céleste m’a dit : « On n’a qu’une mère. » Quand je suis par­ti, ils m’ont accom­pa­g­né à la porte. J’étais un peu étour­di parce qu’il a fal­lu que je monte chez Emmanuel pour lui emprunter une cra­vate noire et un bras­sard. Il a per­du son oncle, il y a quelques mois.

J’ai cou­ru pour ne pas man­quer le départ. Cette hâte, cette course, c’est à cause de tout cela sans doute, ajouté aux cahots, à l’odeur d’essence, à la réver­béra­tion de la route et du ciel, que je me suis assoupi. J’ai dor­mi pen­dant presque tout le tra­jet. Et – 5 – quand je me suis réveil­lé, j’étais tassé con­tre un mil­i­taire qui m’a souri et qui m’a demandé si je venais de loin. J’ai dit « oui » pour n’avoir plus à par­ler.


MOTHER died today. Or, maybe, yes­ter­day; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the mat­ter doubt­ful; it could have been yes­ter­day.

The Home for Aged Per­sons is at Maren­go, some fifty miles from Algiers. With the two o’clock bus I should get there well before night­fall. Then I can spend the night there, keep­ing the usu­al vig­il beside the body, and be back here by tomor­row evening. I have fixed up with my employ­er for two days’ leave; obvi­ous­ly, under the cir­cum­stances, he couldn’t refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, with­out think­ing: “Sor­ry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.”

After­wards it struck me I needn’t have said that. I had no rea­son to excuse myself; it was up to him to express his sym­pa­thy and so forth. Prob­a­bly he will do so the day after tomor­row, when he sees me in black. For the present, it’s almost as if Moth­er weren’t real­ly dead. The funer­al will bring it home to me, put an offi­cial seal on it, so to speak. …

I took the two‑o’clock bus. It was a blaz­ing hot after­noon. I’d lunched, as usu­al, at Céleste’s restau­rant. Every­one was most kind, and Céleste said to me, “There’s no one like a moth­er.” When I left they came with me to the door. It was some­thing of a rush, get­ting away, as at the last moment I had to call in at Emmanuel’s place to bor­row his black tie and mourn­ing band. He lost his uncle a few months ago.

I had to run to catch the bus. I sup­pose it was my hur­ry­ing like that, what with the glare off the road and from the sky, the reek of gaso­line, and the jolts, that made me feel so drowsy. Any­how, I slept most of the way. When I woke I was lean­ing against a sol­dier; he grinned and asked me if I’d come from a long way off, and I just nod­ded, to cut things short. I wasn’t in a mood for talk­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Camus’ His­toric Lec­ture, “The Human Cri­sis,” Per­formed by Actor Vig­go Mortensen

Albert Camus: The Mad­ness of Sin­cer­i­ty — 1997 Doc­u­men­tary Revis­its the Philosopher’s Life & Work

Albert Camus Wins the Nobel Prize & Sends a Let­ter of Grat­i­tude to His Ele­men­tary School Teacher (1957)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Oliver Clarke says:

    Thank God for Camus, and thank God for your lit­er­a­ture sec­tion. It is refresh­ing to see reviews/commentary on impor­tant texts instead of new fic­tion trash. If you are look for any writ­ers at the moment I’d like to offer myself, find my web­site here:confessionaljournalism.wordpress.com

    Thanks, keep post­ing about mean­ing­ful texts.

    Oliv­er P. Clarke

  • Objective Absurdist says:

    Camus got it right. Human exis­tence is asburd. This is espe­cial­ly true when one “zooms out” and con­sid­ers the actions of human­i­ty as a whole and then lis­tens to the lat­est ver­sion of the delu­sion­al belief in a sav­iour that will soothe the anx­i­ety of being human. For a long time it was reli­gion that had all the “answers” and today, at least in the west, it is sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy that has usurped the Chris­t­ian church and is becom­ing a dog­mat­ic faith-based move­ment in its own right.

    PS — Only two com­ments in and the anti-Arab bigots/trolls are already air­ing their care­ful­ly con­sid­ered views. I applaud Open­Cul­ture for its ded­i­ca­tion to free speech. But I won­der if a sim­i­lar com­ment about Jews would have seen the light of day?

  • Ray Moore says:

    If you like this nov­el you will gain a lot from my book “ ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus: A Crit­i­cal Intro­duc­tion”. https://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Albert-Critical-Introduction-Revised/dp/1507792425/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1469555203&sr=1–1&keywords=the+stranger+by+albert+camus+a+critical+introduction

  • Ayn Sof says:

    “J’ai dit « oui » pour n’avoir plus à par­ler.”
    =/= “I just nod­ded, to cut things short. I wasn’t in a mood for talk­ing.”

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