Framing the Outsider

The Cure, the new Penguin editions of Camus, and the details of presentation.

Camus in 1959. (Photo: Getty)

Albert Camus was born one hundred years ago. To celebrate this centenary, Penguin has repackaged a range of his best-selling works. The centrepiece is, of course, The Outsider, the brief and perplexing novel that raised its author from respected reviewer to literary and philosophical star. Its cover image has traditionally been a solitary individual against a blank or hostile background. The new edition is fronted by a photo of the sun, at once familiar and foreboding, bright and warm but potentially oppressively so. Can we expect this image shift to have an impact on the book's reception?

Thirty-five years ago, the same strange tale launched the career of what is now one of the longest running and most successful rock bands in the world, The Cure. A sharp and fast presentation of the central scene, "Killing an Arab" became the band's signature piece. But it soon presented them with a difficult dilemma, for the title had attracted National Front skinheads to their gigs. The band now faced the moral problem of inadvertently encouraging a subculture of racism.

Yet the song held a special place in their work. It was not merely a debut. It was almost a manifesto. It set the dark, bass-heavy, dissonant sound that dominated their first five years and that they never entirely left behind. It introduced their recurring theme of the tension between the importance we find in our interactions and the apparent unimportance of our lives overall. And it embodied the lyrical style of much of their subsequent work, which uses short staccato sentences to portray moments through their minutiae, just as the novel does.

The Outsider was thus the inspiration for the distinctive storytelling style and the air of alienated ambivalence that characterised much of the extensive work that established The Cure as one of the central forces shaping post-punk music. For this reason, it became traditional to close their gigs with "Killing an Arab", the ominous opening bars taking on the feel of heralding not merely the rest of the song, but the rest of the band's career. For this reason too, their first singles collection was named after the song's opening line, Standing On A Beach, with the different CD and video versions named after the third line, "staring at the sea". Perhaps the old man on their cover is the novel's character Pérez.

But this continual contextualisation of the song did not eliminate the misunderstanding. When the first President Bush began the first war against Iraq, the band felt the need for their singles collection to carry a sticker on the cover explicitly opposing the racist interpretation of the song. An updated singles collection soon followed under a different title and omitting the debut single. The song was dropped from the live sets. It was only after the second President Bush had begun the second war against Iraq that it resurfaced in the band's repertoire.

The solution now seems obvious, as good ideas often do in retrospect. The song was renamed "Killing Another". Because this has the same syllable count as the original phrase, the rest of the song could remain intact. What is more, the new version more clearly isolates the aspect of the novel that it presents. What matters to their version of the story is not the victim's ethnicity, but his humanity and individuality. That word 'another' neatly encapsulates both the sameness that unifies and the difference that separates the murderer and the victim. By removing a detail, the song has become more precise. Their most recent live album, the epic Bestival 2011, closes with a triumphant performance of this new version of the song.

Where the change in song title alters the presentation of the murder victim, the new cover art on the novel alters the presentation of the murder itself. Camus leaves it quite ambiguous how much the murder was the free choice of the murderer and how much it was the product of the blinding and scorching midday summer Algerian sun. Camus accords nature a very significant role in human existence, but this side of his work has been less influential than his ruminations on the relation between individual and society. Perhaps this apparently simple reframing will provide the novel with a whole new lease of life in the English-speaking world, bringing into sharper focus an essential aspect of the tale.

But this will depend on the reception of the other change that the publishers have made. For the new edition is a new translation, the first for thirty years, which is intended to capture the novel better in today's English. Whether or not it succeeds in that aim, it does seem to have lost some of its poetic quality. "The sea heaved a heavy, scorching sigh," it reads, at the moment the murder occurs, where the previous translation had "the sea swept ashore a great breath of fire". The scene now ends with the protagonist saying of the shots that "it was as if I had rapped sharply, four times, on the fatal door of destiny" in place of the more lyrical (and more accurate) "it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness".

Perhaps more importantly, the new translation presents the murder itself in a rather different light. Immediately before the shots are fired, the protagonist describes the victim brandishing a knife. Then, in the new translation, he describes "the knife, a burning sword hovering above me. Its red-hot blade tore through my eyelashes to pierce my aching eyes". Camus, however, is clear that it is not the knife itself but rather "the burning spear still leaping off the knife in front of me", as the previous translation had it, that "was like a red-hot blade gnawing at my eyelashes and gouging out my stinging eyes". While the new cover draws attention to the role of the sun in the story, the new translation obscures that role at the story's pivotal moment.

How will these changes in translation affect the book's cultural influence over the next few decades? That depends entirely on the readers. Perhaps their reception of the book will not rest at all on these details. Or perhaps, despite the translator's intentions, the less lyrical prose and the suggestion that the murder victim had attacked first will frame the whole narrative in ways that cannot easily be predicted. We can only wait and see.