Framing the Outsider

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

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.

Camus in 1959. (Photo: Getty)
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism