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)
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear