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)
John MacDougall/Getty
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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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