In early 1970s Glasgow, symbolism and existentialism were meat and drink in the pubs around the university…
From The New York Times:
The first modern French novel I read — the one that introduced terms like “avant-garde” and “surrealism” to my tongue — was “Les Enfants Terribles,” by Jean Cocteau. I thrilled to the extravagant antics of Paul and Elisabeth, brother and sister, soon to be sleeping partners, in “the Room” they share with teenage friends. Life in Cocteau’s Paris is “the Game,” with its own rules or no rules, a state peculiar to the spirit on the threshold between infancy and adolescence. All lovers of this slim novel seek to unlock the secret door leading from their own room to the Room on the Rue Montmartre. When I open it now, it is my cleareyed 20-year-old self in Scotland who begins to read, as much as the weathered, bespectacled “me” of almost four decades on.
There was no Café de Flore in Glasgow in the early 1970s. The Left Bank of the River Clyde was still dedicated to shipbuilding. But symbolism and existentialism were meat and drink in the pubs around the university, where Albert Camus was as grand a hero as Bob Dylan. Those studying French tackled Camus’s novel “L’Etranger” in the original; others, including me, took the convenient option of Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 translation, “The Stranger” (known to British readers as “The Outsider”). The pressure of the midday heat on Meursault before his fatal act was much debated, as was the import of his opening words: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Was it for the crime of lack of feeling that Meursault faced the guillotine? Let’s have another round.
Late last year, as an extra layer of insulation against a severe London winter, I embarked on a project of reading in French the novels I had devoured so eagerly in translation, and which I felt had helped form me. I picked up Camus’s book again, only this time in a compact Livre de Poche, dated 1963. The cover illustration shows Meursault on the beach outside Algiers, besuited but crucially bareheaded, caught between the expanses of sand and sky. Moments later, he will shoot five bullets into an Arab who has insulted his friend.
As I read, I occasionally compared a sentence of the French text with the Gilbert version. The results were startling. Gilbert, a friend of James Joyce in Paris in the 1920s, adds phrases and changes the meaning of others. Some of his interference is trivial, but any rearrangement of a hero’s attributes, his way of speaking, of responding to questions, shifts perceptions of who that character is, however minutely.