More honored than read? Stanford’s Another Look book club reconsiders Camus’ The Stranger

Iconic photo of a French cultural legend, Paris 1944. (Courtesy Magnum/Henri Cartier-Bresson)

Albert Camus’ 1942 classic, “The Stranger,” raises tough questions about culture clash and how we find meaning in our lives – and the narratives we create to absolve ourselves. The final event in the three-year “Another Look” series will take place on June 1.


I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all waswell in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is drenched in the North African sun, but heat and light take an ominous turn. The Nobel Prize-winning author’s tale of a senseless murder on the hot Mediterranean beach has been a staple of high-school classes for decades, ever since it was published by the up-and-coming writer in 1942. But does it carry a new meaning for our time?

Acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff has chosen The Stranger for the Another Look book club event at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 1 at the Stanford Humanities Center.  With Tobias Wolff’s retirement at the end of this academic year, the spring event on Camus’ The Stranger will be the last in the popular three-year series.

Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look, will moderate the final event. He will be joined by cultural and intellectual historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center; and Stanford lecturer Marie-Pierre Ulloa, a scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria who has received France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the nation’s highest cultural honors. The event is free and open to the public.

According to Wolff, “The Stranger is not an overlooked book. But I believe that among adult readers it is more honored than read. We usually encounter it in our student days, and I doubt that many of us read it again later on.

“Yet it’s very much worth our renewed attention in this moment for the questions it raises about our attempts to find meaning in our lives, about the often violent encounters of different cultures, about the way we create consoling, even heroic, narratives to explain and absolve ourselves while remaining willfully blind to the personal and social forces that actually drive us, about the question of free will – do we have it? –  and about the problematic nature of institutional justice and punishment, indeed of all human judgment.

Stanford alumnus Matthew Ward translated the edition of Camus’ “The Stranger” chosen for Another Look.

The event will spotlight the translation of Matthew Ward, who learned French at Stanford (a profile of him here). He died of AIDS in 1990, two years after his translation was published, and a year after it received a PEN award. In a New York Times article, Ward said he used an “American method” to translate Camus.

Read the rest here.

Translator Matthew Ward: “He had an immense intellectual hunger.”

Translator extraordinaire. (Courtesy the Ward family)


In his brief life, Matthew Ward translated works by Colette, Jean Giraudoux, and Roland Barthes into English – but his favorite project was Albert Camus’s The Stranger. His celebrated “American” translation of the classic earned him a PEN award in 1989, as well as critical acclaim.

In a sense, the translation was born at Stanford, where Ward learned French and fell in love with France during his stay in Tours as part of Stanford’s Overseas Studies program in 1971 (he earned his B.A. From Stanford in 1973). Clearly, Ward’s translation of The Stranger is a perfect choice for the “Another Look” book club discussion at 7:30 p.m., Monday, June 1, at the Stanford Humanities Center – and not only for aesthetic reasons. It represents a sort of homecoming.

If Ward’s Stanford roots are not widely recognized, part of the reason may be that he was known in those days as “Gary,” an energetic, gregarious presence who was very, very smart. “He had an immense intellectual hunger,” recalled Stanford English Prof. John Bender, who was the faculty advisor in Tours the year Ward attended, and recalled the poet and translator’s “eagerness and sparkle.”

“He wanted to know everything, whatever he could know.” Most of all, recalled Bender, “he was passionately interested in French.”

During the six-month sojourn in Tours, Ward also forged an important friendship with Monika Greenleaf, now an associate professor of Slavic literature at Stanford, but then a “scholarship kid” as he was. “I have an intense memory of his face and body when he became enthused about something:  his big brown eyes would glow, then a huge mocking grin and demonic chuckle, and a flurry of gestures. It was always a manifesto about literary style, freedom, religion, young men’s conquests of their world, and above all, Joyce” – and, she quickly added, Kerouac, Hemingway, Ginzburg, Camus, and Proust, too.

“He and I bonded above all in our mutual and rivalrous pursuit of le mot juste,” she said. “Being Irish, he had the scintillating verbal gift that comes with the territory.”

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Camus, the guillotine, and the death penalty

Autobiography often appears in Camus’s novels in hints and allusions: his maternal grandfather’s name was Sintes, a name that appears in The Stranger in the French form Sintès, which his family had eventually adopted; his maternal grandmother’s name was Catherine Marie Cardona, another name that appears in the The Stranger. But there’s one haunting episode in the novel that appears to be taken straight from life: Meursault’s long-dead father had witnessed an execution by guillotine; so had Camus’s own father, who died in France during World War I. From Herbert R. Lottman’s Albert Camus (1979):

Guillotine used in Algerian War. (US Army Africa/Creative Commons)

It may have been his grandmother Catherine Sintes née Cardona who told the child Albert Camus the only story of substance he would ever hear about his father, and which (perhaps in part because it was the only one) was to count in his life.

Speaking without a fictional screen in his essay “Réflections sur la guillotine,” Camus attributes the telling of the story to his mother. Shortly before World War I, the story went, the murderer of a farm family was sentenced to death by guillotine. Camus’s father, who felt that beheading was too good for the killer of children, decided to attend the execution. He got up in the middle of the night so that he would be sure to reach the execution site in time.

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Albert Camus live!

Albert Camus was one of the leading cultural figures of his time – but in the pre-internet era, his fame did not translate into ubiquitous international exposure in every platform imaginable. There is no interview conducted English, alas – but here’s what we could find.

In the first half-minute clip, a reporter asks Camus about his selection for the Nobel Prize. Camus, ever a devoted sports fan, answers the question at a soccer match. (Thanks, Jacqueline Genovese, who alerted us this short clip.)

The second video is only for French speakers: an interview about Camus’s theatrical adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. He directed a production of the play at the Théâtre Antoine in 1959, partly financed with his Nobel money. He viewed Dostoevsky’s words against nihilism as a prophecy for our times. He would die the following year, in 1960.

The third video is his speech on accepting the Nobel Prize, with English subtitles. From the banquet speech: “Art … obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.”

Immortel René Girard: “How can a man commit a murder and not be responsible for it?”

René Girard is one of only 40 members, or immortels, of the Académie Française, France’s highest intellectual honor. The Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization has been at Stanford since 1981.

In 1964, René Girard published “Camus’s Stranger Retried,” in Modern Language Association’s PMLA. The essay earned a $1,000 “best essay” award from the Modern Language Association – important early recognition from the American academy for the Frenchman, and one that pleased him enormously.

The seminal essay was eventually included in his 1978 collection, To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis and AnthropologyThe book was selected by Choice as one of the outstanding academic books of the year.

An excerpt:

On the purely phenomenological level, Meursault’s condemnation is almost unrelated to his crime. Every detail of the trial adds up to the conclusion that the judges resent the murderer not for what he did but for what he is. The critic Albert Maquet expressed this truth quite well when he wrote: “The murder of the Arab is only a pretext; behind the person of the accused, the judges want to destroy the truth he embodies.”

Let there be no murder and a good pretext to get rid of Meursault will, indeed, have been lost, but a pretext should be easy to replace, precisely because it does not have to be good. If society is as eager to annihilate Meursault as it is pictured by Maquet, the remarkable existence of this hero should provide more “pretexts” than will ever be needed to send an innocent to his doom.

Is this assumption well founded? We ask this question in all awareness that we are abandoning, for the time being, pure literary phenomenology for common sense realism. If we feel, when we are reading the novel, that Meursault lives dangerously, this impression evaporates under examination. The man goes to work regularly; he swims on the beaches of the Mediterranean and he has dates with the girls in the office. He likes the movies but he is not interested in politics. Which of these activities will take him to a police station, let alone the guillotine?

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“If that is justice, then I prefer my mother”: Stanford student discusses Camus’ stance on non-violence

Stanford philosophy major Truman Chen clearly has a passion for Albert Camus. As a freshman, he used Sophia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation as a vehicle to explain Camus’ concept of the absurd and absurd freedom, from The Myth of Sisyphus and The Fall
More writing is in the future. He wrote, “Over the summer, I will be writing a comparative piece on Camus’ political theory, as outlined in The Rebel, and its similarity to some of Hannah Arendt’s and John Dewey’s critiques of modern representative democracy and Bolshevism. In addition, I will be a writing a piece on Camus’ metaphysics and its relation to Heidegger’s.”
He recently wrote a political piece on violent resistance in The Stanford Political Journal, grounded very much in Camus’s arguments from The Rebel to refute the justifiability of violent resistance and opt for a more nuanced approach to combatting oppression. The immediate prompt for the article was student Manny Thompson’s quarrel with Provost John Etchemendy. Read Truman’s whole article  here, but meanwhile, here’s an excerpt:

Peaceful protesters in Baltimore (Photo: Creative Commons)

… It is far from clear that to condemn violent resistance is to endorse the oppressor. This is the very problem that alienated Albert Camus from both the French and the Algerians during the Algerian War of Independence. Camus, an Algerian native raised in poverty, of course morally favored an Algerian freedom from colonial oppression, but violence complicated everything. He had always condemned the horrifyingly violent occupation of Algeria by the French, but at the same time he could not endorse the violent means used by the Algerian revolutionaries. He attempted to escape what he understood to be a false dichotomy. Camus expressed his problem poignantly: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Still, the Algerians accused him of supporting the French colonizers, and the Stalinist French intellectuals of his time accused him of being spineless and self-absorbed. But, in the end, like in most wars, there was a truce, a political act pleaded for by Camus since the beginning. …

Thompson is correct that there are those who act violently because they “hold life sacred,” but he has forgotten that there are also those who hold the lives of others too sacred to act violently. In The Rebel, Camus wrote that the act of rebellion is a simultaneous denial and affirmation: a “no” against the condition the rebel finds himself in, and a “yes” for the human dignity he and all human beings deserve. A limit is drawn to protect that which is worthwhile in all humans. The rebel knows what is and what ought to be but is careful in his actions to prevent his “no” from violating the “yes” of others through violence. If he were to act violently against another, his own “yes” predicated upon a universal human dignity would be logically undermined, and if “men cannot refer to a common value, recognized by all as existing in each one, then man is incomprehensible to man.” This comprehensibility is essential for the thinking of political discourse, the only means we have to correct the oppressive power structures. To preserve this avenue for change, it is imperative we renounce violence in all forms, even in the form of resistance.

The book that rocked a nation: Another Look takes on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

The 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, with Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte.

By Cynthia Haven

In the last year, the killings of black youth have sparked protests and violent clashes with police across the nation, putting racial justice in the headlines. Next month, the Another Look book club will reflect on these issues with a public discussion of James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, the author’s scathing, yet compassionate, reflections on the consequences of America’s racial inequities.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating.

The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.

Michele Elam, who will moderate the event on the novelist, playwright, essayist and activist, said that she selected the The Fire Next Time “because its urgent insistence that black lives matter is as poignantly relevant today as it was in the civil rights era.” Elam, whose Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin will be out this month, added that “The Fire Next Time offers some of his most cogent and searing insights into race, power, and love in America.”

Read the full Stanford Report article here or click the link below.

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James Baldwin on writing: “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.”

James Baldwin was an eminent essayist, novelist, and playwright – but he was also a master of the Q&A interview. Here are excerpts from two excellent examples of the form – the first his Paris Review interview, published in 1984, with interviewers Jordan Elgrably and George Plimpton (read the whole thing here); the second is “James Baldwin – Reflections of a Maverick,” Julius Lester’s New York Times Book Review interview of the same year (read the whole thing here).

From The Paris Review

“Claim it all—including Shakespeare.” Photo: Allan Warren

INTERVIEWER: Why did you choose France?

BALDWIN: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.

INTERVIEWER: You say the city beat him to death. You mean that metaphorically.

BALDWIN: Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.

INTERVIEWER: Has writing been a type of salvation?

“I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”

BALDWIN: I’m not so sure! I’m not sure I’ve escaped anything. One still lives with it, in many ways. It’s happening all around us, every day. It’s not happening to me in the same way, because I’m James Baldwin; I’m not riding the subways and I’m not looking for a place to live. But it’s still happening. So salvation is a difficult word to use in such a context. I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.

INTERVIEWER: Was there an instant you knew you were going to write, to be a writer rather than anything else?

BALDWIN: Yes. The death of my father. Until my father died I thought I could do something else. I had wanted to be a musician, thought of being a painter, thought of being an actor. This was all before I was nineteen. … My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. … He died when his last child was born and I realized I had to make a jump—a leap. I’d been a preacher for three years, from age fourteen to seventeen. Those were three years which probably turned me to writing.

INTERVIEWER: Were the sermons you delivered from the pulpit very carefully prepared, or were they absolutely off the top of your head?

BALDWIN: I would improvise from the texts, like a jazz musician improvises from a theme. I never wrote a sermon—I studied the texts. I’ve never written a speech. I can’t read a speech. It’s kind of give-and-take. You have to sense the people you’re talking to. You have to respond to what they hear.

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The meeting with RFK: “Bobby didn’t understand our urgency,” said Baldwin.

RFK at civil rights rally, June 1963

The encounter was called “intense,” “traumatic,” “excruciating,” three hours of “violent, emotional verbal assaults.” On May 24, 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with a group of black writers and artists brought together by James Baldwin. Pulitzer prizewinning author Arthur Schlesinger, special assistant to President John Kennedy, gave the fullest account of the event, which came only weeks after the Birmingham, Alabama, agreement for desegregation triggered bombings and riots. Did this difficult confrontation make a difference? Perhaps.

Birmingham convinced Kennedy that the next great battlefield for racial justice lay in the cities. James Baldwin was born in Harlem. His extraordinary New Yorker piece of November 1962, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” had exposed in searing word the humiliation, despair and rage of Negro Americans. Baldwin and Kennedy had met the year before at the White House dinner for Nobel Prize laureates. They had agreed then that they wanted to talk some more. Now Kennedy invited Baldwin to breakfast at Hickory Hill.

Kenneth Clark

Baldwin was a brilliant, passionate, sensitive, dramatic man imbued with a conviction of utter hopelessness about the black fate in white society. “The Negro’s experience of the white world,” he had written in the New Yorker, “cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards in which the white world claims to live.” His belief, one felt, was that all white by definition hated all blacks and that white liberals were worst of all because they pretended to deny their innermost feelings. Nonetheless he caught an early plane to Washington. “We had a very nice meeting,” Kennedy said later. “I was really quite impressed by him,” said Baldwin. “… He seemed honest and earnest and truthful.” Burke Marshall, who was present, said, “He and Bob Kennedy had a rather good conversation about the cities.” Baldwin’s plane had been late, however, and Kennedy had to leave for another engagement. He therefore proposed that Baldwin assemble a group with thoughts about the northern ghetto.

“This boy just put it like it was.”

This led to the meeting in the Kennedy family apartment at 24 Central Park South in New York. Baldwin, acting on short notice, made an effort to enlist experts on the northern city, like Kenneth B. Clark, the social psychologist, Edwin C. Berry of the Chicago Urban League and Clarence B. Jones, an attorney for Martin Luther King. But what Baldwin called “this sociology and economics jazz” was not his métier. He also invited the playwright Lorraine Hansberry and the singers Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte – artists concerned, like Baldwin himself, less with solutions than with the anguish of the problem. Then he brought along Jerome Smith, a young civil rights worker, who began as a Gandhian pacifist, became a Freedom Rider and a CORE field worker and, according to the historians of CORE, “had probably spent more months in jail and been beaten more often than any other CORE member.” He was now in New York for medical treatment.*

Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall had spent an unpleasant morning urging owners of chain stores to desegregate their lunch counters in the south. The white executives seemed to feel, Kennedy recalled, that “the Devil Incarnate had arrived in New York, and they were asked to meet with him.” They turned out not to be the only people in New York that day who regarded the Attorney General as the devil incarnate.

Listen to him, please.

Clark and Berry arrived armed with statistics and proposals. They never had a chance. Jerome Smith, as Baldwin put it later, “set the tone of the meeting because he stammers when he’s upset and he stammered when he talked to Bobby and said that he was nauseated by the necessity of being in that room. I knew what he meant. It was not personal at all. … Bobby took it personally.” This was perhaps understandable. To say, as the Attorney General heard it, that being in the same room with Robert Kennedy made him feel like throwing up seemed a rough way to begin. “Bobby took it personally,” Baldwin continued, “and turned away from him. That was a mistake because he turned toward us. We were the reasonable, responsible, mature representatives of the black community. Lorraine Hansberry said, ‘You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there.’

Belafonte – one of “the fortunate Negroes”

Smith talked on with vehement emotion. He told what he had been through in the south. He said he was not sure how much longer he could stay nonviolent. He said, “When I pull the trigger, kiss it good-bye.” Baldwin asked him whether he would fight for his country. He said, “Never! Never! Never!” This shocked Kennedy, for whom patriotism was an absolute. “We were shocked that he was shocked,” said Kenneth Clark. “…Bobby got redder and redder and redder, and in a sense accused Jerome of treason, you know, or something of that sort. Well, that made everybody move in to protect Jerome and confirm his feelings. And it became really an attack!”

“No alternative except our going in the streets … and chaos.”

“This boy,” Lena Horne said afterward, “just put it like it was. He communicated the plain, basic suffering of being a Negro. The primeval memory of everyone in that room went to work after that. … He took us back to the common dirt of our existence and rubbed our noses in it. … You could not encompass his anger, his fury, in a set of statistics, nor could Mr. Belafonte and Dr. Clark and Miss Horne, the fortunate Negroes, keep up the pretense of being the mature, responsible spokesmen for the race.” Lorraine Hansberry said to Kennedy, “Look, if you can’t understand what this young man is saying, then we are without any hope at all because you and your brother are representatives of the best that a white America can offer; and if you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except our going in the streets … and chaos.” The whites, she said, were castrating the Negroes. She talked wildly about giving guns to Negroes in the street so they could start killing white people.

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How The Fire Next Time changed a life.

Sixteen-year-old Dorinda Palmer leads marchers to City Hall in Greenwood, Mississippi.            (All photographs by Bob Fitch. Copyright Stanford University Libraries.)


Bob Fitch was a graduate student when he read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as a class assignment. At the time, he was attending a Protestant seminary student at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Once he started Baldwin’s book, he couldn’t tear himself away, and he spent the night reading the volume that has changed minds and lives. It certainly changed his.

MLK shepherds students on march in Grenada, Miss., 1966

The next day Fitch, who currently has a photography exhibit spotlighting the Civil Rights era at the Stanford University Libraries, bought a second-hand professional camera and began photographing the civil rights movement.

He volunteered as a photographer for The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta from 1965 to 1968. In the South he worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, documenting civil rights activities and serving as a wire service—“from camera click to stamp lick”— for the African American press, which could not risk sending their own correspondents into the field. Along the way, he deepened his commitment to social justice activism and his appreciation of the people who make up movements for change. After a year-and-a-half he was invited to accompany King Jr. to Jamaica, where he was working on a book.

Boycott supporter in Mississippi, 1966

He continued to photograph for the next fifty years, documenting the work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, the Vietnam War draft resistance movement, and Ron Dellums’s first congressional campaign, among many other social justice–related subjects. Most recently, Fitch photographed Luis Alejo’s 2010 campaign for California State Assembly.

But one moment, in particular, he remembers: at an informal staff meeting held in Martin Luther King’s bedroom, he saw The Fire Next Time among the leader’s rumpled bedsheets. King told the young photographer that the book had inspired his own 1967 book, which would be his last, Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community?

Iconic Fitch photographs from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s are displayed in Movements for Change: The Bob Fitch Photography Archive at Stanford Libraries; the Green Library exhibit continues through March 18.

All photographs by Bob Fitch. Copyright Stanford University Libraries.

SCLC organizers link hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” in Eutaw, Alabama, 1965.