Category Archives: Books

Killing an Arab, finding an Arab: Rewriting Camus’ L’Étranger

Ask most people to name the best-known French novel of the twentieth century, and they’d almost certainly come up with Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 and moved to France in 1940, but as his greatest novels L’Étranger and La Peste testify, his imagination was firmly rooted in Algeria (as is Les Noces, a collection of meditations that contain his most rapturous writing). Since his death in 1960 there’s been a struggle for ownership of Camus that has played out within a postcolonial critical context. Last year Algerian writer Kamel Daoud – who, like Camus, is a journalist by trade and who lives in Oran – published Meursault, Contre-ênquete. The novel has had remarkable success in both France and Algeria (it was just pipped to the Prix Goncourt in 2014 by Lydie Salvayre’s Pas Pleurer), precisely because it resituates the complex modern reception of Camus in fictional form.

Kamel Daoud

Kamel Daoud

L’Étranger is the story of Meursault, who attends his mother’s funeral but does not show grief. He becomes embroiled in a quarrel with some Arabs and under a blazing sun, shoots one of them; arrested and put on trial for murder, he is condemned to the guillotine, partly because the prosecution plays on his reaction to his mother’s death. Rather as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea spins out of Jane Eyre, Daoud’s Meursault, Contre-enquête is a text born in the gap at the centre of Camus’s novel. The man into whom Meursault empties his gun on the beach is never named by Camus, but Daoud constructs a biography for him. Moussa’s story is retold by his brother Haroun, who is now in his late seventies. His mother mourns every day, since the body has never been found. Meursault, Contre-ênquete maps out the effect on his family, not only of the death of a brother and son but also of the fictionalisation of the killer Meursault into a post-war absurdist hero within French culture.


Albert Camus

For the central literary conceit here is that L’Étranger was not a novel but real-life testimony, written while Meursault was in jail, and to which Haroun now responds, seventy years later. It’s a cute sleight of hand; indeed, the intense consciousness of its own fictionality lifts Meursault, Contre-enquête out of a monochrome postcolonial polemic. There’s a dense interplay of Camus texts throughout: ‘Moussa’, of course, echoes ‘Meursault’ while the first line of Daoud’s novel (‘Aujourd’hui, M’ma est encore vivante’) explicitly references the famous opening of L’Étranger: ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’. Just as the evangelising priest in L’Étranger rails at an impassive Meursault for his lack of belief, so the does the imam to an unreceptive Haroun. Whereas Meursault’s inability to mourn his mother condemns him to the scaffold, the obsessive mourning of Haroun’s silent but vengeful mother precipitates another death. During the chaos of the Algerian revolution Haroun, urged on by his mother, commits a murder of a Frenchman apparently picked at random. The meaning of that killing is contingent; to have killed him before the day of Algerian liberation would categorise the death as an act of war; the day after, the Frenchman’s death is a meaningless one.

Daoud Meursault contre-enquete

Meursault, contre-enquête

For all its homage to L’Étranger, though, the novel that Daoud references most closely in structural terms is Camus’s 1956 work La Chute (The Fall), in which the narrator Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells how he, a liberal and respected lawyer, realises he is living a life of hypocrisy and futility; there is no such thing as justice or social fairness. Like La Chute, Meursault, Contre-enquête is constructed around a series of monologues in a bar. It revels in pointing out individual and social hypocrisy, whether it be that of elite French culture and of the reader him- or herself in collaborating with the Meursault’s celebrity, that of the Algerian revolutionary movement, and even the hypocrisy and futility of religion. It figures the Algerian revolution as a series of absurd and violent acts that never connect to a higher or noble purpose, and the novel has also earned Daoud a Facebook fatwa from an obscure Algerian imam, to whom he has rather splendidly responded by filing a criminal complaint. Meursault, Contre-ênquete is an extraordinarily bold reappropriation of the canonical post-war French novel. I give it a year for Daoud and Camus to be paired on university reading lists.

Kamel Daoud, Meursault, Contre-enquête (Actes Sud)


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Chivalry in Liverpool

Our book club had a fantastic weekend of culture, food and drink in Liverpool in March. Just before our train home we ended up spending a couple of hours in the gorgeously refurbished Central Library, where there were two books on display that really caught the eye. One was Speculum Aureum Decem Praeceptorum, a collection of sermons based on the Ten Commandments by the fifteenth-century monk Henricus Herpf. It was published in 1481 by the Nuremberg printer and goldsmith Anton Koberger at a time when the Continental printing industry was beginning to flourish – Caxton only printed his first book in 1473, when the presses in Cologne, Bruges and Nuremberg were already going strong. It appears that Herpf ‘s meditations had a healthy readership regardless of political or confessional divides, given John Dee’s library contained a heavily-annotated book of his sermons. (Abe Books is currently selling one of them for £18,435.65, plus £29.83 p&p. I think I’ll pass.)chained book

If I’m honest, the real interest is the material detail that hints at how it was consumed. It’s bound in pigskin with its chain still attached – the last link has a bolt that is shaped to fit into a slot where it could run freely, presumably with other books in a collection. It’s a book made to be housed with others, which hints at an intellectual or devotional community – in this case, an institution in Gerpinnes in the Belgian region of Hainaut.

The second book of note is a stunning illuminated manuscript called Voeux du Paon (the vows of the peacock), written a century earlier in 1312 and dedicated to Thibaut de Bar, bishop of Liège. This copy (Phillipps MS 2582) is bound in 18th-century mottled calf and the head librarian tells me that it was bought in 1957 from a collection that was originally acquired by the antiquarian Sir Thomas Phillipps in the early 19th century. Phillipps was clearly an enthusiast of fourteenth-century verse romance, since he owned two other versions of the Voeux, all of which are from the same manuscript tradition with little dramatic variation among them. When the medieval scholar Edward Billings Ham compared the three in 1929, he found that what is now the Liverpool manuscript has less regional French dialect than its companions but the scribe’s calligraphy is not as fine as the others.

Verse romance, which on the whole (generalisation alert) was consumed orally, tends not to have quite so much in the way of iconography and this conforms to that – just 20 illustrations among the 132 leaves of vellum.

The Voeux du Paon, which is part of a cycle of texts around Alexander the Great, switches between warfare and leisure, between the battlefield and the courtly milieu; it starts off with the siege of the castle of Epheson where the attacker, Clarus, is trying to make Fesonas, the sister of Gadifer, marry him. Gadifer has some powerful allies, though; namely, the venerable knight Cassamus and Alexander himself. During the enforced leisure of the siege, the lords and ladies gather and the knight Porrus kills Fesonas’s peacock. To calm the gathering, Cassamus suggests the peacock be the focus of vows among the company, whereupon the knights pledge to perform great deeds.

My medievalist friend Mike Leahy tells me that there’s a very probable link between these peacock vows and Edward I’s feast at Westminster in 1306 where he pledged over a feast of swans to avenge various acts of aggression by Robert the Bruce and to fight the Saracens in the Holy Land. The feast of swans saw over 200 lords knighted at the same time, so it’s a key moment in the development of the ideology and culture of chivalry, particularly given Edward I’s propensity to appropriate Arthurian legend. It looks like the Longuyon text is therefore a classic example of refictionalising an original act, and how that piece of fiction in turn helps to create cultural rituals – a bit like the way that the jousts in Sidney’s Arcadia and the Elizabethan Accession Day tilts inform and create each other’s mythology. There was a subsequent rash of verse imitations of the peacock vows, too, such as the vows of the sparrowhawk and the vows of the heron (the latter dramatising Edward III’s decision to embark on what would become the Hundred Years’ War).

les voeux du paon 2

The transmission history of the Voeux du Paon is significant not just for initiating the cycle of texts around vows. It also marks the first appearance of the Nine Worthies, the three triads of great heroes whose examples span pagan, Old Testament and more recent history. They are: Hector, Alexander and Julius Caesar; Joshua, Judas Maccabaeus, and David; and Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon, who successfully besieged Jerusalem in the First Crusade. All are deemed by Longuyon as the perfect noble warriors, neatly co-opting the emerging cult of chivalry into a divinely ordained historical continuum. The Nine Worthies became embedded into high and popular culture, from tapestries to ballads. By the time of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Nine Worthies are well known enough to become comically misremembered by the middling-sort characters when they try and put on a masque for the aristocracy. It’s not chivalry being satirised there, but – much to the derision of the lords and ladies – the artistic pretentions of Holofernes, Nathaniel & co and their misappropriation of chivalric heritage, which is a slightly uncomfortable scene for a modern audience.

Even more excitingly, on the back of this I bought what I hope will turn out to be a magnificent historical bodice-ripper. The Vows of the Peacock, by Alice Walworth Graham (1955), is the story of Edward II, Isabella and Roger Mortimer. The blurb on the back tells me it’s about the ‘pageantry and scandal of a great court set aflame by a too-beautiful, too-ambitious woman’. Sounds just the ticket.

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The perils and pleasures of binge reading

I think I’m a bit of a completist on the quiet. Over the past few years I’ve had seasonal obsessions with Arnold Bennett, Rosamond Lehmann, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, H.G. Wells, Philip Roth, Patrick Hamilton, James Ellroy, Iain M. Banks and George Pelecanos. Looking back at my diary, I see that 2003 was my Dickens year, 2005 was Hardy and 2006 was Zola.  (Every year is a Trollope year.) The summer of 2013 was the entire Game of Thrones series.


Right now, I can feel a Barbara Pym phase coming on. It started with Some Tame Gazelle at Christmas. Then one of my oldest friends gave me Excellent Women for my birthday, I’ve just polished off Jane and Prudence, and now I’m staring at a pile of Pyms I’ve picked up for a penny each on Amazon.

There’s a problem with this binge reading though. Sure, it’s intensely pleasurable, and you really end up inhabiting the author’s world – in Barbara Pym’s case the ebbs and flows of parish life and the vanities of the clergy, or in Anne Tyler’s the subterranean tensions and longings in middle-aged relationships – but after a while I start not to be able to distinguish the novels from one another. All that remains of my minor Tyler obsession a decade ago is a tangled sense of blended families in Baltimore. At this distance, only Breathing Lessons now stands out as something distinctive.

So I ought to do the sensible thing and take a break between Barbara Pym novels. This punch-drunk feeling is not helped by the fact that all the jacket covers look so damn similar and frankly a bit chick-lit-y, which rather does her writing a disservice (see picture). I think I might be more reliant on visual triggers than I thought; certainly, it’s much harder to recall what I’ve read if I’ve consumed it on the Kindle, which is one of the reasons I’ve returned to the enjoyment of print again. Thank God for Penguin Classics covers. I have strong physical recollections of where I was when I read Ann Veronica and the War of the Worlds, to take a random example, and that in turn allows me to call to mind both plot and texture.  Reading on a screen flattens out the fading memory.


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