Stranger no more

April 06, 2008|By Ryan Bloom

The last time I saw my grandmother, she was lying in a hospital bed, mostly still, no longer talking very much. I was 11, and all I really knew about my grandmother was that, first, I loved the little bonbons she used to ply me with, and second, she had a funny accent. I loved her, as many children love their grandparents, but I didn't yet know her.

During that last visit, when my father left the room to speak with one of the doctors, my grandmother rolled her head on the pillow so her piercing blue eyes were staring straight into mine and began speaking, rapid fire, in what at the time I could only discern as rhythmic gibberish. After what in reality must have been a minute or two, she returned to English, adding, "Make sure to take out the dog."

I was terrified - frozen-to-my-seat scared. Couldn't even utter, "Dad, please come here." And the words I could understand, I didn't understand: We didn't have a dog. My grandmother had morphed into something else, something different, right before my eyes.

Of course, I didn't really know her yet. I didn't know about her flight from Paris on one of the last ships to leave Le Havre before the Nazis interrupted everything. I didn't know she tried to go back - didn't know she always wanted to "go home." I didn't know she used to teach French.

I didn't know she taught Camus.

Not long after my grandmother died, my father presented me with a large cardboard box. He set it down on the unfinished side of our basement, on the gray cement, and left me with it, offering no real explanation other than, "It was your grandmother's."

I remember opening the box carefully, unfurling the flaps and seeing a small paperback book with a watercolor-like picture of a man in a gray suit on the cover. I was hooked, drawn to it immediately, but I didn't know why. I don't know why.

The book's words, like my grandmother's last to me, were unintelligible. The book was written in French - as, I soon discovered, were all the other books in the box. Disappointed, I shut the lid, probably having hoped for a box full of bonbons. But I kept that first book with me, a memory of my grandmother, and put it on the shelf by my bed. L'?tranger. Albert Camus, the 20th-century French author and journalist.

It wasn't until years later that I encountered that name again, outside my bookshelf, when a friend gave me a copy of The Stranger as I left one day for United Artists, where I was working as a projectionist. "Read it," she said, "I think you'll like it." I finished the book in one sitting, instead of working, but I couldn't comprehend why my seemingly content grandmother would have such a book.

This is where the quest to understand began. I wanted to know her. To know myself. I wanted to comprehend.

And I did. She had left me the key: Camus. Through his works, I began to investigate my grandmother's life, and as I grew to appreciate Camus, I grew to understand her better.

I chased them around the world and across languages. I visited both their apartments in Paris - not so far from each other - and sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg, scribbling in my black Moleskine, the sky shifting from royal to navy blue above me.

I learned French. I tried to read the notes and letters she left behind, written in a small, slanted script I doubt I could decipher any better in English. And I tried, in my own research, to read the notes and letters he left behind, written in a small, squat script never intended for English.

I translated. I took his Notebooks from one language, from one world, into another. I brought his words and thoughts to America. And I brought her back home.

In so doing, I made sense of a world, of things, of events, of people, of ideas, of a language that once made no sense to me. I came to understand my grandmother's attraction to Camus, a man exiled from his home, from the country he loved. A man who, although be believed in no "better place" after this one, nonetheless risked his life as part of the French Resistance - fighting those who had forced my grandmother to flee her home.

I found myself agreeing, needing to agree, that even in the face of absurdity, even in the face of a silent universe, life could be its own reason for living. Out of indifference, I derived a personal meaning, and that, I think, would have made both my grandmother and Camus proud.

Ryan Bloom teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His most recent work, a translation of Albert Camus' "Notebooks 1951-1959," will be published in May. His e-mail is rbloom2@umbc.edu.

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