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The question is on the highlighted clause in this excerpt from The Stranger by Camus.

Quelques jours après, on m'a isolé dans une cellule où je couchais sur un bat-flanc de bois. J'avais un baquet d'aisances et une cuvette de fer. La prison était tout en haut de la ville et, par une petite fenêtre, je [Meursault] pouvais voir la mer. C'est un jour que j'étais agrippé aux barreaux, mon visage tendu vers la lumière, qu'un gardien est entré et m'a dit que j'avais une visite. J'ai pensé que c'était Marie. C'était bien elle.

Question

How does the clause come to mean what it means? Is it from the transitive or the reflexive use of the verb agripper?

Background

I am afraid the question will not make much sense without the following explanation of the difficulty I am having.

The difficulty is that my (anyone's) usual strategy for dealing with a French passive did not work, which is to understand that the grammatical subject actually receives the action of the verb (in its active transitive sense). For example, if I saw il est fini, I would think il received finishing.

Applying that strategy to the Camus clause gave me Meursault getting grabbed by someone, which was not right.

So I had to explore doing something with s'agripper. First of all, it seemed to me that s'agripper was not like s'étonner.

The sense of s'étonner comes from (is related to) that of étonner in a more straightforward way. If vous vous étonnez then presumably you would be surprised. So this element of result or condition remains in the sense of s'étonner though we don't think the grammatical subject did some self-surprising.

But s'agripper cannot derive from (or be related to) agripper in the same way. When someone s'agrippe it does not follow that he is grabbed by any person or thing. The relevant sense of agripper in s'agripper would rather appear to be something like putting someone in a state of grabbing. (So je m'agrippe aux barreaux is I put myself in the state of grabbing the bars.) And this is the sense that seems to work with the Camus clause. It gives us: I had been put in the state of grabbing the bars.

In sum: The transitive use of agripper gave me no way of understanding the Camus clause. The reflexive use seemed to lend itself to one.

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Action de s'agripper :

Je m'agrippe aux barreaux.

État qui dure :

Je suis agrippé aux barreaux.

De la même manière :

Je m'assoie sur une chaise (action).
Je suis assis sur une chaise (état).

La forme transitive agripper signifie plutôt attraper, accrocher :

J'agrippe cette personne, j'agrippe la lanière.

La forme pronominale indique qu'on est soi-même cible de cette action, et pour ces types de verbes, une forme de liaison plus forte :

J'accroche cette portière. Je m'accroche à cette portière. Je suis accroché à cette portière.

J'attache cette corde. Je m'attache à cette corde. Je suis attaché à cette corde.

Je suspends cette poutre. Je me suspends à cette poutre. Je suis suspendu à cette poutre.

  • Thanks. I wrote a whole new question on much the same topic. – Catomic Jan 27 '16 at 4:01
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The pronominal form (la forme pronominale) makes sense to me.

I think that you are over-analysing this sentence and lending to Camus too much credit for multi-layered meaning.

One must also remember Meursault's psychology throughout most of the book: He does not express emotions. So, trying to find emotions in his action of grabbing the bars does not fit well with the character or the spirit of the book, in my opinion.

The situation is far simpler, thus requiring a simple translation.

Meursault is in his prison cell, looking outside the window (with bars), looking at the sea (as stated), catching some sun (as stated) and fresh air (common sense), and possibly contemplating a world of freedom (left to the interpretation the reader). Since windows in prison cells tend to be rather high up, Meursault may have had to lift himself up by grabbing the bars and/or stand on a chair (thus needing to grab the bars) in order to look outside the window.

So, he wasn't grabbed by anyone or "put in a state of grabbing the bars" (this translation would not work in French), but he was simply grabbing the bars as he probably had no other choice.

This action had been lasting and was still occurring when the guard came in.

So, the most literal translation of "que j'étais agrippé aux barreaux" would be "as I was grabbing the bars"; it is neutral enough to work in this context.

"as I was hanging on the bars" is a translation I read recently. It does not satisfy me because the meaning of the verb (to hold tightly) is too weak compared with the meaning of "agripper".

I would prefer "as I was grabbing at the bars" to create a sense of tension, roughness or desperation. Clinging, clinching, clutching and grasping would provide a deep "dramatic" effect too, but I doubt that this was Camus's first intention since Meursault does not express emotions and is distant.

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