The question is on the highlighted que clause in these excerpts from Camus's The Stranger, in which the main character is at trial for murder and the prosecutor says:

« Je vous demande la tête de cet homme, a-t-il dit, et c’est le cœur léger que je vous la demande. Car s’il m’est arrivé au cours de ma déjà longue carrière de réclamer des peines capitales, jamais autant qu’aujourd’hui, je n’ai senti ce pénible devoir compensé, balancé, éclairé par la conscience d’un commandement impérieux et sacré et par l’horreur que je ressens devant un visage d’homme où je ne lis rien que de monstrueux. »

Followed by the defense attorney, who says (a few paragraphs later):

« Moi aussi, a-t-il dit, je me suis penché sur cette âme, mais, contrairement à l’éminent représentant du ministère public, j’ai trouvé quelque chose et je puis dire que j’y ai lu à livre ouvert. » Il y avait lu que j’étais un honnête homme, un travailleur régulier, infatigable, fidèle à la maison qui l’employait, aimé de tous et compatissant aux misères d’autrui.


The que clause means which of the following?

  1. I read in it without preparation (or maybe: gave it an unbiased reading).

  2. I read in it as in an open book.


Meaning 1 is supported by this Wiktionary entry, which says says à livre ouvert means:

Sans préparation, sans étude préalable.

But 2 has these five translations to back it up.

Stuart Gilbert:

that I have read the prisoner's mind like an open book.

Matthew Ward:

that I read it like an open book.

Uli Aumüller:

daß ich wie in einem aufgeschlagenen Buch darin gelesen habe

Georg Goyert and Hans Georg Brenner

daß ich in ihr wie in einem aufgeschlagenen Buch gelesen habe

Alberto Zevi:

e posso dire di avervi letto come in un libro aperto.

It's possible (for all I know) that as in an open book in German or Italian has the meaning of without preparation; but I don't believe it does in English.

Overall, 1 seems to make better sense in the context. Why would a defense lawyer say the soul of the defendant was an open book? The defendant would have to seem to the jury like a completely artless person, which impression he may or may not give in the courtroom. It is more likely that he, the lawyer, will want to vouch for his own lack of bias.

But I am not sure if the idea of without preparation or study can extend as far as without bias or preconception.


2 Answers 2

  • Meaning 1 is most of the time used with other verbs than "lire", as it is a figurative way to say you do the thing while you haven't yet finished the book about it. It could be a good thing if it is an activity that requires improvisation and speed, or a bad thing. For example:

    Il prononce son discours à livre ouvert.

    Means that he is giving a talk without having prepared it, just reading one's text.

  • Meaning 2 is usually phrased "lire [en quelqu'un] comme dans un livre ouvert" and means "to read in one's mind like if it were an open book".

    Here, as the verb "lire" is used and we are talking about someone's mind, it seems clear that Meaning 2 is intended.

  • 1
    While your explanation is right, the form "lire en quelqu'un à livre ouvert" is almost as common as the one you mention, even if slightly outdated.
    – MakorDal
    Apr 18, 2016 at 15:30
  • Do you have any reference ? On first I though that but as I found nothing to back that up I doubted. Apr 18, 2016 at 15:33
  • 2
    I'll try to find some. - linternaute.com/expression/langue-francaise/14775/…
    – MakorDal
    Apr 18, 2016 at 15:37
  • I wonder where this expression got going and how it got these two meanings (extemporary vs. transparent). For example, it might have started in language A with only the meaning of extemporary, got copied in language B to mean transparent, and this second meaning is imported back into A.
    – Catomic
    Apr 19, 2016 at 2:03
  • 1
    @Catomic Original meaning is "fluently", it originates from Italian suonare (play) a libro apperto, first encountered in 1640), to sight-read (source Dictionnaire culturel en langue française). Molière in Le malade imaginaire (1673): "je ne croyais pas que ma fille fût si habile que de chanter ainsi à livre ouvert sans hésiter". Metaphorical sense: to understand easily (e.g. one's thoughts), without further explanation, appeared later.
    – None
    Apr 19, 2016 at 6:12

"à livre ouvert" means that the ideas or the facts are so obvious that you see them directly, with no need of an explanation, as if a book containing the whole description of the situation was opened in your hands.

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