Classic #4: THE STRANGER, by Albert Camus

Wow, I’m zipping through these classics. Getting through eight more in three months should be a cinch.

The Stranger I was familiar with in name only before picking it up. And my only familiarity with Camus was with the pronunciation of his name (which I’ve always found to be fun). So I felt a little intimidated at the prospect of reading this book that is so well respected and yet so foreign to me. However, even though the matter of whether Camus is a true existentialist seems to be one of some debate, it cannot be denied that he is often linked to existentialism, so I felt it was only appropriate that I read something of his, since my dog (Soren) is the namesake of one of the world’s leading existentialist philosophers.

When I was close to being halfway through the book, someone happened to ask me what I was currently reading. When he asked how I was liking it, I said it was okay but that I was mainly frustrated by the main character (Mersault)’s ability to experience or express emotion of any kind. This is so completely opposite of how I operate that I just couldn’t help but be irritated with his passivity and lack of ambition. On one page, in short succession, there are two things he refuses to do out of dislike for them. One is call the cops, and the other is go to a whorehouse. In the margin, I wrote a note expressing appreciation for him finally having some solid opinions.

I continued to be irritated by his passive attitude through the rest of the book, although, given the circumstances and plot twists, I noticed it less often in Part 2 than I had in Part 1. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, The Stranger is set in French-colonized Algeria and follows Mersault, who doesn’t so much intentionally live his life as follow a course he may or may not deem pre-plotted but that he definitely seems unable to veer from, nor does he appear to possess the desire to veer from it. A series of fairly unrelated events leads him to murder a complete stranger on a beach for no reason other than that, to loosely paraphrase the narrative, he either could pull the trigger or not; it didn’t mean anything either way.

There is the obvious connection of the title to the narrative – Mersault kills a stranger. However, I have been trying to figure out what other meaning I could glean from the title, and I came up with a couple of things that are far more abstract than him simply killing someone he doesn’t know. In a way, that is such a small part of the larger story that I have trouble seeing it as the significance behind the title. Initially I was trying to figure out who exactly the stranger in the story is. I am fairly comfortable saying that the reader doesn’t get to know anyone too intimately, so in essence, everyone remains a stranger to some degree.

But I think Mersault himself – as a result of his passivity, his complete lack of ambition, his ironically intentional avoidance of being intentional about anything – is the stranger. He is as much a stranger to himself as he is to anyone else. He is a stranger to his mother; to his mother’s fiancé, Perez; to the girl he expects to marry, Marie; to his boss; to the owner of the restaurant he patronizes regularly, Céleste; to his neighbor Salamano; and to his “pal” Raymond.

During his murder trial, all these people whom he has kept at arm’s length (even Marie) are interviewed as witnesses of some kind, and all of them are only able to give vague answers that merely drive the nails further into his coffin. (What is the appropriate metaphor when the method of execution is beheading? “Vague answers that merely serve to sharpen the blade of the guillotine”? Rhetorical speculation only.)

To venture slightly deeper into the realm of the abstract, I also want to assert that, beyond being a literal stranger in relational ways, he’s a stranger to emotion; to life; to love; to all the pursuits that most of humankind deems worth living for, worth fighting for, worth dying for. What is Mersault dying for? Certainly nothing noble. He’s headed for execution simply because it doesn’t make any difference to him whether he lives or dies or whether anyone else lives or dies. He is a stranger to everything the rest of us get so violently passionate about.

Part of me wants to be on his side. Part of me thinks he’s uncovered something absurdly poetic and calming in his relative non-participation in the vivacity of life. Part of me wants to think there isn’t actually another component – one of void, of loneliness, of depressing isolation – to make his non-choices (which end up being choices in themselves) not negative. But only part of me. All of me cannot quite get there yet. Maybe I’ll read it again in another fifteen years and see where I’m at then.

There was one place, however, where I found myself able to identify wholly with Mersault. It was the place where he says, “after a while, you could get used to anything.” I say this all the time. So often, in fact, that I have a representation of the very idea tattooed on my arm. Of course, he says this after experiencing prison life, so it’s somewhat absurd that I felt able to relate to him in that place, since I have certainly never had my belief in that adage tested by anything so extreme.

But the fact that it’s absurd is so appropriately Camus. I did not realize, until I did some reading up on him after I finished the book, that one of the principal traits of Camus’s writing is an exploration of the absurd. I’m glad I didn’t know this beforehand because I would’ve been on the lookout for it and might have found it in places that were really sort of a stretch to make fit. As it was, I wrote “this is absurd” in more than one margin on my journey through The Stranger. And, in fact, my response to the very last line of the book was, “how absurdly depressing.” So, if absurdity was one of Camus’s goals, he certainly accomplished it here and assuredly with much more dramatic effect in Part 2 than in Part 1.

My last specific comment is that I wish I knew enough of the language to be able to read it in the original French (L’Étranger). On a cognitive level, I know I missed some nuanced detail and linguistic touches simply as a result of reading a translated work (even if I don’t know exactly what I missed or where), and I also recognized a few details that seem to have been Americanized for a U.S. reader’s benefit, which is theoretically disappointing. And there was one specific instance when I felt that knowing French would’ve been infinitely beneficial.

In one scene, the judge calls Mersault “Antichrist,” but it doesn’t quite seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the passage and seems unnecessarily cruel. So I wondered if perhaps whatever word was used in the original French that got translated to Antichrist – if perhaps that word sounds strikingly similar to Mersault’s name so that, if hearing it in French, it could be passed off as a clever pun. However, wondering is of course as far as I got.

On the whole, I made my way through the book slower than I would have liked, I think for the same reason I have had trouble getting into Crime & Punishment – that being, there is so much psychological action and so little stepping outside the main character, that it was difficult to maintain interest. Part 2 did go much faster than Part 1, so keep that in mind, if you’re thinking of picking up the book yourself. If you can make it to Part 2, you’ll want to finish. In the end, I’m glad I exposed myself to it and would recommend it to pretty much anyone, with the aforementioned qualifiers. It’s good to step out of your literary comfort zones, and I certainly did that with this book.

Am I going to read The Plague next? Likely not. But maybe someday. I’m more open to it now than I would’ve probably been otherwise.

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8 Comments

Filed under books, classics, goals, reviews

8 responses to “Classic #4: THE STRANGER, by Albert Camus

  1. I’ve never really known what to do with Camus. I used to be a big reader of existentialist and proto-existentialist stuff, but Camus doesn’t seem to fit. I think he doesn’t fit in with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, etc, because his jumping off point is a sort of paganism, whereas the existentialists working in the shadow of Christianity (whether they’re promoting it or trying to find a way out). Since Christianity was such a large part of my life at one point, Camus never had the draw for me that these others had.

    All that to say I was never much interested in Camus as a philosopher, and instead focused on his use of language. After reading French novels from before WWII, Camus’s French is very striking. It’s very stark and neutral, and also written mainly in the passé composé, whereas most of his contemporaries used the passé simple, which is more formal. It’s odd that today French students are presented with The Stranger as an example of standard written French, when it was anything but that when it was written.

    Sorry I don’t have much to add to your run-through of the story. It’s all pretty much a blur to me. I do remember feeling an affinity with Mersault when I read it, but that’s probably because I was a punk kid who always felt himself an outsider (a more faithful translation of the title).

    • Thanks for your comment, Matt! Hearing your perspective on the French is interesting, and I especially like the idea of a truer translation being the outsider. That seems to meld much better with my analysis and fits better in the boxes in my brain after my experience of the book.

  2. Keef

    I did not read your review right away. I decided I wanted to read the book before I tainted it with another person’s perspective. I don’t think you would have spoiled anything, but there definitely would have been a distinct musky smell that would not have existed previously. Yeah, you definitely would have tainted it, tainter.

    So to finish reading your review, I had to search through the city for a copy of The Stranger. I plotted my course to the library. Failing to check the Internets before leaving my apartment, I did not see if a copy existed at my first choice in location. I was informed by a geriatric librarian that I was out of luck. However, she was able to pinpoint the location of the only copy that exists in my city, free for public loan. Another library two miles away. Victory!

    I pedaled my bike as fast as humanly possible to the grounds that would witness my triumph. So excited was I to get my hands on this book, I didn’t even bother locking my bike let alone making a safe departure from it. I stepped from it and proceeded to sprint/stumble into the building with little concern where my bicycle landed. The bike nearly colliding with a mother and child exiting the building. I felt a twinge of guilt for the hurriedly chosen trajectory, but victory does not wait for the compassionate. Anyone who stood in my way would be crushed!

    This particular library is in the heart of downtown and I was unfamiliar with it. Typically, I avoid this part of town for fear of being molested in public restrooms. However, I was on a mission and my bladder was not full yet. So once inside the library, I sprinted up and down the isles studying the call numbers trying to determine if I was getting closer or further from my prize. Then I saw it, the end to my search. However, there was one last obstacle between me and the book: a hobo.

    He was standing directly in front of the book. I paused a moment, caught up in my own social anxieties. What is the proper protocol when confronted with a hobo in the middle of an isle? My mind raced. 1) I could wait until the hobo’s attention was diverted elsewhere and then swoop in to seize the prize like a rabid squirrel after nuts. 2) I could politely ask the hobo to move aside and calmly collect the book. 3) I could tackle the hobo into the adjoining bookshelf, grab the book and make a mad dash for the exit.

    Instantly, I recognized problems with 1 and 2. The library could close before the hobo had decided to budge or worse yet, he may decide to take the only copy of The Stranger and leave me defeated and empty-handed. Asking him to step aside was definitely out. We all know that hobos are irrational beasts; he might have attempted to do something like punch me or lick me or introduce himself to me. My only option was to bum rush the bum. I steeled myself for I was entering combat with an unsuspecting and perhaps feral hobo.

    My bike ride had winded me, but the force of my blow was sufficient. I planted my shoulders as firmly as I could into the fleshy part of the hobo’s stomach. He gave out an audible gasp and reeled backwards. Soon I would have the book in hand. My plan did not go as I had intended however. His path erratically changed as the hobo stumbled upon his feet. He was set on a collision course for the shelf containing The Stranger. This was a disappointment. Another thing that I had not intended was the collapse of the bookshelf itself. It appeared that there was nothing anchoring the shelf to the ground.

    The hobo collided with the bottom half of the shelf in such a way as to cause it to rotate on top of him. The thud was sickening. I spotted the book in the midst of the rubble. The cover was adorned with a new red speckle pattern. I opted not to claim my prize; who knows where that hobo had been? As hastily and discreetly as I could, I made my way to the exit as others rushed towards the wreckage. Passing through the door, I heard a faint cry from one librarian behind me and another proclaim, “Oh…My…God!” My mind raced, what would I do now? How would I get my hands on another copy of the book so I could finish Audra’s review?

    Turns out I could purchase a copy online. Thanks Amazon. It seems due to your review, you may be responsible for the needless death of a hobo. But it seems fitting given the story I was trying to procure, so I think it all balances.

    It’s funny that you noticed or rather noticed less of Mersault’s passivity in the second half. In part one, Mersault was a stranger to others and himself. Much of the existentialism from the narrator I viewed as a mechanism for divorcing himself from himself and the rest of humanity. He often seemed surprised by his own reactions. I took this as evidence that he did not know himself. The murder at the end of part one only had one purpose: to setup the trial of the second half. The trial had very little, if anything, to do with the actual murder. It was a character trial and it was one that Mersault was forced to endure. The trial’s purpose was to introduce Mersault to himself. It was a forcible introduction that caused emotions in the narrator that we did not see in part one. In the first half, the narrator enjoyed all his freedoms, but did not know himself. In the second half, all the narrator’s freedoms are stripped and only then does he begin to contemplate himself. This was my interpretation of the book. Feel free to point out any refuting evidence that I may have overlooked.

    • I don’t even know what to think about this comment, if you could even use that word. I think the part I liked best was “clear” choice of option 3 when considering how to handle the stranger-licking hobo at the library. It was equally as ridiculous as was the rest of the story, and with fear of feeding into your insanity, I will simply commend you for such a delightful (yet obvious) fabrication.

      {And good post, Audra. The book sounds interesting, though I have to be honest and say that I doubt I’ll get to it. But I DID enjoy your various interpretations of stranger.}

      • Keef

        Thanks Reese, I think. Don’t worry about feeding my insanity, it’s largely self-sustaining. While this little experiment was informative, I aborted it this morning with a clothes hanger and have been crying on the floor of my bathroom ever since. It was conceived out of boredom and was a fun exercise, but in the end, I mostly felt it was just disruptive.

  3. Keef

    Hello Sleepy Matt,

    Most people would call that a flagrant abuse of the character limits in a comment field. Is outsider really a more faithful translation? I was curious and looked it up and found 3 translations: stranger, outsider and foreigner. Could not Camus have used the title with a double meaning in mind? Not only was Mersault outside of social norms, but also seemed largely unaware of his own motivations. This would lead me to believe that stranger and outsider were both intended meanings. Feel free to call BS on my self-discovery interpretation by the way. The irony of me trying to assign meaning to absurdist fiction would not be lost on me.

  4. Pingback: I Can’t Help it if My Personality is Chocolate | A Literary Illusion

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