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.