It’s been decades since I read The Stranger by Albert Camus, but now I’ve read it again, wondering if it would have a different impact on me or whether I would understand it better than I had long ago.
I just read those famous final words, “I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate,” and it seemed to me that I did, in fact, understand the burden Camus places on Meursault’s shoulders better than the last time.
This short, famous novel is novel about the inadequacy of fiction itself; it is a novel in which Meursault, convicted of almost absently-mindedly killing an Arab on the beach, must deny the significance of anything that could have happened otherwise, or might happen otherwise, in his life (perhaps his appeal will succeed, perhaps he will be pardoned) or any other life.
In Part I of the novel, Meursault is an opaque figure. We are told by the translator, Matthew Ward, that Camus wanted to report the story the way Hemingway would report it. He did this...He did that...The bird looked at him from the windowsill...The teapot began to boil...Salamano’s dog barked... That sort of writing--flat, self-limiting, factual and indisputable as to the events and characters it memorializes. Hemingway did write this way, of course, and so did Raymond Carver. There is an ethos of objectivity here, and a certain sensation of all other possible scenarios being crushed and kicked away, inapplicable to character A. The reader doesn’t go inside character A’s mind or receive commentaries on the emotional probing character A must be engaging in as he wonders why he can’t stop drinking or his woman has left him.
In Part II of the novel, Meursault goes through his trial, hears extraneous elements of character assassination leveled at him, notes that everyone in the room has come to hate him, and is taken off to a cell to wait for that appeal to proceed...or the pardon to be granted...or the guillotine to fall. A priest pushes his way into his cell and tries to persuade Meursault there is a God. Meursault isn’t having it. The reader is inside Meursault’s reasoning now as he flails about searching for the intricate, inexplicable outcome of each and every human life, which can only be one thing, of course: death. So what is the difference? Everything that seems like an alternative really isn’t, not fundamentally. There is no real value in fictionalizing--imagining--things as though they were different because they are not, and if they do become different, they always would have become different, not because of your thoughts, but because eternal circumstances, impossible to decipher, took an unexpected turn. But whatever the case, embrace that which is, don’t think past it, extract from it the fullness of its ultimate finality, celebrate the fact that at least in your case (meaning Meursault’s), you’ll be greeted with cries of hate.
When I read The Stranger long ago, I read Stuart Gilbert’s translation. Stuart Gilbert was a Brit, incapable of not insinuating elements of familiarity into Camus’s prose, cushioning it a little bit, filing down the sharp edges of its strangeness. The Matthew Ward translation I’ve just read is much, much better. It captures the anti-social, indifferent alienation of a man like Meursault--and his odd lot of comrades. It also does a fine job of underlining how bizarre it is when an ornate, imperious, hoary institution like a court of justice suddenly appears in one’s life, referring to laws, rules, and protocols that don’t come up very often.
Meursault, from the start, claims to be indifferent. Marry or not marry? Doesn’t matter. Take a job in Paris or stay in Algiers? Doesn’t matter. But there is one difference, or distinction, of which neither Meursault nor Camus make much, that does seem to ingrain itself into the text. There are characters in it who are Arabs. Arabs are not French-origin; they are “other,” and when conflict boils over between these two types of humanity, the French answer is to shoot the Arab, not once but many times. Doesn’t matter, does it? The Arab would die at some point anyway, wouldn’t he? Why not now? Thus, in Part II, more is made of Meursault’s questionable attentions to his French-Algerian mother, recently deceased, than to the dead Arab, and it is difficult to discern--Meursault can’t--whether Meursault is to have his head removed because he offended French proprieties or killed an Arab.
I don’t think Camus was unaware of this unpleasant irony, but I also don’t think he saw it as a central feature of his meditation. More important to him was telling a story in which he demonstrated the limits of story-telling. Accept what is; face it; abandon metaphysics, rationalization, God, and justice: that is the story, and the only story: what is. Executions, Meursault writes, tell you this; they all should be witnessed, every one of them...but for him, this realization comes too late; he’s the one to be executed, and he just hopes everyone who sees it happen gets as much out of it as possible, for it would be a pity not to howl with hate at the epitome of what truly is: one man dies, all men die, end of story.
Coming back to myself and what I thought long ago and what I think now, I suppose I’d say this: I enjoyed reading this fable-like novel a great deal; it has a deceptively sharp edge to it, and it’s definitely worth rereading. Camus did not exclude acts of conscience and moral resistance in all of his fiction--see The Plague--but here he depicts the dry reality of inexplicable fate with masterful economy and impact. But that’s only because he was fundamentally wrong as he wrestled with what came to be known as existentialism. Stories are at least half, perhaps much more, of what human experience is all about.
For more of my comments on contemporary and classic fiction, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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