Going Back to a Classic: The Stranger

l_etranger_albert_camusIn the process of struggling to really get into Lee Maracle’s Ravensong (I will talk more about this in the next post), I picked up Albert Camus’ The Stranger to change things up a bit. I had read Camus’ The Fall in a philosophy class a long time ago, so  I kind of knew what to expect. And I wasn’t disappointed either. The Stranger is a deceptively simple narrative about Meursault, an Algerian, who is confronted with the death of his mother and, under bizarre circumstances, decides to shoot an Arab. The first portion of the novel deals with the process of burying his mother while Part Two deals with the fallout from his erratic action. The language is deceptively simple, clean and spare, while the narrative is cut down to the bone. However, this deceives as the content beneath the novella is a deeply thought-out meditation on meaning, existence, and how to live in the world.

What I remember of The Fall is that the protagonist slowly pulls the reader deeper and deeper into his twisted moral world. The Stranger is somewhat different as we are presented with a flat narrator who seems incapable of feeling emotion. When he arrives at his mother`s coffin, he foregoes the opportunity to see her face one last time, much to the dismay of the old age home`s warden. Throughout the novella, you never really get a sense of Meursault because he comes across as a very laid-back person who seems to have reached key decisions about life and the universe. Meursault refuses to be pulled into any shows of sentimentality either by his mother`s death, his trial for murder, or even the abrupt end to his budding love interest with Marie because of his impending execution. Faced with the “benign indifference of the universe,” Meursault has emptied himself of all artifice, all cheap sentiment, and even a sense of morality. Instead, he does as he pleases, without planning and immersed only in the present.

Of course, this model of life is deeply offensive to the other characters in the novella, including the jury who hands him his death sentence and even Marie at a few points. The Stranger has one of the most compelling court-room scenes I have read in a long time, if only for the way that the first-person narration is so disinterested in the events themselves. In the court, the prosecution successfully snares Meursault`s previous actions, which are odd and unemotional at best, and spins them into a picture of Meursault as a great monstrosity that must be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. In doing this, Camus shows his mastery of the plot as he carefully weaves everything that has come before together into the climactic scenes of the novella. It is done masterfully and was a real pleasure to read. Meursault`s final actions, which I won`t give away, are both awe-inspiring and terrifying for the way he has reasoned himself into a position of great absurdity (something Camus himself was big on; he was also a war correspondent, so he saw some pretty terrible things to convince him of the ultimate indifference of the universe).

I am not sure I agree with where Meursault and Camus want to take us, but there is a deep pleasure in reading this masterfully written novella. Do not be fooled by its seemingly shallow surface, but take the time to revel in what Camus brings.

I highly recommend this book to any fans of philosophy and readers who enjoy spare prose (like Cormac McCarthy`s in The Road or any of Raymond Carver`s short stories).

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946. Trans. by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Print.

* This is not the cover of the version I read, but it looks so good I just had to put it up.

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