Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review - Albert Camus's The Stranger

The Stranger by Albert Camus
Published by: Vintage International
Publication Date: 1942
Format: Paperback, 123 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Meursault's mother has died. He makes the long trek to her funeral, it was cost prohibitive to keep her with him and they had nothing more to say to each other. He feels that he should feel something, but there is nothing but the heat of the day and the inconvenience to his daily routine. The day after his mother's funeral he begins a long desired affair with Marie, a co-worker, going to a silly movie and having sex. Things are going along swimmingly with Marie, though she presses for marriage. Meursault says if she wants to get married they should get married, it makes no difference to him. He is passivity personified. He even helps his neighbor Raymond pen a missive to his mistress, seeing that there's no harm in it. Meursault's naivety as to his situation with Raymond will be his undoing. One day at the beach Meursault shoots and kills the brother of Raymond's mistress. The day was hot and the gang of men were following Raymond and Meursault and Marie to the beach. They had an altercation but everything seemed to be over. Then Meursault wandered back to the cool little cove where they first encountered the men, hoping to rest. The Arab was there and then he was dead. Killed by the gun Raymond gave to Meursault. Meursault confesses to his crime. He puts up no protest. The trial is tiring, but he is sure that he will get off. The sentence passed down is a shock to him.

If you read for pleasure versus reading for a class you quickly realize that just because a book is defined as a classic doesn't mean it actually has to be good. In fact some of the most lauded and praised classics might be the most deathly and dull books you'll ever read. While I wouldn't classify The Stranger as the "worst" classic I've ever read, I will say that of all the members of my book club I liked it the least. Though my ambivalence to the book and how it influenced existentialism doesn't preclude it from being a good book to discuss. So while the book might not have met my expectations the discussion that arose from it was engaging, and I think that's why this book has stuck around. It's not perfect but it is perfect to get people talking. As to why The Stranger didn't blow me away, I've read similar books that are better written. D'entre les Mortes by Boileau and Narcejac, which was the basis for the movie Vertigo, captures existentialism and fatalism far better than The Stranger ever does. And it also has that very French vibe as well. But seeing as this book is written later, it was probably influenced by Camus. Therefore I suggest looking to a contemporary of Camus, mainly Daphne Du Maurier. Her short stories succinctly capture the feeling of The Stranger but with better writing. Just because she has been erroneously labelled as a "romance writer" it has lead to her being overlooked. Camus might be a good discussion topic, but for true existentialism go to Du Maurier.

Despite preferring Du Maurier, I am not going to argue the "classic" status of The Stranger. The truth is it is a classic. The reason this is is there is a timelessness to the book. Aside from the method of Meursault's execution and one mention of a movie star, I challenge you to pinpoint the time period of this piece. Not only could it have been set anytime during the past century, it could easily happen now. As my friend Mike pointed out, Meursault could just as easily have been going to a movie by Adam Sandler. Think of that. Could a man be condemned for enjoying an Adam Sandler movie? Now that would add an interesting modern take to the book without changing any of the underlying themes that Camus is trying to get across. Camus was all about the absurdity of life, that a man could be condemned for not showing what society thought as proper grief at his mother's death. If Camus were still alive I think the absurdity of being condemned for laughing at one of the worst comedians of all time would appeal to him. Plus, can you imagine the stir this modern take would create? It almost makes me want to make it into a film myself.

What is odd about The Stranger is despite having a first person narrator it almost feels like it was written in the third person. The reason for this is the passivity of Meursault. He outwardly has no emotions, no desires, he doesn't even really have a personality so to speak. He just follows the ebb and flow of life never really questioning anything until he is faced with his imminent death. One of my friends pointed out that this leads to a refreshing narrator because he does not have any ego. I personally would disagree. Yes he is passive, but being passive doesn't mean that at the bottom of all that there isn't an ego. The truth is he has a very well defined id. An id that is more animal than human. He only goes with the flow if it isn't an inconvenience to him. But look at his train of thought, it's all about food and sex and swimming. He only thinks about stuff that provides gratification to himself. He has an ego, but an animalistic ego that is all about his comfort. Sure he'll marry his girlfriend, what difference does it make to him, all he cares about is having someone around for sex. If marriage will secure this, then why not? The only incident in his entire life that isn't about his own pleasure was the murder he is accused of. He just did it because. Though you could argue that it was because of that nice cool cove.

But really, why kill this man? This is an action completely out of character. Meursault derived no apparent pleasure from it, and that was how he lived his entire life, so why do it? My theory is that there is something seriously wrong with him. Yes, you could look at the entire book as an emotionless man fighting against the inevitability of death and finally finding fire within, but I think that it is a study of a man who was seriously ill. I think that Meursault had a brain tumor. The book oddly backs this up. Firstly, people who have brain tumors often seem off, they don't understand how society works and are therefore often detached. Like people with aspergers they don't get social cues. They also don't understand dangerous situations, often having a childlike naivete. Therefore not crying at his mother's funeral doesn't seem odd to Meursault, while it's a "hanging" offense to the jury. His single-mindedness with devotion only to his own pleasure would also indicate that he has a tumor. But what I think is most significant is his reaction to the sun and heat. The sun is always too bright and overwhelms him. His brain can't process the light streaming through his eyes and he often complains of the sun and his head, much like someone with a migraine would. Only I don't think this is any migraine. I think that Meursault is a sick man because of something inside. This something doesn't see anything wrong with shooting a guy full of holes because it has no mechanism for censure of right and wrong. It lends an entirely different spin to the story but oddly backs up the futility of life. He is inevitably going to die so why fight? In fact he might not have had long to live even if he wasn't executed.

Obviously talking about life and death and this book being the epitome of existentialism, God will enter into it. The first half of the book leading to the murder followed by the second half of trial and condemnation, don't quite fit together. It's like Camus was trying to just show us this man's personality in part one but part two was where all the moral and philosophical reasoning reside. Which makes the second half far heavier. We only see Meursault lose his temper once and that is to the priest who visits him. Obviously this is the important part highlighted by English teachers the world over as the crux of the book. But by the time I reached this point I just didn't care. I didn't care if our antihero did or didn't accept Christ into his life. I didn't care if he was executed. I didn't care if he lived or died. That is the fault at the very center of this book. Yes we can discuss it, yes it might be a fascinating discussion, but a book comes down to the readers investment in the hero or antihero. I could not care less what happened to Meursault! But maybe that's the point? Maybe Camus is playing a double game? For those actually invested there's Meursault's struggle to come to terms with his death, and for the reader there's the struggle to actually care about the book. Or maybe I'm seriously just reading too much into things and applying meaning where there is none because so many people I know liked it and I thought it was just meh. Yep. Still meh.


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