Title: The Stranger
Author: Albert Camus (D)
Translator: Matthew Ward (D)
Published: 1946 (Translated 1989; 2011 jacket)
I like to think my most endearing quality as a book reviewer (besides my ego, which is roughly proportionate to the entire Andromeda galaxy) is that I know jack shit about anything besides what I read.
No, really. I never read the introductions until I’m done with the book and I purposefully don’t read anything about the author when in the process of reading a novel. It is ignorance by design, and though I can’t say it gives me an unbiased view, I feel it helps me express my feelings about the books I read without muddying them up via the author’s possible meanings or this scholar’s not so brief introduction. Any information I offer is usually researched after the fact. Therefore, a statement: I know nothing about Albert Camus, other than he’s dead, he wrote well enough to win several awards, and he was probably a heavy smoker.
Moving on to the book. I picked up The Stranger because it was cheap, it was on the ‘summer reading’ table at the local bookstore, and I wanted to know what the kiddies were going to spend the year griping about. I question the inclusion of The Stranger on any summer reading list, if only because my dismal opinion of the literary abilities of youth nowadays directs me to believe they would barely know how to pronounce the name Camus, much less enjoy reading a book that didn’t include references to illicit sex parties, copious amounts of firearms, or sticking it to ‘the man’. Regardless of my own dismal outlook, I salute the teachers who decided their little pupils should be subject to something with actual meat. Extra points for fooling them into thinking that the nice short book would be an easy A. You go, subversive educators of America. You go.
Translation of works from one language into another always sparks debate and opinions are vast- for example, my Girl With The Dragon Tattoo review. Since this is my first reading of Camus, I can’t speak to the accuracy of the translation, though Matthew Ward is noted for having provided a more American English translation than those prior, which had been more British in leaning. A few lines certainly jumped out at me, most notably this one, on page sixty four: “On my way out I was even going to shake his hand, but just in time, I remembered that I had killed a man.” Ward was criticized by some by changing the traditionally read ‘mother’ (as in the book’s first line, ‘Mother died today’) with the more childish ‘Maman’, which Ward felt better represented the way Meursault saw his mother. I tend to agree, since the idea of a mother as something that eventually becomes passe and used is a large part of our first glimpses into Meursault’s personality. Mom denotes a matronly and solid presence in one’s life; Maman is an old cherished teddy bear, finally left behind after its button eye pops off for the fourth or fifth time.
I enjoyed The Stranger. I found its pace to be well measured and its ideas of the inevitability of life to be far less complicated than one would believe. It read a little bit like Earnest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises in the short sentences, the statements of action, the eternally static way emotional events are portrayed. I like Meursault as a protagonist and I found that surprising. I have always had a thing against male protagonists who spend a lot of time watching and observing and never doing anything to change their surroundings. When I had to read Tropic of Cancer in college I spent most of it frothing in abject fury at the fact that nothing ever changed, due almost entirely to Miller’s own laziness. Meursault could be accused of this same stagnation, but he differs from Jake Barnes and the slightly fictional Henry Miller in that he doesn’t shy away from change, whether it be from laziness or a lack of acceptance; he just lets it happen.
What interests me the most about the book isn’t the actual events but rather how Meursault seems to exist outside of them. He is just pulled along by a series of intertwined events not by his own design but rather because other people make the choices for him, and he goes along with it. Even at the moment he is sentenced to die, he doesn’t seem to mind, believing it to be another inevitable step in a life made up of accidental living. Of course, he has his moments- notably his explosion at the chaplain in the final scene. This is where I feel Things Get Hinky.
The separation of ‘story’ and ‘what I am trying to tell you’ was always a bit of a hard pill to swallow for some writers. A perfect and well known example is Ulysses by James Joyce, where you spend a lot of time following the characters of Bloom and Stephen around Dublin, while James Joyce in turn follows you with a hammer and occasionally whacks you about the head with it to point out how brilliant he is. Meursault shattered in those final pages; in his shell was Albert Camus, and he was yelling at the top of his lungs.
Despite that character break, I feel peaceful when I think about The Stranger. I’ve decided that perhaps it’s because we as the human race have a better grasp on what Camus was saying now. Meursault did not react to many things happening around him because they were absurd, a puppet play of living. Friends getting into fights, women thinking about marriage, shooting an Arab and being killed for shooting him- what can be more absurd than life, which is never so linear as the Bible or the Commandments or the lies your parents told you make it out to be? Meursault was just an observer. Of course he made decisions, but none of those things- going to the beach, shooting the Arab- change the absurdity. They just make it even more absurd.
Do I think Camus was saying something about the inevitability of life, and what doesn’t come after it? Yes, yes I believe he was. I think that the stranger the book is named for could quite possibly be death- not Death the personification, with the scythe and the pale horse, but rather death the inevitable ending to an absurd play. I haven’t decided yet whether or not to seek out more of Camus’s work- A Happy Death comes immediately to mind- but if I do, maybe this review will change just a tad.
To sum up The Stranger for the internet: Don’t take life so seriously. No one gets out alive.