Vintage International, 1942, 123 pages
Albert Camus' The Stranger is one of the most widely read novels in the world, with millions of copies sold. It stands as perhaps the greatest existentialist tale ever conceived, and is certainly one of the most important and influential books ever produced. Now, for the first time, this revered masterpiece is available as an unabridged audio production.
When a young Algerian named Meursault kills a man, his subsequent imprisonment and trial are puzzling and absurd. The apparently amoral Meursault, who puts little stock in ideas like love and God, seems to be on trial less for his murderous actions, and more for what the authorities believe is his deficient character.
I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.
French existentialism just doesn't seem to be my thing. Albert Camus is someone I know mostly because of my historical reading about Algeria — he was a Pied-Noir who was sympathetic to the Arabs, and used his literary influence to advocate for them.
His novels are classified as existentialism despite Camus denying he was an existentialist. The Stranger does read very sparsely and materialistically, as the narrative of a man who betrays almost no inner life to external observers. Even to the reader of his thoughts, it sometimes seems as if he's not really there.
Meursault is a young Frenchman in Algeria who lives a mundane, slightly shabby existence working at a non-descript job, hanging out with people he doesn't like all that much, and trying to get laid. Then thanks to the guys he's hanging out with, he gets tangled up in a romantic dispute — one of his "buddies" smacks around his Arab mistress, which brings her brother and his friends looking for a fight, and somehow Meursault, despite not being directly involved, winds up all alone on a beach with one of the Arabs and shoots him.
I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I'd been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.
What we as the reader know is the tragic, farcical series of events that led to this — the narrator is not a psychopath and didn't set out to kill anyone. But circumstances make it seem as if he shot a man in cold blood, and his emotionless demeanor doesn't help him at trial. Much is made of his apparently cold relationship with his mother, and the prosecutor dwells on how he put her in a home, and then showed no visible signs of grief at her funeral.
The story itself is sparse and simple, as is the writing. I appreciated that terseness and Camus' economy of prose and his ability to turn clever phrases to bring this flat character to life. At the same time, the existentialist style, in which irrelevant details about background conversations and stains on the wall are given as much weight as the violence or conversations significant to the plot, annoyed me. The Stranger is abundant with these trivial details, some of which become less trivial later, but most of which don't.
There isn't much story here because the story isn't the point. We're meant, I think, to judge the first person narrator, or try to avoid judging him. He sees himself through others' eyes and realizes they think he's a monster, a sociopath, and he is unable to break through his own shell and reach them, to explain to them that he's not.
"Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?"
"Yes," I said.
This book made me think and I'll probably want to try another novel by Camus at some point to see if he grows on me, but The Stranger read to me like something literary that you read because you want to have read it. If the style appeals to you, or you are in the mood for a not very sympathetic, matter of fact protagonist going through his day until he winds up a condemned man, you will probably appreciate it more than I did.
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