Albert Camus – The Stranger

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Albert Camus' 1942 classic. Here are the opening lines: "Mother died today Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY." A telegram, not a personal phone call or someone on staff from the old people's home actually making the hour trip in person to inform her only son, but a terse three line businesslike telegram - cold, insensitive, almost callous; a telling sign of the mechanized times.

Then first-person narrator Monsieur Meursault has to deal with his manager so he can attend his mother's funeral: "I have fixed up with my employer for two days' leave; obviously, under the circumstances, he couldn't refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: "Sorry, sir, but it's not my fault, you know."" Ha! Camus' subtle irony, a statement on how death is an irritating inconvenience in the urbanized modern world of shipping offices, where time is money and the highest value is utility and efficiency.

Then, when Meursault sits beside the Home's keeper in the room with his mother's coffin, we read: "The glare of the white walls was making my eyes smart, and I asked him if he couldn't turn off one of the lamps. "Nothing doing," he said. "They'd arranged the lights like that; either one had them all on or none at all." Most revealing. This is the only time at the Home Meursault actually asks for something. And true to form as archetypal keeper, the answer is standard binary, that is, all or nothing, black or white, on or off; certainly not even considering engaging in a creative solution on behalf of Meursault, who, after all, is the son. Reading this section about the Home's officious keeper and his world of expected behaviors and standardized, routinized procedures reminds me of the doorkeeper in Kafka's tale, Before the Law.

The next day, the day of the funeral procession, Meursault observes, "The sky was already a blaze of light, and the air stoking up rapidly. I felt the first waves of heat lapping my back, and my dark suit made things worse. I couldn't imagine why we waited so long before getting under way." This is one of a number of his remarks on his sensations and feelings, and, for good reason - Meursault's way of being in the world is primarily on the level of sensation and feeling.

Back in the city and after taking a swim with Marie, a girlfriend he ran into at the local swimming pool, there's a clip of dialogue where Meursault relates: "While we were drying ourselves on the edge of the swimming pool she said: "I'm browner than you." I asked her if she'd come to the movies with me that evening. She laughed again and said, "Yes," if I'd take her to the comedy everybody was talking about, the one with Fernandel in it." Meursault does acquiesce to her request. Big mistake. Turns out, according to society's unwritten rules, taking Marie to Fernandel's farcical comedy on the very next evening after his mother's funeral was a colossal no-no, completely unacceptable behavior.

We as given laser-sharp glimpses of various facets of our enigmatic first-person narrator as he moves through his everyday routine in the following days and evenings, routine, that is, until the unforgettable scene with the Arab on the beach, one of the most famous scenes in all of modern literature. Here are Camus' words via Stuart Gilbert's marvelous translation:

The Arab didn't move. After all, there was still some distance between us. Perhaps because of the shadow on his face, he seemed to be grinning at me.
I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathered in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as my mother's funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations - especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn't stand it an longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn't get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward,. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight.
A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm.

This novel poses such provocative questions, I wouldn't want to spoil any of those questions with answers, semi-original or otherwise. Rather, my suggestion is to read and reread this slim novel as carefully and attentively as possible.

One last reflection: one of my favorite scenes is where Meursault enters the courtroom and makes the following observation: "Just then I noticed that almost all the people in the courtroom were greeting each other, exchanging remarks and forming groups - behaving, in fact, as in a club where the company of others of one's own tastes and standing makes one feel at ease. That, no doubt, explained the odd impression I had of being de trop here, a sort of gate-crasher." Such a comment on the dynamics of the modern world: a man is about to go on trial with his life in the balance and he is the one who feels out-of-place.

How many times in life have you felt out-of-place entering a room Have you ever considered yourself a stranger to those around you Perhaps our modern world can be seen as The Stranger, thus making each and every one of us strangers. Love or hate it, Camus' short novel speaks to our condition.

One final reflection: I would not be surprised if Albert Camus read this prose poem by Charles Baudelaire:

THE STRANGER

Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother

"I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother."

Your friends, then

"You use a word that until now has had no meaning for me."

Your country

"I am ignorant of the latitude in which it is situated."

Then Beauty

"Her I would love willingly, goddess and immortal."

Gold

"I hate it as you hate your God."

What, then, extraordinary stranger, do you love

"I love the clouds-the clouds that pass-yonder-the marvelous clouds."


Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”

The Stranger 1 

The Stranger 2

The Stranger 3