In a survey done in 1999 by Le Monde, the French newspaper, in partnership with the French retail chain Fnac, on the 100 Books of the Century (20th), Albert Camus’ L’étranger (The Stranger in English) was rated No 1. Though it’s interesting to note that the question asked of the respondents was actually ‘which books remained in your memory?’ rather than ‘In your opinion which was the best book of the century?’ I wonder if the results of the survey would have been any different? (If you’d like to view the full list, it’s here)
My book resolutions for 2018 included both reading books in languages other than English as well as reading classics and it seemed that reading a book by Albert Camus in French would check both those boxes. Having finished the book yesterday, I can also say for certain that it is one of those books that you mull over for a long time after you’re done with it. So I guess I’m not surprised that survey respondents found the book memorable.
As indicated in the title, l’étranger is the story of a man who refuses to play by the conventions established by society. When finding himself on trial for a murder he committed, that society takes as proof his unconventional behaviour and paints a picture of him as a monstrous creature worthy of execution. The book is set in French Algeria of the early 1940s.
I found on the internet an interesting preface written by Camus himself for the American edition of the book. It goes
I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. In this respect, he is foreign to the society in which he lives; he wanders, on the fringe, in the suburbs of private, solitary, sensual life. And this is why some readers have been tempted to look upon him as a piece of social wreckage.
This is true to this day. Think about how instantly society passes judgement on someone who refuses to live by the norms. Anyone who sticks their neck out is susceptible to have it chopped off.
A much more accurate idea of the character, or, at least one much closer to the author’s intentions, will emerge if one asks just how Meursault doesn’t play the game. The reply is a simple one; he refuses to lie. To lie is not only to say what isn’t true. It is also and above all, to say more than is true, and, as far as the human heart is concerned, to express more than one feels. This is what we all do, every day, to simplify life. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings, and immediately society feels threatened. He is asked, for example, to say that he regrets his crime, in the approved manner. He replies that what he feels is annoyance rather than real regret. And this shade of meaning condemns him.
Meursault can be interpreted by an audience as lazy, amoral, indifferent and a variety of other adjectives. But you see that he is someone who refuses to act differently from what he feels. He does not want to put on a show to blend in- to feign remorse for an action he does not regret. In the character’s own words
“J’aurais voulu essayer de lui expliquer cordialement, presque avec affection, que je n’avais jamais pu regretter vraiment quelque chose. J’etais toujours pris par ce qui allait arriver, par aujourd’hui ou par demain.”
For me, therefore, Meursault is not a piece of social wreckage, but a poor and naked man enamored of a sun that leaves no shadows. Far from being bereft of all feeling, he is animated by a passion that is deep because it is stubborn, a passion for the absolute and for truth. This truth is still a negative one, the truth of what we are and what we feel, but without it no conquest of ourselves or of the world will ever be possible.
One would therefore not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth.
I found the book fascinating to read and my head is filled with a hundred different thoughts that will be impossible for me to put down or summarise in a blog.
Have you read ‘The Stranger? Or other works by Camus? What did you think?