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The Stranger


The Stranger coverAlbert Camus is an important writer and The Stranger is a very important book. I know these things to be true because so many people say so. Camus was the second youngest winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. The Stranger is his best-known work of fiction, and a poll conducted by the French newspaper Le Monde named it as the best book of the 20th century. Of course, ten of the top thirteen books in that poll were originally published in French. But it does very well on other lists too. In fact, though at a very significant disadvantage, it is ranked #29 on my very English-centric list of 113 20th century novels.[1]

Yet it is a very hard book for me to enjoy (to be fair, it surely was not meant to be enjoyed). I read it years and years ago when I was reading fiction by authors all over the map philosophy-wise. I was underwhelmed by it then, and I can’t say that it does much for me now. Of Camus’s three novels, The Plague is the only one I can read with enjoyment. (Creepy, huh?)

Albert Camus’s The Stranger is listed at #29 on Bachblog’s
113 Great Novels of the 20th Century. It was first published in 1942.

The hero of The Stranger, Meursault, is a pretty unlikable guy. Not disliked, but not liked either. Indifference is what he inspires. That’s okay though. He doesn’t much like anyone and he would not make his own likability a high priority. Our indifference would suit him just fine, we feel. As for priorities, he does not have any. He almost seems to enjoy the physical aspects of his relationship with a girlfriend and oh-what-the-hell fiancĂ©, but it is hard to imagine he is really much of a lover.

I get it, he lives in an absurd and indifferent universe. He doesn’t find happiness until the eve of his execution when he “[lays his] heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.” Good luck with that, I guess, but the benign indifference of the universe doesn’t inspire indifference toward my fellow man in me, and I don’t see why it should. Love for life and others–absurd though it may be–beats any possible alternatives, at least for me. If it didn’t, I suppose I would prefer to embrace hedonism rather than Meursault’s “blah-ism.”

The Fall coverJust for kicks, I read The Fall after reading The Stranger. Maybe, I thought, it would be of some help in my appreciation of Camus and his philosophy. I probably thought the same thing the first time I read it. It didn’t really work out that way. The Fall, an extended monologue confession by the self-described judge-penitent Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is an unrelenting bore. (Even the French readers of Le Monde don’t find room for it in their top 100 books of the 20th century, so maybe I am not alone in my opinion.)

The book is marred by the entirely unbelievable notion that a stranger met in an Amsterdam bar would spend two or three days (whatever it works out to be, I can’t remember) listening to the dreary philosophical confession of the narrator. A stranger would not; perhaps The Stranger would.

But Camus is an important philosophical thinker. I really don’t doubt that and I sympathize at least to some extent with his world view. I agree with him that on a universal scale, our human lives are meaningless. But on a personal scale, I believe, they mean everything. Perhaps if I immersed myself in his non-fiction, I would be rewarded somehow. I think I will pass.

Albert Camus in 1957In a weak example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, I ran across the name of Albert Camus two three times, within four ten pages in two three separate and unrelated articles in the September 2013 issue of the Atlantic magazine, the morning after I finished The Fall.[2]

The first mention occurs on page 33 in James Parker’s “Clash Warfare.” He writes, “Strummer with his glowing Albert Camus forehead.” I found this amusing and have to agree that Joe Strummer looked something like Camus, at least to judge by this photo of the writer from 1957.

Then, on page 36 in an piece about “outsider art,” Sarah Boxer writes about a certain Dobuffet who “formed an organization (whose members included Andre Breton, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, …).”

Notes

  1. While most of the sources I used in compiling my list included books translated into English, the two lists given the most weight in my calculation did not. These two were Time magazine’s and Modern Library’s lists. If these two sources had included novels originally published in languages other than English, I have no doubt that The Stranger would have been on both. This would have catapulted the novel into a tie for second place (with The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye and, absurdly, Nineteen Eighty-Four)! See 113 Great 20th Century Novels.) [^]
  2. Late yesterday, on the same day I wrote this blog post, I picked up the Atlantic magazine in which I had found the two mentions of Camus. I chose to read an interview with Paul Theroux titled “I Hate Vacations.” It starts on page 42 of the same issue cited above. Theroux answers the very first question thusly:
     
        That’s nice of you to say. A reader does have a debt to the writer,
        and in a quiet way, you’re influenced. Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac,
        Albert Camus, Graham Greene–they influenced my life to a
        profound extent.
     
    This isn’t some special “Albert Camus” issue. If I find one more reference to him in it, I may start to believe in ghosts. (This may be irrelevant here, but the novel I am reading right now is Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter.) [^]

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