The Stranger (Albert Camus)

Posted: July 18, 2014 in fiction
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I was reading this on an airplane, and an older gentleman from Boston leaned over and said, “Camus? Wow. He’s really good.” Unfortunately, he killed any credibility he may have had when he pronounced Camus as if it rhymed with Seamus.

When discussing the style of a translated work, things are a little tricky. How much of the sentence structure is the original author, and how much is the translator making sure the sentences end up grammatically correct in English? In some Romance languages, they write these incredibly long run-on sentences with no subjects, just a list of verb-plus-object-phrase madness; as student translators, we make these into series of simple sentences, and it doesn’t have the same kind of impact. Camus’s narrator, Meursault, says that he is a young man little given to self-reflection (though now that I think of it, I may have projected the youth onto him since I first read the novel when I was 22). In the translation I read, his sentences were short and clipped, like Hemingway. There’s not much in the way of figurative language, so on the rare occasions it comes, it’s very striking. Like,

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.

Books that end up as trial narratives always seem to begin with the most inconsequential things. This is no exception. The novel begins with the death of Meursault’s mother, and it seems to progress with his refusing to grieve. An unclear number of years ago, he gave up studying to take care of his aging mother, and then when she needed full-time care and he couldn’t afford to hire a nurse, he put her in a home. He never admits to depression, but it seems pretty clear that he lives with it. He’s convinced himself that nothing matters much; he’s detached from the people and events around him; he’s detached from his own emotions; he only ever feels a kinship with the earth when he thinks of it as indifferent to all human matters. I can accept the idea that he doesn’t want to share his grieving process with the reader, but his actions make it clear that he is definitely not dealing with losing his mother, or the guilt of putting her in a home, or the anger at giving up his life for her.

It seems to me that he spends the first half of the book trying to insist on life and control death. He gets a new lover and tightens a couple of friendships. The girl seems good for him, but he’s not good for her. He’s willing to give a commitment, but as long as she understands that the relationship lacks an emotional connection. He’ll get married, but he won’t love her, or pretend to. One of the friends loses his dog, and Meursault finally seems on the cusp of making some kind of connection with another person as they bond over the loss of loved ones, but he stops short of actually bridging that gap between himself and the rest of humanity.

The other friend presents some trouble. Raymond is with this Arab girl he thinks is cheating on him, so he gets Meursault to write her a really scathing breakup letter. Then she shows up and they have a pretty major row; the police get involved and everything. Her brother and his friends start stalking Raymond, even following him out to the beach on a weekend getaway. There’s a one-knife fight and Raymond gets cut up a bit because Meursault asked to hold the gun during the fight (thus giving him the deadliest weapon, the most control over life and death). Later, Meursault is walking alone on the beach and finds the nameless Arab, also alone. The Arab brandishes his knife a little, and Meursault knocks on the door of unhappiness.

Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a novel about the fear of death, and there’s an idea in the book that there are only two types of people, those who kill and those who die, with the implication that you can stave off death by becoming a murderer. I think this is the real reason that Meursault kills the Arab. He’s trying to avoid death by taking that power into his own hands. If he has the power of death, proven by killing someone, then he can prevent that power being used against him. The idea is patently absurd, but Meursault is not really given to self-reflection.

I identified most strongly with Meursault when he’s in prison. He stays in his cell all the time, losing track of what day it is, and whether it’s day or night. Time seems to stop. Some change is marked by the times he talks to lawyers or goes to the trial, but he exists in a vague fog without any motivation to do anything. A few years ago, I made a huge change in my social identity, going from an apparently content husband and father of three to an obviously lonely gay bachelor. I needed some time to deal with this, so I took a job in a foreign country where I lived on an isolated compound. Unlike Meursault, I am very prone to self-reflection, sometimes obsessively so; therefore I dealt with my issues, but a lot of it was the same as he describes. I lost track of day and night, and somehow only got hungry when all the stores were closed. I couldn’t settle into a recognizable sleep pattern, though I never reached Meursault’s feat of sleeping for sixteen hours. But I did pass most of my days in the near-catatonic stupor he describes. The main difference is that I had a television to stare at. There were other people on the compound, and I didn’t have to spend so much time alone, but depression and anxiety can be as effective jailers as the Algerian prison system.

Meursault’s trial focuses on the issue of his soul, which probably made more sense in the 1940s than it does to me now. What is a soul? In the sense that the lawyers use it, the word soul seems to refer to a person’s relationship with his own past. When the prosecutor says he has no soul, he’s referring to Meursault’s lack of emotional connection with his own past experiences. He moves through life living in exclusively in the moment. He enjoys what this moment has to offer, but he doesn’t connect it with past or future. In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver asks Stephen Guest, “If the past is not to bind us, where does duty lie?” Meursault answers the question: nowhere. He doesn’t feel any obligation to do other than what he wants. The people around him see causes and effects everywhere, they realize the implications of actions, but he just floats along refusing to see it. He doesn’t feel connected with the world, or with other people, or even with his own past and future selves. In this sense, narrating this book is the most uncharacteristic thing he does.

I really don’t like the translation of the title of this book. L’Étranger could mean The Stranger, but it has other meanings too. Meursault isn’t really a stranger; he has a loose community of friends and acquaintances. I think it would be better translated as The Foreigner, or The Alien. What is at issue is not familiarity, but difference. Meursault’s inability to connect makes him unavoidably foreign even in his hometown; he’s alien, in some sense to the entire human race.

I don’t remember clearly everything that Said said about this book in Culture and Imperialism, but I agree with him that Meursault’s national identity is very important. So the book takes place in Algeria, a French colony in the Muslim world. He’s quick to label people as Arabs, and seems to look down on them for being Arab, but he also points out Raymond’s white skin and looks down on him for it. He’s really happy with his own skin color, which he describes as brown, but where does he fit in this society? Maybe his inability to connect with people comes from not having a place where he belongs.

Coming out devastated my social circle, which mostly consisted of conservative Christian couples with children. My ex didn’t get on well with my family or with the friends I had before we got married, so after having been with her for eight years I felt disconnected from everyone. Finding a place in the gay community was hard because unlike Christians, they don’t all get together a few times a week to talk about how happy they are to be gay. Leaving the country seemed a better option than sticking around. But this summer I’ve been traveling around to see my friends and family – people I knew before, during, and after my marriage – and I’ve been amazed at the response I’ve gotten. Maybe we all just needed some time to process things, or maybe I was so depressed back then that I couldn’t see that people really did care about me, or maybe I was so fragile people were afraid of me. Whatever the cause for the break in the past, this summer I feel like I’ve been given my life back. All of my past has returned to me, as a source of strength instead of guilt or loss. That period of Meursault-esque isolation from people and from my past is over. No longer a stranger, I am happy to close this book.


  1. This is one of my favorite books and I like how you were able to connect with theme of the story to your personal life. Great commentary – Phoenix

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