Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: The Stranger

I became aware of Albert Camus through Jerry Pournelle, who had one of his characters read Camus' The Plague as a demonstration of what duty meant. And that was a truly excellent, soulful book.

On the heels of that book, I'd purchased the only other Camus book I could find on the shelves, The Stranger.

I'd started the book years ago, gotten stuck, and left it on the shelf for all that time. I decided to soldier on and read the whole thing this time. Fortunately, the book wasn't too long--122 pages or so--but that might be the only virtue I could find in it.

I am probably suffering from a couple of disconnects with this book. For one, it's a translation from the French, and translations always suffer in some way. Perhaps I was missing the author's intent simply because expressions or subtleties of humor or emotion get lost on the way from France to America. Another disconnect was Camus' philosophy, which is one of existentialism, which as I understand it is one where there is no God and no ultimate point to human existence, leaving the individual to make up his or her own purpose. I figured I could handle that: I've had moments like that in my past as well. Plus, I'd liked The Plague. What was there to fear?

It turns out there was nothing to "fear" from this book. It didn't challenge any of my beliefs in any serious way, nor did it convey its own beliefs very well. The problem stems from the protagonist of the book, the narrator who is identified only as Mersault. The man is a disconnected cypher, lacking much in the way of inner or outer life or sentiment. The book opens when the man is informed that his mother has died in a nursing home of some sort, and his reaction is utterly devoid of emotion. Mersault is at least aware that his reactions baffle others, who try to be considerate of his feelings, where he doesn't have any feelings worth considering.

A chapter or two is spent going through the funeral arrangementments for his mother (which is where I got "stuck" reading last time). The reader is left not to care about them, if only because one finds it hard to care much about the narrator or his method of describing them. Following the funeral, Mersault returns home and describes a number of his neighbors or coworkers, and again his interactions are detached, distant. While the narrator/author makes some mild efforts to describe others in amusing or absurd terms, nothing he said captured my attention or imagination for any great stretch. One neighbor has a love-hate relationship with his ugly dog. Mersault starts to have an affair with a lady in his office (he is a minor clerk in Algiers). Another neighbor fights with his girlfriend and finally convinces Mersault to write a letter on his behalf to get her goat and lure her into a situation where the neighbor (Raymond) can have one last opportunity to really hurt her. It is this situation with Raymond that ultimately leads Mersault getting into a fight with the brother of Raymond's former girlfriend--an Arab--and then murdering him. The first half of the book closes with Mersault going to prison to await trial. The second half of the book is a travelogue of sorts through Mersault's continuing disconnected thoughts while in prison and then while on trial.

I kept waiting for something to happen, some insight to open up for me, some emotion to grab me, some moment to happen where I felt sympathy for Mersault, some point to come out of all this, and it just never happened. Perhaps I lack the sophistication to understand French sensibilities, or I missed the "absurdity" the back cover blurb assured me was there, or perhaps I'm just too stupid to understand the existentialist point Camus was trying to make. Whatever the situation, I just didn't get or particularly like this book. Which is a shame, because I did like the first one I read by this author.

The best author of European absurdism I've ever read is Kafka, whose works I still have yet to complete, though I have those on the shelf as well. That's approximately the tone Camus sets in this book, but the absurdity of Kafka is more obvious, more exaggerated. Perhaps I'll take him on next. Perhaps I need someone to explain The Stranger to me. Camus' work did not do that for me, which is frustrating and disappointing for a man whose works won him the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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