Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. Read a pillar of great European literature in the last two days…
I actually read this book the first time through in college. With my first foot in the door at my alma mater, I was enrolled in a freshman prerequisite which explored a few major, modern worldviews. This book–despite the author’s adamant objections to the contrary–represented existentialism. I don’t recall especially enjoying any of the books from that class, although the discussions were lively and interesting and the teachings insightful. I think we also read Siddhartha.
While it is often categorized as existential, Albert Camus was a philosopher who was writing about absurdism in this novel. Turns out that novel, which wasn’t expected to be much, would become a giant of literature, and is often listed on best books lists around the world. I’m sure its inclusion is pretty polarizing.
It’s short. It’s straight to the point. It’s a portrait of one man over a couple years, but zeroed in on just a handful of days: his mother’s funeral; the beginning of an affair; a beach trip; a murder; the trial… Even after reading the back of the book, none of this should surprise you. The real suspense in the novel is just uncovering who this character is and how he responds to the world around him.
Meursault, the main character, is pretty despicable. Yet, he’s not as guilty as the world around him judges him, and in that set-up is the absurdity. Meursault almost stands alone in the world of literature. His atheism/”apatheism” is supposed to come across as detached, but he struck me more like he had a learning disability or, at times, so intuitive that he was more like an animal than a person. Everything about him is based on physicality and everything else is burned away. I suppose he is the ultimate hero of the absurdist worldview, and yet he is so distasteful. You know what he really reminded me of? A Vulcan. A Vulcan with no hope to ever grow an emotion. He constantly sees eyes through a lens a normal human can hardly recognize, and he comments on the most bizarre things which we take for granted. To an extent, I think his character subverts the whole absurdist current of the book’s plot, which is maybe why it comes across as more existential.
Having to spend only two days with him, I found Meursault interesting, but was already pretty frustrated by the time the forty-eight hours were up. He was, at the same time, both innocent/childlike and so cold that you leave the book freezer-burnt. Like scary cold. You’re almost with the jury because, while you see the truth of the story, you also see the scary side of his personality, which could, at the right time and place, become psychopathic.
I also thought that a few of the scenes were confusing. I had to re-read a couple paragraphs to make sure I knew what just happened, and one time I even had to go to the internet to verify I was right. Of course, you also have to put some of the story in its historical context to grasp everything without resorting to the modern American wail of “offensive.” There is a bit of France v. Algeria, Frenchman v. Arab–not to mention casual domestic violence–caught up in the whole thing, which can tend to shock the Millennial and/or Hippie in us, but we wouldn’t want it to stop us from seeing truth.
Perhaps I’m missing the point a bit, or losing something in the (literal) translation. If you are interested in philosophy or worldview or even religion, it’s an interesting book–or rather character–to ponder. But I hated being there in that world where the five senses encompassed everything, and cold, hard precision severed the joy (or pain) from even the simplest of things.
I read the translation from the French by Matthew Ward.
“When I was first imprisoned, the hardest things was that my thoughts were still those of a free man” (p76).
“…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent” (p97).
“In a way, they seemed to be arguing the case as if it had nothing to do with me. Everything was happening without my participation” (p98).
“But I couldn’t quite understand how an ordinary man’s good qualities could become crushing accusations against a guilty man” (p100).
“Mounting the scaffold, going right up into the sky, was something the imagination could hold on to. Whereas, once again, the machine destroyed everything: you were killed discreetly, with a little shame and with great precision” (p112).
“If something was going to happen to me, I want to be there” (p113).
“Whether it was now or twenty years from now, I would still be the one dying” (p114).
“Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people. The others would all be condemned one day” (p121).