Albert Camus: L'Étranger
A books that was on all our male youthful minds and bookshelves in the 1970s. In other words a classic Peng-gie Modern Classic, along with Gormenghast, The Glass Bead Game, etc.
(I think I studied it for French A-Level, along with Racine's Britannicus and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.)
L'Étranger being so short and easy to read, is a good study-text for schools; you can still find out all about it in Shmoop and places like that. And it still gets plenty of discussion, though I've a feeling its moment has passed, that the urgency of the issues Camus intended to raise is less clear-cut than it was., and that on the other hand time has only tended to reinforce the issues of the books quite primitive attitudes to women and to colonized "natives". In particular our awareness of and contacts with the Arab world have been completely overhauled since 9/11; now, as not then, westerners conceive the Arab world and theirs as inextricable parts of a whole. But as recently as 1980, when The Cure released an admired single called "Killing an Arab" (based on L'Étranger), I was probably typical of British 21-year-olds in having only the smallest sense that this could possibly offend someone somewhere. I don't necessarily claim that modern sensitivities in the west are all 100% positive or well-directed, but I do think they mostly are and they've certainly changed how we think and feel, especially in the study.
Camus' L'Étranger (1942) - The Stranger, The Foreigner, The Outsider - tends to be interpreted against the background of other material. As usually happens with much-discussed books, this accumulated material is apt to set the agenda. The material includes Camus' own 1955 note on the novel, Cyril Conolly's Introduction, Camus's other early writings, conceptions of the Absurd and Existentialism, and the more glaring contrasts between the book's assumptions and our own (i.e. about colonial Algeria, the Arab world, men and women...) Then there's the fact of L'Étranger having been so influential and so eagerly consumed; some people saw it as an expression of their own philosophy, and an indispensable guide to life. In these circumstances the most important thing may be what L'Étranger meant then; in the heyday of its influence, the 1950s and 1960s. (And no doubt it meant different things in the English-speaking and French-speaking worlds..) These things are all relevant, but still I want to get back to the text before me.
1. "Mother died today." (Stuart Gilbert's translation - others have pointed out that "Maman" is more intimate and childish in tone - "Mum died today ...")
People have made much of Meursault not knowing when exactly she died, as if this already betrays a striking indifference. But the first paragraph is real-time diary entry in the present tense. At this moment he cannot know because the telegram has not told him. (At this moment he still has not caught the bus.
By the 4th paragraph, the narration has subtly slipped into past-tense narrative, ("I took the two o'clock bus") and from this point there are no further indications of how much time lies between the narrated events and the moment of narration.
The final chapter (Part 2, Ch 5) again begins in real-time. "I have just refused, for the third time, to see the prison chaplain." But after a few pages the chaplain unexpectedly walks in - and again the book shifts to past tense narration.
The impression persists that the early chapters are daily diary-entries, inasmuch as the chapters usually end with Meursault going to bed, and usually begin with a new day.
There is no attempt to account for the narrative we are reading (e.g. as a diary or a piece of writing). I don't think most people will imagine that Meursault is the writing type. We don't therefore suppose that he conceives himself as presenting the story to an audience. He suppresses things. Is that because the topics are painful, or because he considers explanation pointless?
Meursault does not trouble to report if he was later told about what time his mother died. He probably was told, even if he didn't ask. The impression is of a man who is quite incurious, particularly about matters that are usually thought to be of interest. His apparent incuriosity about the man he has killed is one glaring example.
Meursault seems to disdain lying. Talking too much, claiming feelings you don't have. But reserve can also be a way of withholding the truth. When reserve is patently misinterpreted, isn't it best to explain a bit?
Meursault takes refuge (that's my interpretation) in being uninterested. He is, I think, conscious of feeling inarticulate.
He often feels that he is in a bad state to interact with people. The sun and the heat affect him. So do crowds. He frequently says he is tired or dizzy; at other times he may be bored. For one reason or another he frequently doesn't take in everything that someone is saying to him.
2. The chaplain, at the start of their talk, suggests to Meursault that, though he thinks he's sure he doesn't believe in God, perhaps he isn't really so sure as he thinks. "Are you really so sure of that?"
Finding Meursault unwilling to reply, he then generalizes the case - don't people often feel sure of something, when they're really not?
I said that seemed quite possible. But, though I mightn't be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn't interest me. And the question he had raised didn't interest me at all.
This is nearly a very a-propos reply. If he had said: "though I mightn't be so sure about what I believed, I was absolutely sure about what didn't interest me", that would be a reasonable argument requiring some thought to counter. What he says instead, on the other hand, looks like weak bluster. Someone who admits the possibility of not being sure about what interests them can't be absolutely sure about what doesn't interest them. It sounds like Meursault gets ahead of himself, picks up his own favourite word (interested) and deploys it too early.
Did Camus really mean to write this? Is it an intentional instance of how Meursault tends to tie himself in knots so his replies are inarticulate?
I think we can see the same inarticulateness in the long diatribe that he finally unleashes when he loses his temper with the priest. It is repetitive, it jumps about, and does the argument about fatalism really carry any weight in the end? Meursault himself seems aware that he hasn't put it well: "[C]ouldn't he grasp what I meant by that dark wind blowing from my future?"
If Meursault is conscious of being inarticulate, his frequent claims of lack of interest look tactical; they are a way of avoiding communication.
Some might add to this, Meursault not relishing the task of explaining things to the women, after Raymond is wounded. But I suppose this means, explaining not what happened but the background - the letter, the Arab girl being beaten up, etc. Telling that story to his own girl-friend might well seem problematic.
3. A number of Amazon readers have commented on how much Meursault reminds them of autistic narrators in more recent books.
4. At a late stage in the trial, Meursault does attempt an explanation:
I tried to explain that it was because of the sun, but I spoke too quickly and ran my words into each other. I was only too conscious that it sounded nonsensical, and, in fact, I heard people tittering.
5. The account of events leading up to the killing is ambiguous. It suggests that Meursault isn't thinking clearly. If Meursault is so hot, why doesn't he go inside or bathe his head in the sea? (The water, we are told, comes right up to Masson's bungalow.) Or anything but walk back, under that pitiless sun, to the place where the dangerous Arabs might reasonably be supposed to be? He says he was taken aback by the reappearance of the Arab, so presumably the killing was not premeditated, though Raymond's earlier walk along the beach did perhaps did have vengeful intention, Meursault supposed; so what really drives Meursault to return to this same spot? What about that ominous thought, "[O]ne might fire, or not fire.." For the four additional shots he has no explanation, but despair at the ruinous event of the first might be a possible motive.
The appearance of a steamer at the time of the fateful encounter is possibly intended to be echoed by the steamer's siren on the book's final page.
6. The first chapter in the second part (Book 2, Ch 1 if you were wondering!) describes - or rather, fails to describe - Meursault's explanations after being arrested. By the way, we never find out how he was arrested. Did the shots alert a crowd to this lonely spot, or did M. give himself up? At any rate, we can perhaps infer that he made no resistance to arrest.
Regardless of how different the judicial system may have been in Algeria in the 1930s, you can't get arrested for murder without someone saying to you, probably fairly swiftly, "Tell me in your own words the whole story of how it happened." We find out eventually that this question was asked repeatedly and that Meursault did give an account, if not several accounts. But by a certain authorial sleight of hand, we never get to hear these accounts which, as readers, we consider so crucial to appraising the subsequent actions of both the lawyers and the accused.
The message, I suppose, is that appraisal is not going to be the most helpful approach to this particular novel.
What we do get to hear is Meursault being obstructive: saying things that are irrelevant and counter-helpful, or commenting without further explanation that some matter seems very simple or of minor importance, or flat-out refusing to answer a direct question (about the four shots).
Albert Camus' 1955 note, which has been highly influential on interpreting the novel, as has Cyril Connolly's Penguin Introduction.
Interview with David Carroll, author of Albert Camus The Algerian:
Interesting interview defining Camus' changing politics and his plea for non-violent democratic change in Algeria, rejected by both sides.
Review of Sandra Smith's translation.
Commentary by Sophie Lioulias
Amazon review, by jacr100, criticizing the novel:
jacr100's against-the-tide unfavourable review of The Outsider. One of the most indefatigable Amazon.co.uk reviewers and not someone to ignore - jacr100 has reviewed more modern novels than you've ever read. Uninterested in modernism and tends to take an emperor's-new-clothes viewpoint; clearly operating outside the academic literary community.
If the narrator is a purely sensual mediterranean blah, why does he have such a humdrum job and futile semi-demi-friendships and nothing else?
"if being an individual entails such a lack of zest for life, it might be preferable to be a suppressed cog in the wheel."
"a near total lack of environmental description which removes the tale from any geographical or cultural context"
That's an accusation that would surprise a lot of people, but it has something in it. Algeria is not exoticised at all; pretty much without Arabic life or "local colour"; this is more difficult to pronounce on since the colonial environment in which Meursault (and Camus) lived has completely disappeared.
Amazon review, by Christopher H, arguing that it should be treated as a roman dur:
Detailed chapter-by-chapter commentary by Simon Lea:
L'Étranger as a cartoon book (by Jacques Ferrandez).