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"Playing the game"
on August 18, 2010
In his Introduction to the first American edition of THE STRANGER (1955), Albert Camus summarized his novel in one sentence: "In our society, anybody who does not cry at his mother's funeral, risks to be sentenced to death".*) After publication in 1942 in France, the novel achieved notoriety and a kind of cult status for several generations of Camus readers, and was inspiration for philosophers and writers. Re-reading the novel now, forty years since first delving into Camus' writing, I find it as deeply affecting and thought provoking as then. With the hindsight of close to seventy years since it was written, THE STRANGER is not only a self-portrait of an "outsider", who appears to be drifting through life without aim or emotional depth. It is also a harsh critique of a society, reflected in the justice system, that is rigid and controlling and, by extension, overly judgemental towards anybody who is not "playing the game" or respecting "the mechanisms of society". Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that the novel was conceived during the devastating war in which Camus, although not in military service, was a politically highly active participant.
The novel opens with "Today, Maman is dead. Or maybe she died yesterday, I don't know". Meursault, the son and narrator of the story, travels to the nursing home for his mother's wake and funeral the next day. In short, simple sentences he describes the bare facts, the people he meets. Feelings? None, apparently. He doesn't even recall his mother's age. He returns home, meets a former colleague of his and embarks on an affair with her. Life returns to its habitual banality until he is approached by a neighbour for assistance with writing a letter. From then on events move towards a confrontation that leaves Meursault accused of a crime and leads to trial that, for him, takes place "outside of himself" but that, at the same time, brings him towards deeper reflection and new understanding of himself and the system that judges him.
Set in Algiers, the locale is of little importance, except for the vital role that desert sun, ocean and beach play in the protagonist's life. In its first part, the narrative appears at times superficial and naive and Meursault presents himself as an uninvolved and carefree young man who lives day by day. Nevertheless, the deeper underlying moral and existential questions that come to the fore in the second part may need this slow and detailed build-up developed in the first.
In the above mentioned introduction, Camus explained his book's underlying concern that he described to have been at odds with the perception of the readers of the day. Mersault was an "outsider" in the society where he lived who, at a more profound level, was condemned not for what he did, but for "speaking the truth". Was he judged for his criminal act or for the challenge challenge to society he embodied? In fact, during the court proceedings it emerges quickly that his lifestyle and behaviour was on trial. Meursault's commentary and his effort to make sense of what he hears during the trial reads today more like a farce, despite its sombre description of the circumstances. At one point the defence counsel, in obvious frustration, shouts: "Here, this is the image of this trial. All is true and nothing is true!". The ultimate confusion is created when when he imitates and, unintentionally, caricaturizes his client in front of the jury. " My fate was being settled without anybody asking my opinion", Meursault concludes. His trial spins into a direction that has no longer anything to do with him.
What, in the end has made Meursault a "stranger"? In his musings, he states that he cannot express emotions toward others as they do. Yet, when asked whether he loves his mother, his repeated answer is: "yes, like everybody else". When accused of the crime, the expression of culpability and regret is alien to him and he states so truthfully: he does not feel guilt, only "ennui". What made him act out his crime? "The sun". Mersault is not an insensitive person, however, he does not have the "psyche of a criminal" as the prosecutor argues forcefully. Any emotions are indirectly expressed through a related physical activity: attraction to his girlfriend, assistance to his "buddy", his work ethics, caring for his neighbour. He is most explicit when describing his emotions when outside: walking along the beach with the desert sun burning his face, the hot sand under his bare feet, or when dipping into the refreshing ocean waves. The intensity of light of the desert sun is also playing games with his mind: distorting reality and blurring his vision. In his prison cell he seeks the sun... Meursault describes such sensations on that fateful day on the beach: "Sweat runs down my eyebrows and further down into the eyelids[...] My eyes were blinded behind a curtain of tears and salt [...]Everything starts to flicker..." Anybody who has enjoyed traveling in a desert, exposed to the elements will relate, at a minimum, to these sensations.
It may be stating the obvious that the way we experience and find expression for our emotions, how we define relationships or life's purpose are deeply personal. Some readers will relate to Meursault, others will find him as "strange" as his judge and jury did. Whatever tendency we lean towards, THE STRANGER is worth a thorough reflection and re-assessment. [Friederike Knabe]
*) Having read the novel in French, all quotes are my translation.